“No Highway in the Sky” (1951) shows James Stewart in perhaps his most emotionally repressed role. If he were more withdrawn, he would be invisible.
This film, a kind of precursor to “The High and the Mighty” (1954) and the “Airport” films of the 1970s, plays on our anxiety over flight malfunctions but also probes the idea of responsibility for our fellow man. There is no real disaster shown in the film, just the looming specter of one about to happen.
Stewart plays a scientist who is involved in the British aircraft industry. He has been making tests which, mathematically at least, indicate that a new fleet of aircraft will suddenly lose their tailpieces in mid flight, and crash. The new plane is called the Reindeer, and the unusual tailpiece with the double row of wings does sort of resemble an antler. It’s a prop job, no jet engines.
Mr. Stewart is a widower, whose late wife was killed by a V2 rocket in the war. His young daughter is played by Janette Scott, who shows remarkable maturity and an engaging natural quality as a little girl almost as intellectual and emotionally guarded as her father. Her long precise speeches with big words are almost comic except for the sadness she displays in her bewilderment of the world. As an adult, Janette will battle greater anxiety in the sci-fi horror film “The Day of the Triffids” (1962).
For her bumbling professor father, it is much the same. He does not relate well to people. “People must be someone else’s concern. It can’t be mine,” he says when he brings his frightening hypothesis on the soundness of the plane to a government representative, and prefers to have nothing more to do with it. It is all numbers and equations to him; not human lives.
However, he is sent on a flight to Newfoundland, where another Reindeer crashed, to located wreckage that will prove his assertions of the weak stress points of the tailpiece. His awkward goodbye to his daughter is played with finesse. Stewart walks a fine line. He cannot bring himself hug or kiss her, but this is not due to a rejection of her; only his aching inability to make an emotional connection with another person, even his daughter, whom he clearly loves.
On board the commercial flight to Newfoundland is Glynis Johns, who plays a capable and ultra-friendly stewardess in a military-style uniform. Marlene Dietrich plays a Hollywood film star, plays it to the hilt, her inscrutable mask the result of her own mystique and a busy makeup department. Bessie Love, who herself had been a big star in the silent film days of the 1920s ironically is relegated to a bit part as a passenger. Kenneth More, who later became the hero of many a British film, is a co-pilot.
A reminder of the previously mentioned film “The High and the Mighty” is the importance stressed on the plane’s having reached THE POINT OF NO RETURN over the Atlantic, where it is explained that it is too late to turn back if anything goes wrong. Stewart has informed the doubtful but concerned captain of his belief that they will soon crash, and the stalwart Mr. More thinks Stewart is a loony.
Stewart’s anxiety for his own life deepens as he realizes he is on a doomed plane, which pulls at our sympathy since everybody on board thinks he’s nuts. In an unaccustomed gesture of reaching out to another human being, he tells Miss Johns, who has been nice to him, and Miss Dietrich, whose movies his late wife admired, where to hide in the plane if they crash, that they might be found and rescued (turns out to be the men’s room).
Marlene Dietrich, from the moment we first see Glynis Johns subserviently lighting her cigarette for her, seems to hide behind a similar emotional wall as does Mr. Stewart. She can play to her audience, but has trouble relating to people as individuals. She warms in the company of Mr. Stewart, but when the plane lands safely and her death is no longer imminent, she dismisses him as if he betrayed her by making her feel emotion.
The plane landing safely does not dissuade Stewart from his belief that something is wrong with the plane. Though he is sent to sit by himself in a separate room of the Gander airport, away from the other passengers where he will not distress them, he rushes onto the parked plane, and manipulates the landing gear so that the entire plane collapses on its belly and can not be flown any farther.
The RAF muscles him back to England where he is in really big trouble.
Here the film opens up, the chaos instigating a change in everyone. Stewart is now fighting Big Business, as the airline does not want to publicize a possible flaw in the design of their new plane, and the government tries to disassociate itself with Stewart because he is a loony. Glynis Johns shows up at Stewart’s house while he is being psychoanalyzed, and takes care of his daughter. Marlene Dietrich, after defending Stewart to a committee of government men who are only too happy to light her cigarette for her, also heads to Stewart’s house to buy presents for his daughter.
Stewart’s doubtfulness of his own sanity is heartbreaking. There is an intriguing scene where Dietrich and Johns, who may at this point be called the two women in his life though they are both strangers to each other and to him, tidy his home and iron his trousers, and mother his child, almost like his harem, but they eventually decide themselves who will end up with him. When his daughter, pleased at the new dress Miss Dietrich has bought for her tries to approach her, as if to kiss her, Dietrich pulls helplessly back, echoing the previous scene when Stewart could not hug his daughter goodbye.
Dietrich leaves, for good, and quite rattled. She tells Glynis Johns, “Keep telling her she’s pretty, will you?” She finally lights her own cigarette.
When Stewart finally returns to hearth and home and finds Glynis appointing herself lady of the house, he is baffled but accepts it. In a tearful and frustrated manner, she insists upon marrying him. She has helped him find the strength to defy the board that will crucify him, and he does tells them off in a crazed, but dazzlingly brave manner.
His theory is proved right, and he is vindicated, and many future passengers will be saved because of it. However, we never see a resolution with his daughter, except that, like Johns, she too has erupted in a flood of tears that perhaps may keep her from following too closely in her father’s emotionally isolated footsteps. Now they have all opened up a little, we are left guessing at any real healing.