One of disaster movie fans’ favorite trivia tidbits is the one about how Airport 1975 has commercial jet pilot Efrem Zimbalist Jr. running smack dab into private plane flyer Dana Andrews when, in 1960, the two had played reverse roles in The Crowded Sky. In Sky, Efrem Zimbalist is a navy flyer who winds up on a collision course with a commercial jet flown by Dana Andrews! Any cinematic success can be counted on to be revisited time and again (I’m surprised we didn’t have a later movie with them stationed in a retirement home, crashing their wheelchairs or Hoverounds into one another!)
The Crowded Sky is crowded indeed! Look at this collection of actors, and that’s just the key people on the plane. There are many more depicted on the ground and in recollections. Based on a novel by Hank Searls (the cover art of which is shown below, hilariously leaves little doubt as to the climax. Check out the planes at the top!), the film adaptation is as disjointed, over-encompassing and wonky a movie as you’re likely to find. However, if you find it, you’re likely to be entertained by it on some level. The screenplay attempts to fit every character (and then some) mentioned in the book and touch on his or her story. Thing is, movies are generally less than two hours long, so there really isn’t time to delve into all that. Even the fairly bloated Airport cut out a whole section devoted to an overworked, stressed-out air traffic controller. Thus, Sky has many, many characters who appear fleetingly and who we barely get to know before they’re gone!
Zimbalist plays a US Navy pilot whose scheming wife Rhonda Fleming has been caught with someone’s hand in her cookie jar, but who has devised a way out of being divorced for it. Their young daughter (played by quite possibly one of the most annoying juvenile actresses ever, and that’s saying something!) is devoted to her father and realizes what a shrew her mom is. (This character, by the way, had a much larger role in the book, but thank God she doesn’t here!)
Fleming has stopped caring for Zimbalist, but isn’t ready to be tossed out on her rump just yet either. She uses the daughter as a bargaining tool to get what she wants. Flashbacks reveal their love affair and how she was pretty cunning from the start. Second-billed Fleming was still a fairly significant star at this time and her presence was played up in the lobby cards. Two of the eight cards depict a poolside scene that, literally, passes by in seconds in the finished film! All her moments are front-loaded in the movie and she disappears completely after a while with not even so much as a reaction given to her character after the atmospheric smash-up. Her eyes and hair were always said to be well-geared to the color films of the time and she is striking to look at here, though this was practically her last hurrah in the cinema.
In the book, Zimbalist had a caring mistress waiting for him as he flies from the west coast to Washington, D.C. In the film, he is merely a cuckolded husband with his own honor intact. Another flashback reveals his boxing sparring partner warning him not to get married (and look how thrilling the reception is. And, no, that’s not Thelma Ritter in the center of the card above.) The pugilistic pal has to have some of the kinkiest chest hair ever seen on a Caucasian. At least it’s a chance to see a little skin in the otherwise mostly suit & tie or uniform-clad movie.
Zimbalist takes on a passenger in his two-seater, young sailor Troy Donahue. Donahue was not yet a major star when filming began on The Crowded Sky, but, in the meantime, A Summer Place was released and he became a major teen idol. From then on (while it lasted), he would be a leading man. In this film, he’s a secondary character, but does get a fair amount of face time. Almost all of his scenes are with Zimbalist (a good many of which have his face covered up by a black oxygen mask!) I’ve never been too hot to trot on Troy, but he does have a close-up in a café scene in which he might be the most beautiful he ever looked. His eyes are a stunning hue and he runs his left hand through his blonde hair and in that instant, I can see what all the fuss was about. He still, especially at this juncture, was no Laurence Olivier, though! (In the shot below, I think he has a sort of Alan Ladd quality.)Finally, top-billed Andrews makes his appearance and is shown to be a stern, egotistical stuffed shirt. His co-pilot is John Kerr (of Tea and Sympathy and South Pacific fame) and the two have a history of antagonism between them. They don’t even pretend to like one another ever since Andrews cost Kerr a promotion. Kerr has his own set of problems. He’s waffling between becoming a top-tier pilot and pursuing a career as a commercial artist. According to the dictates of the screenplay, he cannot do both. (In an odd choice of artistic demonstration, the film has him sketching a cuddly kitty cat for a CIGARETTE advertisement!)
Kerr is also knee-deep in a tormented relationship with stewardess Anne Francis. Their history is shown in flashback as well. She is, in her own words, an “ex-tramp” and will not kiss him at first because a kiss will lead to other things and she has sworn all that off until marriage. Thing is, he won’t marry until he has sorted out his career woes! Then there’s the fact that his late father was a tortured artist who only kept a few of his paintings, all of which centered on subjects with no faces. Veteran actress Frieda Inescort has a cameo role as one of the owners of a rare example of this art.
In another flashback thread, Andrews recalls his wife and son. The son is preordained to be a pilot, just like dad, but Andrews is so hard on him that he can’t possibly measure up. He eventually turns to delinquency as a way of acting out. (One of his “bad” teen friends is none other than ex-Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess!) The son, played with all the variety, excitement and expression of pond scum by a one shot cutie named Ken Currie, is at least easy on the eyes. It surprising that he didn’t get at least one more shot in the movies or on TV on that score alone! This was the era of predatory talent agent Henry Willson and his stable of boys (one of whom, of course, was Donahue and another was Rad Fulton, who shows up here as a brunette air traffic controller) and Currie might have been one of them as well, I don’t know.
Speaking of Rad Fulton, he and Willson had a major falling out within two years of this movie and he broke away from Willson's services. Willson allegedly declared that the name "Rad Fulton" was his and that the actor couldn't keep it! So the actor, rather happily, went back to his own name of James Westmoreland and continued a spotty career, some of it on daytime soaps. Interestingly, Westmoreland was married to actress Kim Darby for ONE MONTH in 1970! In 1984, several years after Willson's death, he appeared on an episode of T.J. Hooker as Rad Fulton, his last screen credit to date.
Francis had been working in TV and movies from the age of seventeen and had enjoyed the hits Bad Day at Black Rock and Forbidden Planet several years before this. She is photographed so well here that she actually manages to outshine Fleming, even though her role is less glamorous. Her pert, capable character is winning enough and attractive enough to make viewers wonder what on earth she sees in the sour Kerr. (Kerr has never been a favorite of mine, though he does have his supporters. Fans of his need to see him in this because he is also photographed flatteringly throughout.) Kerr later played an attorney on the primetime soap Peyton Place and it sparked him to become a lawyer in real life! He went into semi-retirement as an actor and made a living as a Beverly Hills legal eagle. Francis continued a long, prolific career in various mediums, though her experience with Babs Streisand during the 1968 filming of Funny Girl seemed to knock the wind out of her movie career. (Her part was trimmed, along with her close-ups, allegedly at the star’s insistence.)
Despite his billing, this is no great shakes for Keenan Wynn. Somehow his lothario character gets shortchanged amidst all the many, many goings on. He really only has one so-so scene. It’s possible that flashbacks involving him were edited out. In a hilarious structural conceit, the camera keeps zooming in on people whose voices are then heard in thought (later parodied in Airplane! – “That’s strange. Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home,” which was already a parody of a then-popular coffee commercial.) Their faces remain lit, but the background goes dark as they emote themselves silly to their own voiceovers, then often drifting to a flashback. Anyway, Wynn is being pursued by a woman he had done wrong years before and he is not only miscast in that vein, but is given practically nothing to do. He does, however, get to squeal like a girl when he looks out the window and sees that a wing is on fire!
The woman pursuing him, by the way, is Jean Willes. The very first time I ever saw this movie, years and years ago on the once-great, now-shitty, TNT network, I thought this was Ava Gardner! I think I can be forgiven because she does have a resemblance to Ava, which she no doubt played up, especially in this particular film. Willes’ hair is darker than it often was and is styled to resemble Ms. Gardner’s.
Fans of 1930s comedienne Patsy Kelly will be delighted to see that she is also onboard! She has a small role as the agent of a self-indulgent Method actor who is on his way to L.A. to read for an important part. She wisecracks her way through the movie and is stuck doing all her scenes with a rather annoying young man named Tom Gilson. Gilson was a busy Warner Brothers contract player with sleepy eyes and a double chin whose talent was, in my opinion, debatable.
He met (and soon married) Saundra Edwards during the filming of this movie. She is the brunette stewardess and was a burgeoning starlet in the wake of a 1957 Playboy spread. Only two years later, after he had beaten her one too may times and nearly harmed their baby, she fled to her sister’s house where he called and threatened her and then tried to break in and, potentially, kill her. She grabbed a shotgun that her brother-in-law had given her to “scare him” with and it went off, blowing a hole in him. Gilson died and, unfortunately for her, so did Edwards’ career, though the incident was ruled justifiable homicide.
Still other stories among the passengers of the film include a lonely, shy man and an insecure plain, woman seated next to each other who keep going over any potential for a relationship in their heads and a doctor who has his wife on board who is terminally ill, but doesn’t know it. This was a major plotline of the book, tossed away with unbilled actors in the movie.
It’s a pretty laborious journey to the climax of the film, though there are plenty of snickers to be had along the way. There’s the unbelievably rude, sexist way that Andrews refers to Francis (“Girl!”) and the many aforementioned voiceovers and camera zooms. Intentional humor, such as provided by the goofy flight engineer Joe Mantell, mostly falls flat.
When the big moment finally arrives, it is surprisingly arresting considering that this is a 1960 film. I waited decades to see The High and the Mighty, a film that this one allegedly ripped off, and could not wait to see it, only to be bored out of my skull for much of it and horrendously disappointed by the utter lack of disaster. At least here we’re treated to a demise or two and plenty of rattling seats and flying debris. Just like the latter Airport 1975, a hole is ripped in the side of the plane, but I wouldn’t dare reveal how that happens (it’s not what you think!)
The lobby cards and stills on this page do not really capture how beautifully the film is shot, in general. The colors are so vibrant and the people are frequently captured in hazy, gauzy glory that would make even Lucille Ball stand up and take notice. Yes, it has a staid quality sometimes and there are far, far too many characters in it for many of them to register or matter to the viewer, but it’s slick, attractive, relatively engrossing and, by the end, sort of fun.
Andrews was also behind the wheel, so to speak, in 1957’s Zero Hour, all about a veteran who has to fly the plane when the crew is done in by food poisoning (and that one was a major influence on Airplane!, in fact, much of the script was lifted right from it!) Needless to say, Andrews was not someone you wanted to be riding alongside in an aircraft if you could help it (this apart from the fact that Andrews suffered from alcoholism during the better part of his career!) Another hooty film of his is Hot Rods to Hell, about a family on a road trip being terrorized by local punks.
Since I all but exhausted the 1970s disaster films (somehow, I realized recently, forgetting 1974’s Juggernaut, however!), I will probably be touching on some prior excursions into the genre here and there. Airline disaster, for example, goes all the way back to 1939’s Five Came Back and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent in 1940, if not further, and there have been plenty in between. I consider this an admirable entry in the field, though not without its flaws.