When No Highway in the Sky was released in 1951, James Stewart had already established a reputation for playing everyday heroes and champions of social justice in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Mortal Storm (1940).
In this British-made film, based on a novel by Nevil Shute (author of the post-apocalyptic “On the Beach”), Stewart plays a mild-mannered aeronautical engineer immersed in research conducting stress tests on the tail structures on the new Reindeer fleet of aircraft at the RAE. Mr. Theodore Honey’s life consists of long hours spent at the laboratory and more hours spent at home – if he can find his home – working on calculations and raising his adolescent daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott). Science is his life and mathematical truth is his goal. He has no time for people or a social life (“You don’t understand…I’m a scientist. Science is very exacting, it requires the utmost concentration. I can’t be concerned about people”).
He finds, however, that science cannot always be separated from the subjects it involves. Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins), the new supervisor at the firm, takes an interest in Mr. Honey’s research and his startling statement that the tail on every Reindeer will break off after 1440 hours of flight time. He orders Mr.Honey to go to Labrador, Canada to observe the wreckage of a former Reindeer flight that crashed. It is en route that Mr. Honey’s life becomes changed and his principles re-examined when he discovers that he is on board a Reindeer plane that has reached the 1400 hour limit. He must convince the pilot to turn back before the point of no return or else see the lives of every passenger endangered.
Theodore Honey is a timid, introverted man; his shoulders are slightly stooped and his appearance is disheveled. He is a nondescript character whom one would not readily approach, and yet Miss Corder (Glynis Johns) and Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich)–an airline stewardess and a famous Hollywood actress, respectively, whom he befriends on the flight, are drawn to him. They see a gentle, caring man who is willing to put their lives before his very own. Like Mr. Honey, the imminent disaster makes them see their life in a new perspective and each become so affected by his sincere concern for them that they both return to England to help him clear a charge of lunacy (“If you believe in something, you believe in doing something about it, don’t you?”).
No Highway in the Sky is a sharply written story, with moments of humor and suspense interwoven into a taught 98 minutes. Henry Koster (in his second of five projects, after 1950’s Harvey, with Stewart) does a splendid job of directing this film and never lets it lose its entertainment value for one moment. It clips along at a leisurely pace and tends to grow on you as it progresses and you come to know each of the characters in turn.
Janette Scott, as Honey’s daughter Elspeth, plays a pivotal role in drawing all these characters together. We see that it is her constant praise of her father’s intellectual capabilities that convince Mr. Scott that Honey may not be the crackpot scientist he seems to be. He is fascinated with Mr. Honey and at the same time puzzled at the way he lives and lets his child live. When Miss Corder and Monica Teasdale come to stay with Elspeth, they too are drawn to her in love – and pity – and she quickly brings out their maternal instincts.
James Stewart enjoyed eccentric roles such as Mr. Honey and he really bit into this part and brought to the character of this boffin the convincing persona of a man who believes in his convictions and has the courage to fight for them. Stewart made him a much more lovable and admirable character than the Mr. Honey whom Shute wrote of in his novel.
Marlene Dietrich’s character is not quite necessary but an highly engrossing figure nonetheless, while the always lovely Glynis Johns provides an added romantic element to the story. Keep an eye out for Kenneth More, who is featured in a brief role as the airline pilot. Two years later, with his appearance in Genevieve, Kenneth More would launch himself as a star in British films. Other familiar character actors can be spotted throughout such as Wilfred Hyde-White, Ronald Squire, Felix Aylmer and Niall MacGinnis.
In addition to being an excellent film, No Highway in the Sky was an onscreen voice to the increasing safety concerns of the modern air travel and sadly, it had a prophetic undertone…on March 3, 1953 the de Havilland Comet was the first commercial jetliner to crash. Three fatal accidents occurred before the Comet was pulled from service and its design re-evaluated. Metal fatigue was found to be the cause.
Constance Metzinger is a blogger who runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”