Fear of Flying

Consider this as a possible scenario. You are on a flight from Lisbon, Portugal to New York City and, in the dead of night over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the pilot’s voice on the intercom suddenly jolts you awake with these words, “Can I have your attention please. This is Captain Williams. We’re in an emergency situation. We may have to ditch.” You might be able to ditch your girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse but it’s not so easy to ditch a plane as demonstrated by the principles of Crash Landing (1958).         

I don’t enjoy flying and try to avoid it whenever possible but there are no other alternatives that make sense if you want to travel overseas. On these international flights I inevitably find myself thinking at some point when we are halfway across the Atlantic, “What would happen if the engine suddenly cut off?” or “What is the nearest land mass in case of an emergency landing?” or “What are the odds of this plane surviving an ocean landing?” Movies like Crash Landing certainly don’t ease my fear of flying but I can’t resist watching them anyway. In fact, air disaster films are probably my favorite subgenre of the disaster movie category, especially the ones made in the sixties and earlier.

Roger Smith (left) plays co-pilot John Smithback in the 1958 aviation disaster flick Crash Landing, directed by Fred F. Sears.

There is something appealingly nostalgic about the outdated technology and jargon from a time when flight attendants were called stewardesses and stewards. Adding additional appeal is the usual overwrought melodrama featuring a diverse mix of character types showing their true colors in a panic situation and the promise of a special effects disaster. Crash Landing certainly meets these requirements, even if it is an ultra low-budget version of The High and the Mighty (1954) and Zero Hour! (1957) with moments as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Airplane! (1980), even though it’s meant to be a gripping, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.

Crash Landing is a Sam Katzman production for Columbia Pictures, directed by Fred F. Sears, so you know right off the bat that this will be a no-frills production with plywood sets, stock footage and rear screen projection used to create an alternate reality to real life…which is fine with me. The one surprise is that Sears actually has some relatively well-known actors to work with this time such as Gary Merrill, future First Lady Nancy Davis and Roger Smith (TV star of 77 Sunset Strip and former husband of Ann-Margret).

Sears was an incredibly prolific B-movie director of the fifties who usually averaged about five to six programmers a year, some of which became box-office hits like Rock Around the Clock (1956) while others are now enshrined as camp classics (The Giant Claw, 1957). Unfortunately, Sears didn’t live to see the premiere of Crash Landing. He had a massive heart attack in November of 1957 and five of the movies he completed that year were released posthumously. I won’t make any claims for Crash Landing being Sears’s masterpiece but it’s worth a look for some unintentionally hilarious one-liners and theatre-of-the-absurd plot developments such as the treatment and fate of the pet animals in the plane’s cargo section.

Gary Merrill plays super grumpus pilot Steve Williams and Bek Nelson co-stars as glamorous flight attendant Nancy Arthur in Fred F. Sears’s 1957 disaster drama Crash Landing.

The plot, which follows Trans Atlantic flight 627 on its journey from Lisbon to New York City, has an early inning flashback to establish the background of the pilot, Captain Steve Williams (Merrill). He’s a real hard-ass who is having some marital difficulties with his wife Helen (Davis) and a communication/relationship problem with his son. With his crew and co-workers, he’s completely humorless and uptight as well and when two of the engines flame out on their Westbound trip he gets downright surly. “How did this happen?” he barks at co-pilot John Smithback (Moore) as if blaming him. Smithback, momentarily stunned, snaps back sarcastically, “I’ll walk out on the wing and see!” Things rapidly go from bad to worse as the plane’s engine begins to display further signs of impending failure and Williams’ annoyance reaches level 11 on the bitch-o-meter.

Williams (to the flight engineer): Can we get any more power at all?

Engineer: I don’t know.

Williams: Whaddayamean, you don’t know? You’re a qualified engineer, aren’t you? THIS IS YOUR JOB!

Engineer: For crying out loud, captain. Don’t you ever let up?

Williams: No, not anymore.

Engineer: Well, what happened? Some girl turned you down or you found out there wasn’t any Santa Claus?

Like Dana Andrews’ neurotic pilot in Zero Hour!, Williams turns out to have had a traumatic World War II experience that has made him the super grumpus he is today. Of course, we don’t get to see that flashback in this cheapo disasterpiece but we get Merrill’s clinch-jawed recounting of the episode in close-up. Throughout the movie Merrill and his co-stars act up a storm in the cockpit as a substitute for exciting special effects or visual diversions. My favorite moments are when pilot and co-pilot dramatically clutch their steering wheels and shake uncontrollably to depict turbulence while the camera occasionally tilts from side to side to demonstrate the plane pitching.

Arrogant business tycoon Harrison White (Richard Keith, left) becomes a major nuisance to the crew and passengers of Flight 627 in Crash Landing (1958).

There’s also plenty of drama going on in the passenger section with an assortment of disagreeable and problematic travelers caught up in their own personal crises. The most obnoxious is an arrogant tycoon (Richard Keith) with control issues who is forced to face the fact he’s powerless to stop the plane from crashing. Naturally, he’s the one who launches a full-scale panic attack among the passengers, causing them all to rush to one side of the plane, almost sending it into a tailspin despite previous stern warnings from the captain not to react that way to the turbulence.  Then there’s the lovelorn, unmarried schoolteacher (Irene Hervey) and the widower (Lewis Martin) who develop a quick romantic bond as they face death and a pair of showgirls and two servicemen who eye each other but never get together. Another romantic subplot surfaces between the cocky co-pilot and air hostess Nancy Arthur (Bek Nelson).

In an illuminating exchange between Smithback and a fellow crew member over the in-flight “talent,” one says (referring to Nancy), “She shouldn’t be allowed to run around loose. Not the way she’s built,” to which the other responds, “How does she keep her figure? Eats like a horse and looks like a zazelle.” And what man doesn’t love a beautiful, curvaceous woman with a healthy appetite?

Flight 627 is headed for a terrifying splashdown in the 1958 aviation drama Crash Landing, directed by Fred F. Sears.

Also along for the ride is a fearful elderly couple (Celia Lovsky & Rodolfo Hoyos), a priest of some unspecified ethnic religion (Friedrich Ledebur) and the Burton family, a couple (John McNamara & Dayle Rodney) with their young son Teddy (Robin Warga) whose dog Wilbur is in a crate at the back of the plane. The affectionate relationship between Teddy and his father makes Captain Williams particularly envious and spurs him to ask Mr. Burton his secret for getting along with his son. “I expect him to act like an adult and me to act like a child” is the father’s screwy response.

A pair of showgirls are among the frightened passengers in the 1958 airplane disaster thriller Crash Landing, produced by Sam Katzman.

All of this is just filler though until the climax when Williams finally has to ditch the plane. The preparations for this frightening turn of events plays out as deadpan comedy with the two showgirls expressing their major concern – “What will happen to our luggage?” – while the stewardess gives duck-and-cover instructions on the crash landing: “Now, remember, the first shock will be a light one, followed by final heavy shocks.” That’s comforting. Did she really need to tell them that? I think I hate her.

Pilot Steve Williams (Gary Merrill) rescues Wilbur the dog in Crash Landing (1958), directed by Fred F./ Sears.

The most disturbing part of the pre-crash sequence is Williams’ conversation with little Teddy, informing him that he will have to leave his dog Wilbur behind on the sinking plane because pets aren’t as important as people and we can’t jeopardize the safety of others by attempting to save some animal. Teddy somehow accepts this wisdom with the reassurance that Wilbur will be given his baseball cap as a little memento of Teddy when he’s left behind. Okay, but what about all those pet birds in cargo? In one truly astonishing sequence, the co-pilot and the stewardess open one of the plane windows while in flight and begin tossing out parakeets and parrots. The scene barely lasts 30 seconds but I thought I was hallucinating while watching this.

The infamous parakeet sequence in the unintentionally funny disaster drama Crash Landing (1958).

Another pre-crash scene some people are going to have trouble accepting is the moment when the flight attendant convinces the mother of an infant to let someone else hold the baby during the impact. “You may not be strong enough to hold onto the baby when we ditch. Let me give it to one of the men,” to which one of the husky servicemen says, “Let me take it. He’ll be safe with me.” I can’t imagine any mother parting with their baby in some similar contemporary situation but maybe this was not an unusual consideration for 1958.

Original art direction sketch from the 1958 disaster film Crash Landing.

As for the final splashdown in Crash Landing, it’s bound to be a disappointment for most considering the big dramatic buildup to it. After all, what did you really expect much from a Sam Katzman-Fred F. Sears production?  A miniature model airplance, some jerky camera movements, a water tank and some intensely dramatic music, courtesy of composer Mischa Bakaleinikoff (Screaming Mimi, Cha-Cha-Cha Boom!), is all you get.

Sears’ best work usually revealed an almost nihilistic vision of mankind as in the juvenile delinquency drama Teen-age Crime Wave (1955) and horror/sci-fi thrillers like The Werewolf (1956) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).  In the latter, there’s something almost gleeful in Sears’ depiction of alien saucers destroying landmarks like the Washington Monument. As for Crash Landing, it has a happy ending – no one dies, even Wilbur the dog makes it out. Maybe it’s not so unbelievable in the end considering the lucky fate of those aboard US Airways Airbus A320 which was forced to ditch in the frigid waters of the Hudson River on January 15. 2009. All I’m saying is a little more disaster and mayhem is always welcome in this genre.

Flight attendant Doris Day ends up landing the plane when the pilot and co-pilot are shot by a psychotic passenger in the hilariously absurd thriller Julie (1956).

However, I prefer the phony, semi-absurdist plane disaster flicks like Crash Landing and others of its ilk (Jet Over the Atlantic, The Crowded Sky and Julie in which stewardess Doris Day lands the plane, a precursor to Karen Black’s hysterical pilot of Airport ’75). The more realistic depictions of air disasters in such films as Alive (1993), Fearless (1993) or United 93 (2006) or even that paranoid imagining of Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club (1999) are not my idea of escapist entertainment. Those are the sort of horror films you don’t want to have in your head when you’re crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of night.

Crash Landing was released on DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in a no-frills edition in March 2011 and is still your only option for home viewing unless it happens to pop up on Turner Classic Movies or some other network.

Sit down, you’re rocking the boat! Terrified passengers create a genuine panic situation in Crash Landing (1958).

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