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The Crowded Sky

The Crowded Sky(1960)

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Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, October and November 1959 news items add Shecky Greene, Charles Laitlaw, Floyd Cartridge and Rose Bright to the cast. According to a November 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Mary Patton and Warren Parker, who portrayed "Dr. Ed and Pat Benedict," were married in real life. Although a November 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item erroneously reported that Ken Curtis had been added to the cast, the news item was possibly intended to announce the casting of Ken Currie, who played "Dick Barnett, Jr." Curtis was not in the film.
       After World War II, when the sky became increasingly "crowded" with faster jets and a growing civilian transportation industry, mid-air collisions were a natural consequence of crafts moving in various directions and speeds. To prevent more tragedies and to modernize the airways, systems such as the Instrument Flight Rules explained by the character "Dale Heath" early in the film, were developed. Air traffic control centers (ATCs), which were initially located only at certain airfields, were set up across the country to monitor flights and provide feedback to the pilots and, during the 1950s, the stressful occupation of the air traffic controller evolved. Flight data was communicated to air traffic control centers by Teletype and then handwritten onto "flight progress strips" by the controllers. As shown briefly in the film, the strips were placed into metal racks representing a horizontal segment of airspace, and positioned to show the plane's altitude within 1,000-feet designations. As the plane progressed, the strips were passed by hand to the next rack.
       As dramatized in the film, controllers advised pilots via low frequency radio transmissions, which were highly vulnerable to location, weather, mechanical problems and other factors and, as seen in the film, the pilot "tuned in" to various frequencies on his radio by turning a dial. By the late 1950s, controllers could also monitor flights on radarscopes, which showed crafts as indiscriminating blips, but they still had to determine which blip represented what plane and confirm the altitude of the plane with the pilot. More than any tool, each air traffic controller depended on his own ability mentally to keep track of frequently changing data. Despite the inadequacies of their systems, the controllers could see a broader perspective of the air traffic than the pilots, but the pilots were in charge of their flights. As demonstrated in the film, safety often depended on the pilot's willingness to adhere to the rules and the advice of the controllers.
       The film's generally favorable Hollywood Reporter review noted the "various vignettes of life seen in present and in flashback." Besides the main story line of the crash between a military jet and a propeller powered commercial airplane, The Crowded Sky contains several melodramatic subplots, not included in the summary above, involving the passengers and crew on the two planes, among them: An unconfident man and a homely woman too shy to speak to each other are united by the shared experience of the collision; a New York Method actor on his way to a Hollywood audition worries that he cannot "handle the inner life" of a cowardly character, until he experiences the fear of death first hand; a doctor's wife dies in the crash, unaware of her terminal heart condition; a womanizing television scriptwriter does not realize that his married seatmate is a former paramour; a controller leaves his work shift understaffed when his wife goes into labor; a comical flight engineer jokes that his wife is a "monster" to hide the depth of his love for her; and the character "McVey" feels compelled to choose between marriage with a Miss America contestant and attending the prestigious Naval Academy. During a scene in which McVey, played by Troy Donahue, talks about his girlfriend, the soundtrack plays the theme from A Summer Place, the 1959 Warner Bros. film in which Donahue starred (see below).
       The film's use of flashbacks and voice-overs to reveal characters' dilemmas and backstories was described by the dissatisfied Variety reviewer as a "vapor trail of disjointed flashbacks." The Variety reviewer also called The Crowded Sky "a kind of jet-propelled variation on the studio's 1954 aerial excursion, The High and the Mighty" , a film which also interwove multiple character subplots into the main "disaster" theme of the story and which was parodied in later films, such as the 1980 Paramount comedy Airplane.
       About The Crowded Sky, the Variety review quipped "this latter day altitudinous rumpus is likely to establish Warner Bros. Airlines as 'the only way to fly.'" Actors Dana Andrews and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who portrayed "Dick Barnett" and "Dale Heath," respectively, crashed their fictional planes in mid-air a second time in the 1974 Universal production, Airport 1975, in which they again appeared as pilots, but not the same characters they portrayed in The Crowded Sky.