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The High and the Mighty
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The High and the Mighty

In 1953, Warner Bros. released Island in the Sky, a drama of survival involving the crew of a transport plane which crash-lands in the frozen tundra of Labrador. The film was directed by William Wellman, written by Ernest K. Gann (based on his novel), and produced by the partnership of Robert Fellows and John Wayne. The film was a box-office success, so it seemed natural for the same producers, writer, director and distributor to re-team the following year for another airplane film, The High and the Mighty (1954). This time out, though, the film earned mixed reviews but was a surprise box office smash, earning over $8.5 million in its first run, a huge take in 1954.

Fellows and Wayne bought the film rights to the Gann book before it was even finished, giving the writer $55,000 plus 10 percent of the picture's profits. William Wellman signed on for a whopping 30 percent of the profits, and also agreed to the producing team's dictum that the film be shot in the new widescreen process, CinemaScope (despite the fact that most of the scenes would take place in the confined sets of the plane's cockpit and passenger cabin).

SYNOPSIS: In the Honolulu airport, passengers and crew are arriving for the flight of Trans-Orient Pacific Airlines flight 420 for San Francisco. The copilot, Dan Roman (John Wayne), is the veteran of the crew, but is still guilt-stricken from having piloted a flight years earlier that ended in a crash and the deaths of all on board, including his wife and child. Other members of the crew include first pilot John Sullivan (Robert Stack), cool on the outside but actually a bundle of nerves; young and untested copilot Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell); navigator Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown), older and inept under pressure; and stewardess Miss Spalding (Doe Avedon), always attentive to her passengers. Boarding the plane are a wide variety of characters, all of whom have an elaborate backstory: There is disgruntled physicist Donald Flaherty (Paul Kelly), unhappy married couple Lydia and Howard Rice (Laraine Day and John Howard), former beauty queen Sally McKee (Jan Sterling), happy-go-lucky vacationers Ed and Clara Joseph (Phil Harris and Ann Doran), Broadway producer Gustave Pardee (Robert Newton) and his fearful wife Lillian (Julie Bishop), newlyweds Milo and Nell Buck (John Smith and Karen Sharpe), Korean student Dorothy Chen (Joy Kim), and May Holst (Claire Trevor), a well-traveled blond with a heart of gold. The many dramas that unfold are intensified when vibrations felt on the plane indicate a genuine emergency – a series of mechanical problems result in a burned-out engine and a fuel leak which threatens to force the crew into making a controlled crash into the Pacific.

In adapting his novel to the screen, Ernest K. Gann ultimately stuck very close to his own story and dialogue, although he fought with director Wellman on that point. Wellman biographer Frank T. Thompson quoted the director as saying, "If I bought a book or a story and I loved it, I wanted to do the book, but Ernie kept wanting to change it because he said, 'I can improve on it.' I said, 'Look, Ernie, let's just stick to the book. That's all I want.' And we almost had a fist fight about it on one occasion. 'Look,' I said, 'I am going to get hold of Gann who wrote this novel and tell him what this silly son of a bitch who is writing the script is trying to do.' It worked." In the end, Gann's screenplay added only one character that did not appear in the novel, a solo-traveling little boy that sleeps through the entire ordeal. Wellman cast his son Michael in the role.

Other casting for The High and the Mighty proved to be problematic. The story demanded an ensemble cast, with each character having their own back stories told in flashback – no one character dominated or provided a real "star part." High profile stars were approached, including Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ginger Rogers, but all of them turned Wellman down. Wellman had a handshake agreement with Spencer Tracy to play the part of the troubled pilot Dan Roman, but the actor eventually backed out. The lack of a top marquee star made distributor Jack Warner nervous about the project, and it was only then that producer Wayne decided to take on the Roman role himself.

In his autobiography, Straight Shooting, Robert Stack wrote that "like everyone else, I read Ernie Gann's novel and was fascinated by the psychology of Captain Sullivan. He was superficially a clear-eyed, normal human being. But under his normal exterior was hidden a basket of snakes, a touch of madness that would have to be revealed in the actor's eyes." Stack gave the approval for his agent to pester Wellman about the role. John Wayne, however, had already promised the role to Robert Cummings, an actor that had actual experience as an airplane pilot. With persistence, Stack won an audition with Wellman and sold him on his abilities. Wellman, in turn, convinced Wayne to hire Stack. "As I walked on the set the first day," Stack later wrote, "resplendent in my Captain's uniform, Duke wrinkled his forehead, shook my hand, and said, 'Mr. Cummings, I believe.'"

The High and the Mighty was shot mostly on the smallish Samuel Goldwyn lot, beginning in November, 1953. Wellman was known to be very personable in social situations, but a tyrant on the set, doing anything necessary to get the sort of performance he wanted. Robert Stack wrote that "...behind the camera, he was so unpredictable that actors were constantly thrown off guard. He could tongue-lash an actor into a bowl of jelly. Then suddenly he would mutter, 'My God, now what's wrong? Don't tell me I've hurt your feelings? I didn't know actors had feelings.'"

Shooting in such close quarters in CinemaScope meant that the actors playing passengers had to be constantly on call, as they would probably be in many shots and not just those involving their characters. As Claire Trevor put it, "Everybody whose ear was in camera range had to sit there – it was a dreary picture to make." Ann Doran also remembered it as an unpleasant shoot, especially when the Goldwyn soundstage heating system failed: "It was uncomfortable, everybody got a cold," she told Wayne biographer Ronald K. Davis (in Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne), "Most of us sitting in the plane were sick – fevers and runny noses and head colds."

William Wellman had one run-in with Wayne on the set, when the producer felt he could call directing shots as well. As biographer Davis wrote, "In front of the entire crew Wellman said to him, 'Look, you come back here behind the camera and do my job, and you're going to be just as ridiculous doing it as I would be going out there with that screwy voice of yours and that fairy walk and being Duke Wayne.'" Davis also quotes Robert Stack, who marveled at Wayne's ability to make any line sound like "John Wayne": "I'd get behind a flat and listen to his reading of the dialogue, and I'd think, 'Man, that's really not very good.' And for radio it wasn't very good. But the minute you saw that great American face up there on the screen, it didn't matter. He could have been talking in Esperanto and nobody would give a damn."

In addition to being an enormous financial success, The High and the Mighty was nominated for several Academy Awards®, including Wellman for directing and Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor for Best Supporting Actress. The film's only win was for Dimitri Tiomkin's rousing score which was no surprise, as the catchy title theme song had quickly become a best-selling single on the nation's hit parade.

Robert Stack's performance so impressed Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, that he signed the actor to a long-term contract. John Wayne told Wellman following The High and the Mighty that he would produce anything the director chose as his next subject. Wellman then directed a pet project, the psychological Western drama Track of the Cat (1954), starring Robert Mitchum. It was a commercial failure.

Producer: Robert Fellows, John Wayne
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Ernest K. Gann
Cinematography: Archie Stout
Film Editing: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Alfred Ybarra
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: John Wayne (Dan Roman), Claire Trevor (May Holst), Laraine Day (Lydia Rice), Robert Stack (John Sullivan), Jan Sterling (Sally McKee), Phil Harris (Ed Joseph), Robert Newton (Gustave Pardee), Paul Kelly (Donald Flaherty), Sidney Blackmer (Humphrey Agnew), Julie Bishop (Lillian Pardee), David Brian (Ken Childs), Gonzales Gonzales (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez).

by John M. Miller



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