Having just read the Nevil Shute novel on which this movie is based, I was keen to see how it transferred to the screen. It got off to a great start with the casting. James Stewart was several classes above the author’s description of the main character, but Marlene Dietrich more than fitted the bill of the Hollywood star as a passenger in the early days of Transatlantic air travel.
Widowed aeronautics research engineer Dr Honey (James Stewart), accent explained by him being a Rhodes Scholar who stayed on in Britain, is so absent-minded that he tries to enter a neighbor’s house and when he gets angry in a discussion with a visitor to his own house puts on his hat and coat and decides to leave. He has discovered a potential flaw in a new range of British airplanes and is despatched by boss Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) to Canada to examine the remains of a crashed prototype, the accident previously ascribed to pilot error.
However, once on board, he discovers the plane is perilously close to the danger level of flying time his research indicated. In between frightening the life out of stewardess Marjorie (Glynis Johns) and star Monica (Marlene Dietrich) with his predictions of doom and instructing them where best to hide in the plane in the event of crash-landing in the ocean, he tries to get the pilot to turn back. When that fails, he inadvertently charms the life out of stewardess and star.
When the plane lands, even closer to the danger zone in terms of flying hours, and still no one listening to his concerns, he manages to render the plane unflyable. The aeroplane company refuses to fly him home, leaving him stranded. That provides enough time for Monica and then Marjorie to turn up unannounced at his home in England to help look after his young daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott). When Honey finally returns, he faces an inquiry, and looks set to lose his job, virtually unemployable thanks to his antics in Canada. At the last minute, he is reprieved, fresh evidence from the crashed plane proving his research correct.
Meanwhile, Monica, forced to return to Hollywood, loses out in the battle for Honey’s affections. Marjorie, a former nurse and imminently more practical, is in any case better placed to help look after a growing girl, and eventually Honey sees sense and asks her to marry him.
Really well done with terrific performances all around, but vastly helped by the screenwriters who dumped three sub-plots in order to stick to the knitting of the tale. Honey, far removed from the man in the street persona that saw James Stewart through his Frank Capra movies, attracted female interest through his principled stand. Most importantly, the writers removed the section where Elspeth is seriously ill in her father’s absence. Secondly, in the book Scott was sent to Canada to find the crashed plane, involving a trek through perilous terrain, but that’s been excised, the search completed off-screen by others, the vital information relayed by letter. Thirdly, the remains of the tail, which had previously not been found, were located in the book by supernatural means, Elspeth being called upon to use a planchette to help find it.
In removing all this material, the movie is re-shaped partly as a Capra movie, with the downtrodden Honey achieving success through persistence, but, more importantly, allowing the movie to focus on the potential love interest. Needless to say that is determinedly old-fashioned, both women having forged successful careers now viewing work that was initially exciting rapidly pall. The book sets Monica thinking how much better life would have been if as a humble office girl she had married the kind but not handsome man who had caught her eye instead of now being thrice-divorced. Marjorie is even more old-fashioned, seeing a genius who needs looked after as much as his daughter requires a mother.
So there’s no point going anywhere near this if you’re not willing to accept a past where a woman’s role was primarily seen as a home-maker. But don’t jump to pointing the finger at the author as being equally old-fashioned because a later book, A Town Like Alice, not only turns the main character into a war hero but depicts her as a successful entrepreneur.
James Stewart (The Rare Breed, 1965) takes a considerable chance on playing the absent-minded professor but his endless well of screen charm allows him to pull it off brilliantly. Marlene Dietrich, top-billed when teamed with Stewart for Destry Rides Again (1939), has an excellent role as a rueful prima donna. Glynis Johns (Lock Up your Daughters!, 1969) is equally at home with a part that calls for her not to just fall at Honey’s feet. She was one of handful of British rising stars. Jack Hawkins (Masquerade, 1965) was on the cusp of being named Britain’s biggest box office attraction while Kenneth More (The Comedy Man, 1964) was a few years away from receiving that honor. Janette Scott (Day of the Triffids, 1963) gave notice of her talent.
As much as James Stewart’s career was linked to Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, Henry Koster (Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation, 1962) made five pictures with the actor, all excepting this comedies, including Harvey (1950). He does a fine job of keeping Stewart from spinning away too much in the direction of the geek professor and keeping the story pinned down.
Nevil Shute was an engineer to trade – he had worked in the British airship industry – so his books tend to be peppered with the scientific. That’s easy to digest when reading, but harder to absorb when watching a movie. R.C. Sheriff (The Dam Busters, 1955) and Oscar Millard (Angel Face, 1952) do an excellent job of condensing the novel, finding cinematic ways of getting across important material.
I had come at this, as I said, mainly to see how the author’s work was translated to the screen, but came away totally absorbed in a fine picture. What was left out helped the picture while the author’s later A Town Like Alice (1956) lost half its power by ending halfway through the original story which later saw the courageous heroine go onto to become a serial entrepreneur in a male-dominated society in Australia.
Obviously, I’ve deviated from my chosen field of 1960s pictures, but this is well worth a watch.
You can catch it on YouTube in a number of versions – the original, a colorized version, one with English subtitles and one where a musician has made his own edit and dubbed his own modern score on the picture.