The High and the Mighty


2h 27m 1954

Brief Synopsis

When a commercial airliner develops engine trouble, the passengers and crew think back on the lives they could be losing soon.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Adventure
Disaster
Adaptation
Release Date
Jul 3, 1954
Premiere Information
Los Angeles opening: 27 May 1954; New York opening: 31 May 1954
Production Company
Wayne-Fellows Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Glendale--Glendale Grand Central Air Terminal , California, United States; San Francisco, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The High and the Mighty by Ernest K. Gann (New York, 1953).

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 27m
Sound
4-Track Stereo, Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Color (Warnercolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.55 : 1

Synopsis

At the Honolulu airport, the crew of a routine passenger flight to San Francisco assembles, as mechanics make pre-flight checks of the plane. Most of the airline personnel are aware that the flight's second pilot, the seasoned and almost legendary older flyer, "Whistling" Dan Roman, is haunted by a flight he piloted that crashed, leaving him permanently injured and killing all others on board, including his wife and son. The captain of the flight to San Francisco, "Skipper" Sullivan, suffers from a secret fear of flying that sometimes hits pilots after logging many flight hours. Inside the airport, stewardess Spalding checks in the passengers, who all have personal troubles: Mr. Flaherty, a nuclear physicist, hates how his life's work has been used; Mr. and Mrs. Ed Joseph are returning to their small town after suffering a series of mishaps and bad luck during their long-anticipated "dream" vacation; traveling with his contemptuous wife Lillian is Broadway producer Gustave Pardee, who fears flying; and fading beauty queen, Sally McKee, fears rejection from the fiancé she courted by mail with an eight-year-old photograph. Also on board is heiress Lydia Rice, who is angry that her husband Howard wants to sell her inherited family business to buy a mine and is contemplating divorce. Newlyweds Nell and Milo Buck, whose honeymoon is over, must now face real life; a self-effacing young Korean woman, Dorothy Chen, feeling alone in a strange land, is on her way to an American school; and five-year-old Toby Field is traveling alone en route between his estranged parents' houses. After invalid Frank Briscoe, wealthy playboy Ken Childs, worldly blonde May Holst and Italian-born fisherman and family man Jose Locota board, businessman Humphrey Agnew, who has no reservations, buys a seat on the plane at the last minute. With the help of third pilot Hobie Wheeler and navigator Lenny Wilby, the plane makes a smooth take-off, but early in the flight Dan, Sullivan and Spalding notice unexplainable vibrations. During a rest break, while the insecure Lenny chatters about his younger, alcoholic wife, Sullivan tries to comfort himself that, according to older pilots, his mid-career fears are temporary. Although Sullivan senses that the plane's propellers are out of phase, Dan and Hobie cannot confirm it. In the passenger cabin, the Rices quarrel, as Harold explains that he wants to buy the mine to prove he can run a business on his own, while Ed tries to amuse the anxious Pardee with tales of their nightmare vacation. Dan and Sullivan's vague misgivings seem confirmed when Spalding notices vibrations in the back kitchen, but Dan inspects the fuel compartment and finds nothing amiss. A couple of hours into the flight, after the plane passes the point of no return and cannot go back to Honolulu if trouble occurs, Agnew accuses Childs of making love to his wife in Honolulu. Although Childs truthfully insists he is innocent, Agnew pulls out a gun and shoots, igniting a fire, which is quickly extinguished. However, the bullet ruptures a gas tank and twists one of the motors in its mounting, causing a severe drag. The pilots radio for help, but can only reach Gonzalez, an amateur operator on a merchant ship below. Gonzalez relays their message to the San Francisco Coast Guard, who send rescue planes prepared to make a water rescue. After calculating that they need to lessen the load to extend their gas usage, Dan rallies the passengers to dump their luggage out of the plane and into the sea. The activity brings the passengers together, as they relay luggage down the aisle to Dan, who pitches them out the hatch, and afterward they find that their individual problems seem less important. Overcoming his own fears, Pardee comforts Ed's wife, who worries about her young children, and Lillian, seeing her husband's bravery, finds her love rekindled. Dorothy and Briscoe befriend each other, May and Childs find companionship, and the fatherly Locota, who confiscated Agnew's gun, scolds the belligerent man into better behavior. Lydia begins to see that she really loves Harold, who needs her emotional support, and Sally removes her makeup, as she now feels secure enough to face her fiancé honestly. Although they secretly know that the heavy wind will not permit a safe water landing, Spalding and Hobie instruct the passengers on the use of life jackets and lifeboats. Lenny, having been distracted by thoughts of his marital problems, realizes that the coast is eleven minutes farther than he originally believed. While their colleagues on the ground prepare for the worst, Sullivan panics and prepares to ditch, but Dan slaps him back to his senses and takes over. After ordering a recalculation of their gas supply and weather conditions, Dan determines that they can just barely land safely at the San Francisco airport. Airport employees clear and light the runway, and the rescue planes fly nearby as guides, but all watch anxiously, as Dan and the crew bring the plane through turbulence and fog to a safe landing. As the plight of the airplane has made news, the disembarking passengers are greeted by the flash bulbs of reporters' cameras. Locota's large family is waiting for him, and Sally's future husband greets her warmly. Briscoe, whose exit is assisted by Dorothy, invites Spalding to join them for a steak dinner in town. Having slept through it all, young Toby awakens unchanged by the trip, but his mother, who was shaken by her son's brush with death, has decided to reconcile with her husband. Chastened, Agnew immediately calls his wife to apologize. When the crowd is gone, airport administrator Jim Garfield informs Dan that there were only thirty gallons of gas left in the tank. Dan, acknowledging the risk he took, goes off alone, whistling.







Film Details

Genre
Drama
Adventure
Disaster
Adaptation
Release Date
Jul 3, 1954
Premiere Information
Los Angeles opening: 27 May 1954; New York opening: 31 May 1954
Production Company
Wayne-Fellows Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Glendale--Glendale Grand Central Air Terminal , California, United States; San Francisco, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The High and the Mighty by Ernest K. Gann (New York, 1953).

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 27m
Sound
4-Track Stereo, Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Color (Warnercolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.55 : 1

Award Wins

Best Score

1954

Award Nominations

Best Director

1954

Best Editing

1954
Ralph Dawson

Best Song

1954

Best Supporting Actress

1954
Jan Sterling

Best Supporting Actress

1954
Claire Trevor

Articles

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).
C-147m.

by John M. Miller
The High And The Mighty

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). C-147m. by John M. Miller

The High and the Mighty (Special Collector's Edition) on DVD


Would The High and the Mighty (1954) be so fondly remembered if it had not been unseen for the past 25 years (and virtually unseen for 50 years)? Never before released on video or DVD, and not broadcast on American television since 1979, this is a movie that has acquired the status of a lost masterpiece. Despite an impeccable restoration and two-disc DVD presentation by Paramount Home Entertainment, the movie is sadly not a lost masterpiece. Badly dated, what was hailed in its time as suspenseful drama now plays as overwrought, overlong, lethargic soaper.

The story is simple. A passenger plane takes off from Hawaii to San Francisco with about a dozen passengers (including Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Jan Sterling, Phil Harris and Robert Newton), all of whom have backstories which we are shown via flashback. John Wayne (in a part originally meant for Spencer Tracy) plays a washed-up former captain who is now relegated to being Robert Stack's co-pilot due to an accident years earlier. Eventually, conflicts arise among the passengers in back and between the pilots in front as the plane itself develops serious engine trouble. Will it reach the coast OK, or will it have to make a water landing?

It's simply not suspenseful, scary or exciting, all of which it's meant to be. The flashbacks are turgid. The pilot conflicts are unconvincing, despite Wayne's strong (and overall brief) presence. It's also impossible to watch Stack without thinking of Airplane (1980) (which in fairness is not the fault of this movie). And the heavy emphasis on what to do if the plane makes a crash landing is tedious to anyone who's been on an airplane in the past fifty years. A moment where a passenger pulls a gun on another passenger is laughably melodramatic, and what happens to the gun afterwards is flat-out ludicrous. There's just not enough of a story here with believable and exciting conflicts. Somehow, The High and the Mighty garnered six Academy Award nominations and won for Dmitri Tiomkin's famous score. While it's a fine melody in and of itself, it feels overblown for this material and is used too often. (It actually sounds more suitable for a romantic Broadway musical than for a suspense film.)

It's likely that many who saw this movie in 1954 have held it close to their hearts because they remember the novelty of seeing such a modern subject on screen. Commercial aviation for ordinary people had only just really begun, and the idea of a movie detailing that experience and depicting something going wrong was quite new. Of course, there have been scores of airplane disaster movies since then, and scores of other movies in which airplane crashes play a smaller part, and the novelty is long gone. The High and the Mighty might be the grandaddy of this minigenre, but it has not withstood the test of time. While the novelty might have been enough to make this a commercial hit in 1954, the quality of the storytelling and filmmaking - so often good enough to make dated subject matter feel irrelevant when watching classic movies today - is too pedestrian to sustain the movie in 2005.

Director William Wellman was one of the greats, but ironically his biggest commercial success is not a typical Wellman movie. Usually associated with action and movement, he's unable to bring much of either to this film. Most crucially, he does not attempt to create tension out of the confined space of the airplane. Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and Rear Window (1954) proved that confined spaces could work brilliantly on screen, but in The High and the Mighty we often cut away to a ship, an airport, another plane, or other locations in flashbacks, thus deflating any tension which might have been building up inside the plane.

Even historian Kevin Brownlow, interviewed in one of the DVD's extras, guards his enthusiasm. Listen carefully to his comments and you'll notice that he acknowledges the film's great success and mentions certain impressive elements (the score, the casting, etc), but he refrains from calling the overall film a great work. Leonard Maltin, on the other hand, clearly loves this movie, and he is therefore well-suited to providing scene-specific commentary along with William Wellman, Jr. and a few cast members. Whether you like the movie or not, Maltin is always instructive and enjoyable to listen to since he is such a complete historian and fan. He also provides introductions to the movie itself and the myriad of extras on Disc 2, which are outstanding and well worth watching.

"The Batjac Story" is an interesting documentary about the history of Wayne's company, which started as Wayne-Fellows Productions in 1951 before becoming Batjac Productions when Wayne bought out co-producer Bob Fellows in 1954. Wayne was highly involved in the productions of his pictures, and his vast set experience made him an effective, hands-on producer.

"Stories From the Set" features just that, with such cast members as Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, Doe Avedon, and Robert Stack (in an archival interview) sharing their anecdotes. Three biographical featurettes focus on director Wellman, composer Tiomkin, and novelist Ernest Gann, with the Tiomkin episode especially worthwhile. A shrewd businessman and negotiator, he was never under contract to a studio, deciding instead to work freelance, and he was the the first composer to have a publicist and campaign for an Oscar®.

Further extras detail the restoration work required for The High and the Mighty (a tough job because the negative had become badly worn) and place it in the context of film history. A featurette entitled "Flying in the Fifties" is a charming look at the glamour and excitement of flying in those days, and rounding things out are trailers, premiere footage, and a photo gallery.

This is just the first of the long-unseen Batjac films to reach DVD. Others are on the way, including at least one which really is a long-lost masterpiece: Seven Men From Now (1956), directed by Budd Boetticher, currently set for a December release.

For more information about The High and the Mighty, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order The High and the Mighty, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold

The High and the Mighty (Special Collector's Edition) on DVD

Would The High and the Mighty (1954) be so fondly remembered if it had not been unseen for the past 25 years (and virtually unseen for 50 years)? Never before released on video or DVD, and not broadcast on American television since 1979, this is a movie that has acquired the status of a lost masterpiece. Despite an impeccable restoration and two-disc DVD presentation by Paramount Home Entertainment, the movie is sadly not a lost masterpiece. Badly dated, what was hailed in its time as suspenseful drama now plays as overwrought, overlong, lethargic soaper. The story is simple. A passenger plane takes off from Hawaii to San Francisco with about a dozen passengers (including Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Jan Sterling, Phil Harris and Robert Newton), all of whom have backstories which we are shown via flashback. John Wayne (in a part originally meant for Spencer Tracy) plays a washed-up former captain who is now relegated to being Robert Stack's co-pilot due to an accident years earlier. Eventually, conflicts arise among the passengers in back and between the pilots in front as the plane itself develops serious engine trouble. Will it reach the coast OK, or will it have to make a water landing? It's simply not suspenseful, scary or exciting, all of which it's meant to be. The flashbacks are turgid. The pilot conflicts are unconvincing, despite Wayne's strong (and overall brief) presence. It's also impossible to watch Stack without thinking of Airplane (1980) (which in fairness is not the fault of this movie). And the heavy emphasis on what to do if the plane makes a crash landing is tedious to anyone who's been on an airplane in the past fifty years. A moment where a passenger pulls a gun on another passenger is laughably melodramatic, and what happens to the gun afterwards is flat-out ludicrous. There's just not enough of a story here with believable and exciting conflicts. Somehow, The High and the Mighty garnered six Academy Award nominations and won for Dmitri Tiomkin's famous score. While it's a fine melody in and of itself, it feels overblown for this material and is used too often. (It actually sounds more suitable for a romantic Broadway musical than for a suspense film.) It's likely that many who saw this movie in 1954 have held it close to their hearts because they remember the novelty of seeing such a modern subject on screen. Commercial aviation for ordinary people had only just really begun, and the idea of a movie detailing that experience and depicting something going wrong was quite new. Of course, there have been scores of airplane disaster movies since then, and scores of other movies in which airplane crashes play a smaller part, and the novelty is long gone. The High and the Mighty might be the grandaddy of this minigenre, but it has not withstood the test of time. While the novelty might have been enough to make this a commercial hit in 1954, the quality of the storytelling and filmmaking - so often good enough to make dated subject matter feel irrelevant when watching classic movies today - is too pedestrian to sustain the movie in 2005. Director William Wellman was one of the greats, but ironically his biggest commercial success is not a typical Wellman movie. Usually associated with action and movement, he's unable to bring much of either to this film. Most crucially, he does not attempt to create tension out of the confined space of the airplane. Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and Rear Window (1954) proved that confined spaces could work brilliantly on screen, but in The High and the Mighty we often cut away to a ship, an airport, another plane, or other locations in flashbacks, thus deflating any tension which might have been building up inside the plane. Even historian Kevin Brownlow, interviewed in one of the DVD's extras, guards his enthusiasm. Listen carefully to his comments and you'll notice that he acknowledges the film's great success and mentions certain impressive elements (the score, the casting, etc), but he refrains from calling the overall film a great work. Leonard Maltin, on the other hand, clearly loves this movie, and he is therefore well-suited to providing scene-specific commentary along with William Wellman, Jr. and a few cast members. Whether you like the movie or not, Maltin is always instructive and enjoyable to listen to since he is such a complete historian and fan. He also provides introductions to the movie itself and the myriad of extras on Disc 2, which are outstanding and well worth watching. "The Batjac Story" is an interesting documentary about the history of Wayne's company, which started as Wayne-Fellows Productions in 1951 before becoming Batjac Productions when Wayne bought out co-producer Bob Fellows in 1954. Wayne was highly involved in the productions of his pictures, and his vast set experience made him an effective, hands-on producer. "Stories From the Set" features just that, with such cast members as Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, Doe Avedon, and Robert Stack (in an archival interview) sharing their anecdotes. Three biographical featurettes focus on director Wellman, composer Tiomkin, and novelist Ernest Gann, with the Tiomkin episode especially worthwhile. A shrewd businessman and negotiator, he was never under contract to a studio, deciding instead to work freelance, and he was the the first composer to have a publicist and campaign for an Oscar®. Further extras detail the restoration work required for The High and the Mighty (a tough job because the negative had become badly worn) and place it in the context of film history. A featurette entitled "Flying in the Fifties" is a charming look at the glamour and excitement of flying in those days, and rounding things out are trailers, premiere footage, and a photo gallery. This is just the first of the long-unseen Batjac films to reach DVD. Others are on the way, including at least one which really is a long-lost masterpiece: Seven Men From Now (1956), directed by Budd Boetticher, currently set for a December release. For more information about The High and the Mighty, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order The High and the Mighty, go to TCM Shopping. by Jeremy Arnold

Robert Stack, 1919-2003


Robert Stack, the tough, forceful actor who had a solid career in films before achieving his greatest success playing crime fighter Eliot Ness in the '60s television series The Untouchables (1959-63) and later as host of the long-running Unsolved Mysteries(1987-2002), died on May 14 of heart failure in his Los Angeles home. He was 84.

Stack was born in Los Angeles on January 13, 1919 to a well-to-do family but his parents divorced when he was a year old. At age three, he moved with his mother to Paris, where she studied singing. They returned to Los Angeles when he was seven, by then French was his native language and was not taught English until he started schooling.

Naturally athletic, Stack was still in high school when he became a national skeet-shooting champion and top-flight polo player. He soon was giving lessons on shooting to such top Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, and found himself on the polo field with some notable movie moguls like Darryl Zanuck and Walter Wanger.

Stack enrolled in the University of Southern California, where he took some drama courses, and was on the Polo team, but it wasn't long before some influential people in the film industry took notice of his classic good looks, and lithe physique. Soon, his Hollywood connections got him on a film set at Paramount, a screen test, and eventually, his first lead in a picture, opposite Deanna Durbin in First Love (1939). Although he was only 20, Stack's natural delivery and boyish charm made him a natural for the screen.

His range grew with some meatier parts in the next few years, especially noteworthy were his roles as the young Nazi sympathizer in Frank Borzage's chilling The Mortal Storm (1940), with James Stewart, and as the Polish flier who woos a married Carole Lombard in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942).

After serving as a gunnery officer in the Navy during World War II, Stack returned to the screen, and found a few interesting roles over the next ten years: giving Elizabeth Taylor her first screen kiss in Robert Thorp's A Date With Judy (1948); the leading role as an American bullfighter in Budd Boetticher's The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951); and as a pilot in William Wellman's The High and the Mighty (1954), starring John Wayne. However, Stack saved his best dramatic performances for Douglas Sirk in two knockout films: as a self-destructive alcoholic in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for supporting actor; and sympathetically portraying a fallen World War I pilot ace who is forced to do barnstorming stunts for mere survival in Tarnished Angels (1958).

Despite proving his capabilities as a solid actor in these roles, front rank stardom oddly eluded Stack at this point. That all changed when Stack gave television a try. The result was the enormously popular series, The Untouchables (1959-63). This exciting crime show about the real-life Prohibition-era crime-fighter Eliot Ness and his G-men taking on the Chicago underworld was successful in its day for several reasons: its catchy theme music, florid violence (which caused quite a sensation in its day), taut narration by Walter Winchell, and of course, Stack's trademark staccato delivery and strong presence. It all proved so popular that the series ran for four years, earned an Emmy for Stack in 1960, and made him a household name.

Stack would return to television in the late '60s, with the The Name of the Game (1968-71), and a string of made-for-television movies throughout the '70s. His career perked up again when Steven Spielberg cast him in his big budget comedy 1941 (1979) as General Joe Stillwell. The film surprised many viewers as few realized Stack was willing to spoof his granite-faced stoicism, but it won him over many new fans, and his dead-pan intensity would be used to perfect comic effect the following year as Captain Rex Kramer (who can forget the sight of him beating up Hare Krishnas at the airport?) in David and Jerry Zucker's wonderful spoof of disaster flicks, Airplane! (1980).

Stack's activity would be sporadic throughout the remainder of his career, but he returned to television, as the host of enormously popular Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2002), and played himself in Lawrence Kasden's comedy-drama Mumford (1999). He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Rosemarie Bowe Stack, a former actress, and two children, Elizabeth and Charles, both of Los Angeles.

by Michael T. Toole

Robert Stack, 1919-2003

Robert Stack, the tough, forceful actor who had a solid career in films before achieving his greatest success playing crime fighter Eliot Ness in the '60s television series The Untouchables (1959-63) and later as host of the long-running Unsolved Mysteries(1987-2002), died on May 14 of heart failure in his Los Angeles home. He was 84. Stack was born in Los Angeles on January 13, 1919 to a well-to-do family but his parents divorced when he was a year old. At age three, he moved with his mother to Paris, where she studied singing. They returned to Los Angeles when he was seven, by then French was his native language and was not taught English until he started schooling. Naturally athletic, Stack was still in high school when he became a national skeet-shooting champion and top-flight polo player. He soon was giving lessons on shooting to such top Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, and found himself on the polo field with some notable movie moguls like Darryl Zanuck and Walter Wanger. Stack enrolled in the University of Southern California, where he took some drama courses, and was on the Polo team, but it wasn't long before some influential people in the film industry took notice of his classic good looks, and lithe physique. Soon, his Hollywood connections got him on a film set at Paramount, a screen test, and eventually, his first lead in a picture, opposite Deanna Durbin in First Love (1939). Although he was only 20, Stack's natural delivery and boyish charm made him a natural for the screen. His range grew with some meatier parts in the next few years, especially noteworthy were his roles as the young Nazi sympathizer in Frank Borzage's chilling The Mortal Storm (1940), with James Stewart, and as the Polish flier who woos a married Carole Lombard in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942). After serving as a gunnery officer in the Navy during World War II, Stack returned to the screen, and found a few interesting roles over the next ten years: giving Elizabeth Taylor her first screen kiss in Robert Thorp's A Date With Judy (1948); the leading role as an American bullfighter in Budd Boetticher's The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951); and as a pilot in William Wellman's The High and the Mighty (1954), starring John Wayne. However, Stack saved his best dramatic performances for Douglas Sirk in two knockout films: as a self-destructive alcoholic in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for supporting actor; and sympathetically portraying a fallen World War I pilot ace who is forced to do barnstorming stunts for mere survival in Tarnished Angels (1958). Despite proving his capabilities as a solid actor in these roles, front rank stardom oddly eluded Stack at this point. That all changed when Stack gave television a try. The result was the enormously popular series, The Untouchables (1959-63). This exciting crime show about the real-life Prohibition-era crime-fighter Eliot Ness and his G-men taking on the Chicago underworld was successful in its day for several reasons: its catchy theme music, florid violence (which caused quite a sensation in its day), taut narration by Walter Winchell, and of course, Stack's trademark staccato delivery and strong presence. It all proved so popular that the series ran for four years, earned an Emmy for Stack in 1960, and made him a household name. Stack would return to television in the late '60s, with the The Name of the Game (1968-71), and a string of made-for-television movies throughout the '70s. His career perked up again when Steven Spielberg cast him in his big budget comedy 1941 (1979) as General Joe Stillwell. The film surprised many viewers as few realized Stack was willing to spoof his granite-faced stoicism, but it won him over many new fans, and his dead-pan intensity would be used to perfect comic effect the following year as Captain Rex Kramer (who can forget the sight of him beating up Hare Krishnas at the airport?) in David and Jerry Zucker's wonderful spoof of disaster flicks, Airplane! (1980). Stack's activity would be sporadic throughout the remainder of his career, but he returned to television, as the host of enormously popular Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2002), and played himself in Lawrence Kasden's comedy-drama Mumford (1999). He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Rosemarie Bowe Stack, a former actress, and two children, Elizabeth and Charles, both of Los Angeles. by Michael T. Toole

Quotes

Trivia

The lyrics to the famed title song are only heard at the very end, are sung by a large choral group, and are different than the familiar lyrics heard in the popular-song record releases of the time.

Notes

An onscreen acknowledgment reads: "We wish to thank the United States Coast Guard for their cooperation and advice." Voice-over narration by several actors performing in The High and the Mighty is heard intermittently throughout the film. Several flashback scenes are shown as montages with voice-over narration.
       According to an unidentified, but contemporary, news item, many studios were bidding for the rights to the popular Ernest K. Gann novel, The High and the Mighty, which had become a Book of the Month Club offering, by the time John Wayne purchased it. The film took months to cast, according to a May 1954 Hollywood Reporter article. In a July 1954 Los Angeles Daily News news item, director William A. Wellman claimed that Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers and Dorothy McGuire rejected the opportunity to perform in the film, and that Spencer Tracy "shook hands on a deal" to play one of the leads, but later reneged. Due to the many subplots of the story, none of the roles, including Wayne's, were very large, and Wellman speculated that this was the reason for the lack of interest. It was after Tracy refused a role, Wellman said, that Wayne decided to play the lead.
       Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, December 1953 Hollywood Reporter news items add Ida Esmeralda, Douglas Kennedy, John Close, Paul Grant and a former Miss Australia, Toni Peterson, to the cast. Michael Wellman, who appeared as "Toby," was the son of director William A. Wellman and also appeared in an earlier Wayne-Fellows aviation film directed by his father, Island in the Sky (see below). Although Doe Avedon, Karen Sharpe and John Smith were "introduced" in the opening onscreen credits, Sharpe and Smith had appeared in other pictures prior to The High and the Mighty. The Hollywood Reporter review noted that the film marked Joy Kim's screen debut as "Dorothy Chen." December 1953 Hollywood Reporter news items reported that portions of the film were shot at the Glendale Grand Central Air Terminal and in San Francisco. In a December 1953 Los Angeles Times article, technical advisor Lt. Commander Robert C. Cannom reported that the resources of Oakland's Civil Aeronautics Administration communications net and the Coast Guard rescue coordinating center in San Francisco were used to make the action in the film true to life.
       The film garnered several Academy Award nominations. January Sterling and Claire Trevor were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Eva Marie Saint's performance in On the Waterfront. Director Wellman and film editor Ralph Dawson were also nominated for their contributions to the film, but lost to On the Waterfront's Elia Kazan and Gene Milford, respectively.
       Dimitri Tiomkin's The High and the Mighty theme song, which was whistled by Wayne in the film, contained lyrics arranged for chorus by Ned Washington, which were cut prior to the film's initial showings, according to a December 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item. However, as described by a December 1954 Los Angeles Mirror-News article, the sequence containing the lyrics was restored to the film after the song achieved "Hit Parade" popularity through recordings and sheet music. The song's restoration to the film made it eligible for an Academy Award nomination. Although the song lost to Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's "Three Coins in the Fountain" from the film of the same title, Tiomkin won an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Dramatic/Comedy film for The High and the Mighty.
       A December 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Leon Navara sued Tiomkin, Washington, Warner Bros., Witmark Music and Wayne-Fellows Productions for one million dollars each, claiming that The High and the Mighty theme song was a plagiarism of one of his tunes. According to a January 1959 Newsweek article, much of Navara's case rested on the placement and use of a B flat, which occurred in both the film's theme and Navara's 1949 work, "Enchanted Cello." Witnesses for the defense were composers Deems Taylor and Sigmund Spaeth. After fifteen days of arguments and eight of jury deliberation, the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of Tiomkin. The haunting tune became an often played, and often parodied, Hollywood film theme that developed into its own entity, symbolizing the type of strong, but troubled character played by Wayne.
       May and June 1954 Hollywood Reporter news items report that, after a series of promotional events, the film opened with one of Hollywood's biggest and most elaborate premieres. It was a major box office success and received many honors, including the Southern California Motion Picture Council's Four Star Citation and Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association's Picture of the Month, and at their symposium, Books and Authors honored the film for its faithful adaptation of a novel.
       The film was memorable for being one of the first "disaster" movies to interweave multiple subplots about the personal dilemmas of an ensemble cast of characters. Its technique of building tension by unfolding a succession of mounting misfortunes, was used in later films such as Paramount's 1957 film, Zero Hour!, directed by Hall Bartlett, and starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden (see below), Warner Bros. 1960 production The Crowded Sky, directed by Joseph Pevney, and starring Dana Andrews and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and the 1970 Universal production Airport, directed by George Seaton, starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. The 1980 Paramount comedy Airplane!, directed by Jim Abraham and David and Jerry Zucker, parodied aspects of The High and the Mighty.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States January 1996

Released in United States Spring May 1954

CinemaScope

Released in United States January 1996 (Shown at Sundance Film Festival (William Wellman: American Storyteller) in Park City, Utah January 18-28, 1996.)

Released in United States Spring May 1954