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The Crowded Sky (1960)

In my TCM Top 10 for December, I mentioned one my must-sees for the month was the largely unknown ‘Airplane in Trouble’ film Zero Hour. Well, while questing to catch that feature, I stumbled on to The Crowded Sky, another work from the same sub-genre, airing the same night. Diving into the plot description, the movie sounded more than a little like the delightfully memorable Airport 1975— one of my favorite first-time-watches in 2020. So, my decision was made. I had to take some time to look over The Crowded Sky.

The Crowded Sky follows an equally crowded collection of characters, led by airline captain Dick Barnett (Dana Andrews) and navy fighter pilot Dale Heath (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). Both men find their lives crashing down around them in spectacular and soapy fashion when they board their respective airplanes. Duh-duh-duuuuuuh! The cast is packed full, featuring names like: Troy Donahue, Rhonda Fleming, John Kerr, Anne Francis and Keenan Wynn to name a few. Joseph Pevney directs the film from a script by Charles Schnee.

As I mentioned, I checked out The Crowded Sky largely thanks to its plot synopsis, which bears a striking resemblance to Airport 1975. The similarities start early in the film with the casting of Zimbalist and Andrews (the actors also appear in Airport 1975). At the same time, both plot lines revolve around an airliner disabled after a mid-air collision. However, this is really where the comparisons end. The Crowded Sky never quite finds its footing as a disaster movie, and ultimately struggles under a slow, and at best, meandering script.

In reality, The Crowded Sky is an overwrought melodrama wrapped in disaster movie packaging. I entered into this knowing where the story was heading, so the hope is this would build a slow burn tension. However, this isn’t the case. This one is a slog. In fact, the collision itself doesn’t happen until roughly an hour and thirty minutes into an hour and forty minute movie.

Meanwhile, the direction and the script don’t work together in producing gripping melodrama either. I’m okay with a good soap opera, so melodrama itself isn’t a problem. Rather, Schnee’s screenplay constructs the story through heavily fragmented flashbacks and dramatic voiceover. It is a definite stylistic choice; however, the attempt to jam a disaster film into a 1950s melodrama doesn’t play right. These two forms don’t work well together.

Granted, The Crowded Sky could have played better upon release in 1960, but as a 2020 first-time-watch, it was a struggle. Not only do Schnee’s narrative choices substantially slow down the pace, but the number of flashbacks (and forwards) needed to craft the story doesn’t allow viewers to really get to know these characters. As a result, aside from Zimbalist, Andrews, Kerr and Francis, the many stories the script is trying to tell (particularly Donahue and the other airline passengers) blend into each other, leaving few performers able to shine in their shortened screen time.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The chosen narrative decision to spend so much time with very specific characters before the eventual mid-air collision in the third act is an interesting one. However, I’m not sure if it’s one that entirety works.

A large part of the first two acts is spent with navy pilot Dale Heath (Zimbalist) and his wife Cheryl (Fleming). We see him through a number of flashbacks, we side with him through many fights with his wife, and we watch him yearn to be a better father. And that being said, Zimbalist is very good in the role. He brings the innate, easy likability to the part which served him well on 77 Sunset Strip (which he was helming at this time). And ultimately, it’s far easier to align with his character than Andrews’ gruff and emotionally distant Barnett. 

So, when the inevitable happens, Heath (and Troy Donahue’s McVey) are killed instantly when their navy jet crashes into the airliner. All at once, we go from spending a majority of our time with the pair, to having absolutely no closure to this narrative, and it doesn’t sit right.

Now, this could be because the collision happens at the end of The Crowded Sky. Meanwhile, sister film Airport 1975 remedies this by having the crash happen in the first act. The audience then stays with the people onboard airliner for the rest of the picture as they struggle to save themselves. With the finality of a mid-air collision, the smaller plane really should be a guest role. That story is never going to end well. An ending doesn’t have to be happy, but there should at least be some closure if one spends a majority of a movie with a character.

*Spoilers Over*

With all that being said though, The Crowded Sky does find its footing (ever so slightly) after the collision. It is unfortunately, too little too late. The special effects in the action sequence are solid, particularly coming in 1960. This includes some miniatures, as well as full-sized set pieces which work impressively well.

A great deal of the finale’s success is also thanks to the editing (Tom McAdoo receives credit). The pace, as well as the tension, instantaneously escalates thanks to striking and dramatic cross-cutting. At the same time, the leads (Kerr, Francis and Andrews) are also particularly good in the sequence. They inject a sense of calm intensity into their performances which allows the carefully shot scene to work on screen. It’s harrowing and you want these people to make it out of this.

All in all, The Crowded Sky is far from the best entry into the rather prolific ‘Airplane in Trouble’ sub-genre. Unfortunately, the movie’s meandering script finds itself confused as to what exactly it wants to be. Is it a soap opera? Is this a disaster film? No one really knows. So, despite its incredibly talented cast, by the time the movie rights the proverbial ship, it’s just a case of too little too late.

The Crowded Sky can be purchased here.

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