Movie: No Highway In The Sky (1951)

I’m trying to write this essay while still reeling from this movie.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it feels like I walked away from a plane crash but, well, I’m not sure what to say right now.

I went into this with zero expectations.  I didn’t even know what is was about.  The sum total of what I knew going in was this stars James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.  Little did I know but this movie reteamed Stewart with Harvey director Henry Koster, which wouldn’t have made this any less weird.

You see, No Highway In The Sky isn’t a comedy, though it does have some sparkling dialogue that made me laugh because I’m such an easy one and I tend to react this way when something pleasantly surprises me.

This movie is far closer to straight drama than Harvey, but it sure seems to have trouble deciding which drama it wants to be.

Things start out promising enough, as we see Stewart as a stereotypical, absent-minded genius engineer who is subjecting the tail section of one of his employer’s planes to a stress test.  Stewart is convinced the tail will fall off the plane after it is subjected to 1440 hours of vibrations.  Strangely enough, everybody seems to think this will happen at exactly 1440 hours of testing.  Those are some bizarre expectations to apply to an estimate.  That, and the model of aircraft is The Reindeer, which seems to imply everybody at this company is loopy to begin with.

Stewart’s home life is what one would expect from what we see up to that point: he is prone to walking into the wrong house, he doesn’t know where anything is, and books occupy every chair and flat surface.  A very young Janette Scott plays his daughter, Elspeth, and is highly intelligent, wise beyond her years, and exceptionally low-key without being aloof.  I liked the interaction between Stewart and Scott.  I probably would have been happy if the rest of the movie was just us hanging around with them in their disheveled house.

Inevitably, Stewart winds up on a flight and no points for guessing

  • The plane is a Reindeer
  • It has logged 1422 hours in the air


Now, I know the engineer is supposed to be a head-in-the-clouds kind of guy, but I would think he would at least bother to check what kind of plane he was going to board.  He doesn’t even notice the plane’s unique styling, and he had to cross the tarmac to get to it.  This is one seriously cool but weird looking craft: it is like one of those art deco trains from the golden age of travel, but with wings.

Once the flight is well underway, Stewart learns he is on a Reindeer, and how many hours it is logged, and channels some Shatner-having-seen-a-gremlin-on-the-wing hysteria, which has the expected results.  What I didn’t expect is something he will do to the plane which, HOLY SHIT, was unprecedented and definitely worth seeing this movie at once for.

I should say a couple of more things about the flight because this is where two key characters are introduced.  Marlene Dietrich plays a movie star whom Stewart tries to advise how to best survive a plane crash.  She is weirdly shoe-horned into this movie, as if she was contracted to do a movie and they had to find something for to do here.  The always excellent Glynis Johns gets the superior role, as a steward who is conflicted as to whether or not she believes Stewart’s claims.  Johns does so much with her eyes and subtle changes of expression, and the camera wisely stays on her even during some scenes with Stewart or Dietrich.

So I can’t say much more about the movie without giving anything away except the third act is a pretty significant deviation from what preceded it.  It becomes more conventional, leans into the melodrama and becomes an altogether less satisfying affair.  I had such high hopes for this movie, but I guess that tail eventually had to fall off.

Dir: Henry Koster

Starring Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray