Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Coming in for a "Landing!"

This site was practically created as a way to express our love for 1970s disaster movies and though we've segued heavily into other areas, cinematic calamity is a genre that is always close to our heart. I've enjoyed looking at disaster flicks that came before 1970 such as Krakatoa East of Java (1969), The Crowded Sky (1960), Zero Hour (1957) and even Green Dolphin Street (1947) and today am shining the light on another one, which is fairly obscure but nonetheless worthy of a viewing. Crash Landing (1958) is low-budget wisp of a film, based upon a real and dramatic incident.

In 1956, a Pan-Am passenger flight from Hawaii to California lost two of its four engines and, knowing that it could not possibly make a landing at its initial destination (due to added drag and insufficient remaining fuel) nor return to its take-off point, was forced to ditch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Because the plane circled till daybreak to use up remaining fuel and shed light on the wreckage, there was time for some of the situation to be caught on film.

The tail of the plane broke off and the fuselage ultimately sank altogether, but because the U.S. Coast Guard had been alerted with time to spare and had a ship in the area, a successful rescue operation was mounted. As seen in the grainy footage, the sole bright spot of the ordeal would have been getting fished out of the life rafts and helped onto the rescue vessel by some handsome, sometimes shirtless, naval seamen!

Crash Landing sought to capitalize on this riveting event and B-movie producer Sam Katzman enlisted hack-writer Fred Freiberger and quickie director Fred Sears to create a movie that was shot in ten - yes TEN - days! It was filmed in 1957, but despite the desperation to cash-in on a then-current event, was somehow held for release until the middle of 1958.

It's not the world's greatest omen when our initial glimpse of the plane is a staggeringly uncreative shot of an obvious model against a cloudy backdrop. Belief is not exactly suspended by this piece of film. Thankfully, this is not the only method of shooting the model and it does get (marginally) better as it goes along.
Things certainly get off to a rather thrilling start. Pilot Gary Merrill is practically discussing the engine problems and the possible need to ditch as the movie begins!  We get a cursory introduction to his flight crew (co-pilot Roger Smith, engineer Sheridan Comerate and the navigator Richard Newton) and are told that thirty-one souls are on board when one of the engines catches fire! Soon another one is acting wonky. (We are told of 25 passengers and 6 crew which in my old math is 31, but the poster refers to 32!)

Thing is, if you've ever seen a movie before, you begin to realize that the story isn't really going to proceed from right here. We're going to be "treated" to an extended flashback involving Merrill's home life and all of the pre-flight procedures and predicaments that led up to this key moment before the disaster can take place.

In a fun dissolve from a propeller to a household fan blade, we see Merrill's Lisbon apartment where he lives with his wife Nancy Davis and preteen son Kim Charney. For some reason, he's surprised when Davis comes home loaded down with shopping packages (I guess he hadn't asked Ronald Reagan whether Nance was a spendthrift or not!) Merrill is just back from Madrid with presents for his family, though this inadvertently opens up a bad can of worms. (You can see the careless way this scene is lit and ascertain the speed at which this movie was done by noting the long shadow across Davis' face in the inset!)

Merrill has brought Charney a horn for his bicycle only to learn that the boy has given it away because he's afraid of it after a recent accident. Thing is, he lies about it first because he's afraid to disappoint his exacting father. As a punishment, he isn't allowed to attend the party for which the clothes they've just bought were all intended. (Again, Davis is lit like Lon Chaney, her thirty-six year old eyes and forehead looking years older!)

As she drops Merrill off at the airport the following day, she is begging him to reconsider the punishment of their son, but he remains firm. Once more, she is photographed in a ghastly way that would have made Donna Reed grateful for the treatment she received on Dallas! No wonder this was Davis' final feature film.

Now at the airport, we begin to see capsule glimpses of several of the passengers who will be aboard the fateful flight. There are two hot-to-trot soldiers, Ronald Green and Richard Whiteside, Portuguese grandma Celia Lovsky and her son, orthodox priest Friedrich von Ledebur and lonely schoolteacher Irene Hervey (who is soon accosted by lonely widower Lewis Martin.)

Out on the tarmac, the flight crew is preparing to board and Smith is approached by little Robin Warga, who wants to see his dog who's also making the flight. They intended to put the canine in a cargo hold with a bunch of parakeets, but Smith instructs the handler to place all of them in a hold located behind the airplane's lounge.

Smith (who smokes incessantly through this film, as does engineer Comerate) has the hots for coach stewardess Jewell Lain, remarking that she "eats like a horse, but looks like a gazelle." She won't date him because she doesn't want to become attached to someone who is always on the go halfway around the world.

Also on board are business partners Richard Keith and Hal Torey, who are squabbling over Torey's drinking habits with Keith forcing his associate to sign a contract that effectively keeps him in check to the point of suffocation and inertia.

There are two slutty-looking chorus girls along for the ride as well, Joan Bradshaw and Brandy Bryan. Bradshaw, in particular (a popular cheesecake model of the time), is hilariously slinky and generally dismissive of everything around her, rather snottily declining one of the magazines offered to her by stewardess Lain.

The flight becomes turbulent thanks to some cumulus clouds causing Merrill to get out of his seat and head to the back to speak to the passengers. Every time Merrill or Smith evacuates his seat, Comerate has to get up and take the vacant spot. Not that we don't enjoy seeing his torso and all, but this happens over and over and over in the film to the point of hilarity and ennui.

Now everyone seems to make a fuss over stewardess Lain, like she's some goddess or something, but I actually prefer the first class attendant, Bek Nelson. To me, she's so much more elegant, lithe and appealing. It's sort of the age-old (okay, decades old) Ginger vs Mary Ann debate and I'm afraid, to many folks' dismay, I was always a Ginger lover.

Widower Martin has now made two attempts to snuggle up with Hervey and breaks through with a couple of cups of coffee. In a moment that heavily inspired the much later Airplane! (1980), she declares with a peculiarly interesting inflection that she likes her coffee "black." (You'll recall the little girl in the later parody telling her admirer that she likes her coffee, "black... like my men.") Martin confesses that since his wife died, he's become mostly inactive and floundering while Hervey can only respond that she's never even been asked to marry.

We soon catch up to the beginning of the film when the series of engine troubles began. The vessel has just passed "the point of no return" when half of the four engines konk out. Knowing that they cannot make it back home or to their destination, Merrill figures they will have to ditch the plane into the ocean. He lashes out at engineer Comerate (who is another victim of poor lighting here), but the young man gives as much as he gets in return.

Here we see the coach section listening as they're being told about the imminent danger caused by engine failure. The passengers are told that they will be picked up after the ditching by a nearby naval destroyer which is in constant radio contact with the doomed flight.

The first class section (in the rear of the plane) is presided over by a soothing Nelson.
Nelson, however, isn't quite as composed inside as she appears on the outside. At one point, realizing that her plane is unquestionably going to set down hard in the open sea, she becomes distraught and queasy to the point of reaching for an air sickness bag! (This might be a cinematic first?) Note the talon-like fingernails she's sporting.

In what is easily the most appalling section of the entire movie, Captain Merrill comes back to first class and engages in a conver- sation with young Warga over his dog. He informs the boy that they will not be saving the animal when the planes touches down. They intend to leave him in the hold (which is, literally, fifteen feet behind them) in his cage rather than set him free and see if he can even swim for it, much less put him on a raft! As a consolation, Merrill says he will have Warga's ballcap placed into the cage with Wilbur the dog so that he'll know he was being thought of as he drowns!  And the father tells the son they can get a new dog. (I'm not making this up...) Oh, and do take note of the mother hovering above. More about this actress later.

Merrill informs the first class passengers that they will need to move up into coach in order to avoid danger if the tail of the place should break off during the crash landing. He also informs them all not to make any sudden moves or to collect on one side of the plane. Naturally, businessman Keith freaks out and causes a commotion, leading to the place listing violently back and forth as the passengers are tossed around.
Now things get really insane. Smith decides to go back to the hold behind the lounge and retrieve the parakeets so that he can free THEM... In all seriousness, he is going to release the parakeets out the window of the aircraft while the dog below (seen here finally getting his owner's ball cap... thanks...) can just drown in a cage.

Something about this hot and horny situation (!) begins to thaw some of Lain's ice and they decide to make out in the rear hold next to the birds before the plane plunks into the ocean.

Just later, Smith kicks open a window in the now-vacant first class passenger section and releases the parakeets cage by cage to the vast expanse of saltwater below. (Where are they supposed to fly to or land?!)

Next comes another hooty moment. This fretful female passenger, whose been simpering in her seat for sometime, makes the declaration to her husband, "If I'm killed, all right... I just don't want to be crippled!"

Meanwhile the soldiers Green and Whiteside are discussing the fact that the place has two hours till ditching. (Merrill and crew have decided to wait until daybreak when most of the fuel will be used up and the light will be better for getting the passengers into the inflatable rafts in the open sea.) I don't know why it never occurred to them as it occurred to me that they could spend two hours back in the lounge area passing the time in grand style!  LOL

Now with everyone crammed into coach, the stew- ardesses calmly go over the "ditch position" ("Assume crash positions!" ha ha!) and explain to the passengers that they mustn't inflate their lifevests until after they have exited the aircraft. Look at showgirl Bradshaw's hilarious stink-eye towards Nelson.

Nelson informs all the ladies that they need to remove their earrings and bracelets (perhaps that is what ticked Bradshaw off?) and then heads over to the priest and tells him he will have to remove his sizable cross because it might injure him in the crash. Um... #1, I'm glad I wasn't sitting behind him and #2, if I were, I would pray that there was no in-flight movie because I'd never see any of it! By the way, has a piece of "trivia" that is totally incorrect. It says that the man behind the priest goes from a military uniform to a business suit. No, the officer removed his hat, then applied a lifevest. That is all that happened.

The dreaded moment finally occurs and Merrill "lands" the plane into the drink. The flight crew is shown pitching forward as water presses upon the front of the cockpit glass.
Soon, the passengers are hurtling out the emergency exits onto the wing and using the lifelines to clamber into several inflatable rafts. Hunky soldier Green takes care of the infant (presumably since its father needed to help the couple's other child, Warga, and assist the wife.)

Say what you will about the low budget of this movie, but at least (unlike the hugely-budgeted and far more prestigious The High and the Mighty, 1954) a disaster actually occurs and the passengers are spilled from the aircraft into the ocean. In other words, it isn't just a build up to nothing like some other movies I've sat through...

The worried old bat who would prefer death over being crippled is sent careening ass over tit into a rescue raft, her skirt billowing around in the considerable wind as her husband is powerless to prevent it!

Priest von Ledebur finally had to lose his hat and veil. All of the visuals in this section put me in the mind of the rescue scenes from one of my all-time faves, Airport '77 (1977.)

The showgirls hilariously insist on bringing their fur stoles out into the lifeboats with them, even though it denies them the use of one hand/arm half the time. Still, somehow, Bradshaw manages to not only hang onto her stole, but also continually futz around with her hair lest she be caught looking too windblown in the face of the handsome rescuers!

Back home after the horrendous experience, Davis is anxiously awaiting Merrill's arrival (and busily fondling the neck of a champagne bottle - in fact, it's apparently going to be a two bottle night!) Following his ordeal, he's a kindlier, gentler husband and father and not only kisses his son, but insists that the son now call him Dad instead of "Sir!"
Crash Landing, as I said, was filmed in 1957 but not released until the middle of the following year. It's director, Fred Sears, was put through the absolute meat grinder when it came to filmed output, constantly having to put together cheap films in record time as well as direct countless hours of TV. As it happened, he died of a heart attack at only forty-four and this was one of FIVE films that came out after his demise!!

It is cheap (you can see the plywood and paint in this close-up of what would have been a metal speaker!), but also fairly tight and with some fun disaster elements. Clearly it inspired not only the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, but also future makers of disaster flicks.

Merrill had first come to the movies via the cinematic versions of Broadway shows he'd initially been a part of during WWII. First was This is the Army (1943), in which he had no real role, and then Winged Victory (1944), in which his part was slightly better. It wasn't until he had the stage hit Born Yesterday that the movies officially came calling, though he wasn't given the movie version of that one, William Holden got it. It was 1950's All About Eve, opposite Bette Davis, for which he's best remembered.

The two hit it off on and off-screen and were wed thereafter. Though he always remained busy as an actor, the initial promise of real stardom went mostly unrealized and so he was working on TV and headlining B-films by this time. He remained active on screen until 1980 - and even made a return to The Great White Way in 1981 - before retiring. He died of lung cancer in 1990 at age seventy-four. A heavy smoker himself, he probably doubled the intake for the decade he was with Ms. Davis if you count secondhand smoke!

At the time of this movie, Davis was already the wife of actor and future governor & President Ronald Reagan. This was her last feature film, though she appeared on several TV series though 1962 when she retired to devote her energies to her family. (At this point, Patti was born - in 1952 - and Ronnie was delivered in May of 1958.) She was widely quoted as having said that being Reagan's wife "was the role I wanted to play."

In this shot from the movie, one of the few in which she's photo- graphed with any degree of care, you can see a hint of another bit that was later parodied in Airplane!, the wife of the pilot looking intently at the man on the radio with her husband. (In the parody, the wife got all overheated and began groping the man beside her!) Davis was known for her "gaze" towards her husband during his multitudinous public appearances, so this was but a practice run! Davis died earlier this year of heart failure at age ninety-four.

Hervey had begun her movie career in the early-1930s at MGM and continued through the early-1940s until she was sidelined by a car accident. In the late-'40s, she returned to acting in movie supporting roles and on television. The year she filmed Crash Landing, she and Allan Jones (the parents of crooner Jack Jones) divorced. Thus, she was free to work regularly on many series. Some of you may recall her supporting roles in Cactus Flower (1969) or Play Misty for Me (1971.) In the latter, Jessica Walter bellowed that Hervey "couldn't get laid in a lumber camp!" Hervey died of heart failure in 1998 at the age of eighty-nine.

Her seatmate Martin worked steadily all through the 1950s, with supporting roles in Ace in the Hole (1951), Sudden Fear (1952), The Court Jester (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), A Summer Place (1959) and many others. He continued to act, mostly on TV, until 1967 before passing of a heart attack in 1969 at age seventy-four.

Smith is one of the few performers in this movie who is still alive today, though his health has been dicey over the last several years. The same year Crash was released, he was costarring in Auntie Mame (1958) with Rosalind Russell. He went on to star in TV series such as 77 Sunset Strip and Mister Roberts, but after wedding Ann-Margret in 1967, he turned to managing her career along with writing and producing some of her products. He is eighty-three at present.

Nelson had been a swimsuit model as well as a singer before embarking on an acting career. The year after this, she wed Steve McQueen crony Don Gordon and they were together until 1979. She balanced the occasional movie bit part with plenty of television work before retiring in 1970. Ms. Nelson passed away in 2015 at age eighty-eight.

Lain is another cast member who is alive today at eighty-four. Having begun as a child model, followed by work on stage, she was selected as one of the Wampas Baby Stars of 1956. An occasional film role came along, though she remained principally a television performer, often in bit roles. Her last credited part was in the TV-movie You'll Never See Me Again (1973), which we profiled here not too long ago (though Lain didn't register to us at all, so it had to have been a slight role.)

Handsome Comerate was in the midst of an active career as a Warner Brothers contract player, though he would exit the biz for good in 1960 following his role in the hooty, all-star epic Ice Palace. In a bit of tragic and bizarre irony, he was traveling on a twin engine plane in 1973 with six others plus the pilot when it crashed, killing all. He was only forty-five years old.

Keith and Torey were one of many all-purpose character actors who dotted various movies and TV shows during the 1950s and beyond. Keith has the distinction of having also played a small role in Zero Hour! (1957.) He died in 1976 and at seventy-one. Torey's career was a tad more prolific and consistent. He lived until 1989 when he passed away at age seventy-four.

Austrian actress Lovsky began working in German films in 1930, though her own career on stage and in films was sublimated somewhat when she married Peter Lorre in 1934 and began to encourage and support his acting. They divorced in 1945, remaining friends and she then proved a useful character actress in many post-WWII movies and later kept busy on TV. She is famous to Star Trek fans for having played Vulcan leader T'Pau in a key episode of the show. Ms. Lovsky died in 1979 of natural causes at age eighty-two.

Charney was a busy child actor throughout the 1950s in movies such as Suddenly (1954), The Bottom of the Bottle (1956) and  The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957) before leaving the field in 1963. Still alive today, he just turned seventy-one.

Von Ledebur was a 6'4" Austrian actor who began working in Hollywood movies after WWII and became good friends with John Huston. Huston placed him in seven of his movies including the memorable role of a tribally-marked, cannibalistic harpooner in Moby Dick (1956.) Von Ledebur actually had high-ranking clergy in his ancestry, which helped lend authenticity to his portrayal here. He died in 1986 at the age of eighty-six, having just completed work in his final movie, Ginger and Fred for Frederico Fellini.

And what about our hunky brunette soldier? Green had only a short career in the movies, beginning with bits in three 1955 period films, but he did earn a decent supporting role as The Dauphin in Lana Turner's plush, if unheralded, period drama Diane (1956), seen here on the left. After Crash Landing, he only performed on one television episode and then much later had a bit in Rock Hudson's Seconds (1966) before exiting the business. It's a shame because he was dreamy! His fair-haired sidekick in this, Whiteside, had an even briefer career, ending with an appearance in Up Periscope (1959.)

Before we end, I know I told you to pay attention to the woman playing the mother of the little boy whose dog was locked in a tiny crate in the rear hold. It's not that she's in any way famous. Far from it, actually. Her name was Dayle Rodney and this is her only movie. She also did a few TV episodes over a four year period. What's remarkable is that - in a positively unbelievable snafu - it is HER photo that appears on the movie's posters instead of "leading lady" Nancy Davis!!  Right down to the collar of the polka-dotted blouse she wears in the movie, it is she who is shown in Davis' place... and NO ONE noticed!!!  No wonder Davis took a hike after this! Can you imagine? An uncredited supporting player (with far darker hair) is depicted on the promotional material instead of you who are second-billed?!?! This cracked me up.

By the way, in order to avoid you straining your eyes, I will tell you what is written underneath each of the boxes of the faces on the movie's poster. (I LOVE anything like this. It reminds me of the posters for The Towering Inferno (1974), which said things like "The Architect," "The Builder," "The Girlfriend," et al...) They read: "The Icy-Nerved Pilot," "The Tormented Wife," "The Lonely Schoolteacher," "The Desperate Tycoon," "The Streamlined Stewardess" and "The Daredevil Co-Pilot." (Daredevil???)

And lastly, this is a SPOILER - a visual one - for anyone who doesn't want to know, but I realized I had to inform those who might be curious......


At the climax of the movie, when the plane is close to sinking and all the passengers have been loaded onto rafts, Merrill has a sudden change of heart and change of character and darts back to the rear of the plane to free little Wilbur and take him with the other survivors. He even puts a little life vest around him!

If you think that my tragic, overweight, forty-eight year-old self didn't suddenly burst out crying ("the dog!!") then you over- estimate me.  LOL  I'm a movie dog lover from way back. I had been totally aghast at the attitude towards the poor little pooch the entire time and so was heavily relieved when they not only chose to not ensure that he'd drown, but wrapped him up and saved him! And, with that, this post is also wrapped up.


Gingerguy said...

"Crash Landing" as a title certainly dispels any mystery about what you are in for. I have a good friend who works in air travel PR and he was describing the difference between an emergency landing and a crash landing=very little These low budget movies to my 2016 eyes look like tv episodes, but then when you see how grainy tv was a that time then there is still a world of difference. This genre reminds me of that CRAZY Doris day movie ("Julie"?)which foreshadowed Karen Black's turn at the controls by almost 20 years. I guess Plane disaster movies are as old as commercial travel. There is a lot to love in your post-the sluts to start with, they look like refugees from a prison flick. That tiny set just had to have a 6'4" Orthodox Priest. The kamilavka on his head adds a lot of visual drama and really pulls focus, I hope he kept it on when he got in the raft. That poor dog! thanks for ending the suspense for us, I was getting so upset to think of it drowning. Gary Merrill, Nancy and Roger Smith are the only ones I recognize. Roger was a real cutie. I am a huge Ann Margret fan so always nice to see him. He was a great help in turning her career around when she was locked into making tacky movies. It's very unusual for marriages to last as long as theirs. I will keep an eye out for this, it looks like a fun watch. p.s. I prefer Ginger as well.

Manoel said...

Another gem. I love your posts. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an enjoyable hoot! I'll try to find it and watch it.

Ken Anderson said...

What a super-entertaining post! Helped a great deal by the fact that I'm wholly unfamiliar with the movie, so I was hanging on your every (amusing) word to find out what happens next. I especially like that you didn't leave the doggie thread dangling, and I loved your taking note of the poster switcheroo re: Nancy Davis and that...that extra!
Always fun to discover the origins of some of those "Airplane" gags, too. I'll have to keep an eye out for this one!

Scooter said...

What a relief. I was thinking, I am never going to watch this if the dog dies! Great post.

Rick Gould said...

Your hilarious post almost makes me want to see this movie!

Can someone please tell me HOW Nancy Reagan ever got into the movies? She was so godawful plain looking and it wasn't like she was oozing charisma...I've read Hollywood jerk Peter Lawford's quote on Nancy's hidden talents, but how far does THAT get you in show biz, seriously?

Poseidon3 said...

I'm really glad that several of you like this, because it was one of my more labor-intensive posts since the great laptop crash of 2016! LOL

Gingerguy, I have seen (and howled at) "Julie" of course! Oddly, the one thing that stands out more than anything else is this old lady neighbor of hers who is asked Julie's whereabouts and she says, "Julah?" The way she pronounces it made me collapse. Do a Google Image search on "Joan Bradshaw" and you will cackle... Anyway, I KNOW you will enjoy this when you get to see it.

Manoel and Armando, thank you!! I hope you get to see it soon.

Ken, can you even believe that with the poster?! Crazy... I am so impressed that the makers of "Airplane!" were able to wring hilarious comedy out of what were heretofore straight dramatic situations, just tweaked slightly. They almost use the script of "Zero Hour" verbatim at times. No need to alter the dialogue! LOL This one definitely contributed to their take-off, pun intended.

Scooter, I was truly gut-sick, but now I've saved you and others such worry! You won't have the same tension when you watch...

Rick, for whatever reason, TCM decided to run a long string of Nancy Davis movies one day recently. Having never seen her in ANYTHING (except maybe on "Diff'rent Strokes" - LOL), I decided I had to check her out. There was this and one other ("Shadow on the Wall.") This was a meager affair for her, but the other movie gave her a substantial role. She did have a highly soothing and comfortable presence in it (as a caring child psychologist) to the point that one could detect a certain degree of acting skill and presence, but she just didn't have "star" quality in my opinion. Even had she been given great roles, I cannot imagine her having excelled in them. With her I think a lot of it was "who you know." Her mother was a theatre actress and hobnobbed with no less than Walter Huston and Spencer Tracy, which put her daughter on her way. She filled a 1950s need for understated, sensitive wife parts and little more, I think. But I don't even think SHE wanted it! It was a stop on becoming someone's wife. And God knows Ron and she adored one another.

EricSwede said...

Due to her mother's theatrical connections Nancy Reagan's Godmother was none other than famed stage actress Nazimova. A bit from her Wiki page "Nazimova openly conducted relationships with women, and her mansion on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard was believed to be the scene of outlandish parties. She is credited with having originated the phrase ‘sewing circle’ as a discreet code for lesbian or bisexual actresses." A photo of them together can be found here
I'm a airplane movie junkie but this one slipped under my radar all these years-thanks Poseidon!

Poseidon3 said...

Oh God! I wonder if Nance "just said no" to The Godmother. LOL Thanks for the added info and fun pic. Eric, when you see this, you'll get a kick out of it, I'm sure.

Rick Gould said...

I know we're talkin' Nancy Davis' epic plane flick here, but I gotta tell you that "Julie" was a childhood favorite for the wrong reasons! My Mom was highly allergic to the charms of Doris Day and this was one of those DD dramatic movies where Day got very shrill, like Midnight Lace. Screaming Mimi was the term my Mom used...and she thought it was hilarious that wispy Louis Jourdan was the psycho hubby terrorizing Dodo! We had a regular Mystery Science Theater 3000 at our house ; )