Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2013 April 19 • Friday

No Highway in the Sky (1951) is an enjoyable drama based on a book by Nevil Shute, who is best known for On the Beach.

James Stewart plays a scientist who believes that a new kind of airplane will crash after a certain number of hours in the air, because vibrations will cause it to fall apart. To prove his theory he's got one of these airplanes hooked up to devices that simulate the effects of flight, including vibrations.

He's only running these tests about eight hours a day because the neighbors complain about the noise. When asked whether he shouldn't run it around the clock anyway, since the people in these planes will die if his theory is correct, he replies that he doesn't care about people; his only interest is in the science and his theory.

Once this happens, you know he has to have his comeuppance. Whenever you have a scientist in a movie who cares more about science than humanity, a lesson must be taught.

Just in case the audience missed this point, the story doubles its bet by making James Stewart a widower with a young daughter. He treats her like a peer and never does any fun, child-like stuff with her. Stewart's colleagues are baffled by how much this girl is their intellectual superior but of course at school she's despised as a nerdy freak.

Irony of ironies, James Stewart ends up as a passenger on the exact kind of plane he's testing and it's only got a couple of hourse until he predicts it will fall apart! This is where the movie looks ahead to things like Airport as well as to the great Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" with William Shatner (less effectively re-made for the Zone movie with John Lithgow).

Do you think our scientist cares about how his theories might affect people's lives now? Adding to the relentless humanizing of this character are the rather intense relationships he develops on the plane with a motherly flight attendant and a movie star played by Marlene Dietrich.

Both women want him but only one will get him. Will it be the sweet, nurturing one or the glamorous globe-trotter with a career and a divorce? If you've ever seen an English-language movie from the 1950s, you know the answer.

But the real story of the movie is how awesome air travel used to be. Just look at this luxury!

All that is in an airplane, during flight! And you can bet that nobody had to take their shoes off before boarding.