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The disaster movie as a distinctly identified genre came into its own in the 1970s, beginning with the blockbuster success of Airport (1970), but the seeds were sewn earlier on with other notable "trouble-in-the-skies" thrillers. Although not as well-known as No Highway (1951, aka No Highway in the Sky) and The High and the Mighty (1954), the 1960 release The Crowded Sky had all the same elements as its progenitors, which would carry over into the hit disaster films of a decade later. It had an all-star cast (a mixture of veteran and rising young actors) playing a range of characters, each with ample carry-on baggage of secrets, woes, and broken hearts, all of which get trotted out as an impending disaster threatens the lives of everyone on board. In this case, the disaster consists of severe weather conditions, a malfunctioning radio rendering communications with air traffic control impossible, and a midair collision between a military jet and a commercial airliner. This, of course, occasions high emotions, multiple flashbacks, the deaths of some expendable cast members, and a few noble gestures.
The title comes from the increasing problem in air travel following World War II when the growing civilian transportation industry put bigger and faster planes into the air. To prevent more accidents as depicted in The Crowded Sky, new systems were put into place, such as the Instrument Flight Rules explained by one of the pilot characters in the film. Air traffic control centers were originally located only at certain airfields around the country, but in the 1950s they were expanded to meet the need. The film dramatizes the process by which controllers used to monitor pilots via low frequency radio transmissions susceptible to location, weather, mechanical problems and other factors, resulting in the situation around which the plot hinges. It also depicts how, despite the best advice of the people on the ground, pilots were in charge of their own flights, bringing the human error factor into the mix.
The Crowded Sky, however, was no mere dramatization of the realities of cross-continental flight at the time. Like the best disaster films, this one is packed with backstories for even most of the minor characters, some of whom don't make it out alive to resolve the issues they boarded with while others, of course, emerge intact with the "Great Revelations" that change their lives. One such subplot involves then teen idol Troy Donahue as a character who has to choose between marriage to a Miss America contestant and attending a prestigious Naval Academy (the kind of choice we all face everyday). During a scene in which Donahue talks about his girlfriend, the filmmakers even threw in a little in-joke - playing in the background, you can hear the theme song from Donahue's box office hit A Summer Place (1959).
Despite some formulaic and clichd aspects, The Crowded Sky received some favorable reviews and some less gracious ones as well. Variety complained that "lost in the general preoccupation with multi-exposition is an all-important philosophical point-of-view...Additional defects are Joseph Pevney's patronizing directorial touches (zooming in on individual players for intimate personal observations that are at once obvious to the audience ) and a good deal of artificially hip dialogue." On the positive side, the reviewer noted "There is, however, a certain wallop at the point of aerial impact that is likely to keep an audience vicariously spellbound as props are feathered, switches are pulled, passengers are buffeted about and airports are soaked down with suds."
Director Joseph Pevney's feature film career didn't necessarily benefit from this production. He made only two more theatrical releases before moving into a successful two decade run of directing television shows that included many episodes of Star Trek, Bonanza, The Paper Chase, and others.
The film was shot by famed cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr., a 14-time Academy Award® nominee and winner for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and My Fair Lady (1964). Stradling also shot Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Johnny Guitar (1954), several MGM big-budget musicals, and the aforementioned A Summer Place.
The Crowded Sky also shares one other significant element with one of its descendants in the disaster genre. In this film, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s military jet crashes into the commercial airliner piloted by Dana Andrews. In Airport 75 (1974), Andrews got even by crashing his private plane into Zimbalist's commercial jet. Is it any wonder, then, that the disaster flick was so ripe for parody by the time of Airplane! (1980)?
Producer: Michael Garrison
Director: Joseph Pevney
Screenplay: Charles Schnee; Hank Searls (novel)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: Eddie Imazu
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Film Editing: Tom McAdoo
Cast: Dana Andrews (Dick Barnett), Rhonda Fleming (Cheryl 'Charro' Heath), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Dale Heath), John Kerr (Mike Rule), Anne Francis (Kitty Foster), Keenan Wynn (Nick Hyland), Troy Donahue (McVey), Joe Mantell (Louis Capelli), Patsy Kelly (Gertrude Ross), Donald May (Norm Coster), Louis Quinn (Sidney Schreiber), Edward Kemmer (Caesar), Tom Gilson (Robert 'Rob' Fermi), Hollis Irving (Beatrice Wiley), Paul Genge (Samuel N. Poole), Jean Willes (Gloria Panawek), Frieda Inescort (Mrs. Mitchell), Nan Leslie (Bev).
C-105m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon