Tuesday, April 2, 2013

John Kerr and Anne Francis redeem "The Crowded Sky"


Actor John Kerr passed away last month from congestive heart failure.  He was a sensitive actor who started out on Broadway in the 1950s and found success in movies such as "Tea and Sympathy" (1956) and "South Pacific" (1958) and tons of television all the way through the late 1970s.  He became an attorney in real life in the mid-1960s and eventually quit acting to practice law.  Kerr was always a likeable, appealing presence on-screen, with an "everyman" quality as an actor that made it easy to relate to his characters.  He never came across as elitist or entitled in his performances, and was always a very underrated actor throughout his career.  I met him several times at autograph shows and he was a very kind man, even gave me his business card and encouraged me to call him if I ever needed some advice about law school.  I never followed-up with him on that, but I remember being impressed at his generosity of spirit.  That's why I was saddened to hear of his passing.  Of all the movies he made, I would say that my favorite performance of his was in the early airline disaster epic "The Crowded Sky" (1960).


In "The Crowded Sky," Kerr plays moody airline co-pilot Mike Rule, who dabbles in being a commercial artist since his real passion is painting.  Mike is the son of brilliant Noah Rule (Brandon Beach), a famous and eccentric painter who married five wives and burned all but four of his paintings.  We learn during the course of the movie that Mike received word, while serving in Korea, that his father had died.  In the present day, Mike is co-piloting a commercial airliner from Washington, DC to Los Angeles that is on a collision course with a Navy jet flying from the opposite direction.  Throughout "The Crowded Sky," there are flashback scenes involving the passengers and crew members of both Trans States Airline Flight 17 and the Navy jet as they ponder the mistakes of their lives.  The other flashback subplots include scenes involving the troubled marriage of Navy Commander Dale Heath (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) and his adulterous wife Cheryl (Rhonda Fleming); as well as an extended vignette concerning airline Captain Dick Barnett's (Dana Andrews) inability to relate to his teenage son;  However, it is the subplot involving the deepening love and relationship between John Kerr's Mike Rule and witty flight attendant Kitty Foster (Anne Francis) that always engages me every time I see this movie.


In the Mike/Kitty flashback, we learn that Mike's animosity towards Captain Barnett stems from Barnett's refusal to allow Mike to make captain himself due to Barnett's jealousy of Mike's ability to relate to Barnett's troubled young son in ways Barnett never could.  When Mike learns at a poker game that Barnett has spitefully denied his promotion, he punches Barnett out and then sets out to get drunk.  He awakens the next morning in the bedroom of attractive flight attendant Kitty Foster (Francis) who brought him home to sleep off his inebriation after she met him at a bar the night before.  Kitty and Mike become attracted to each other over breakfast and he offers to fly her around the country to see his father's remaining paintings.  However, Mike makes it clear to Kitty that he has no interest in ever getting married or having a family.  Mike, in turn, learns that Kitty was once a very promiscuous girl and had a child out of wedlock that she gave up for adoption.  Kitty admits that she never takes the first kiss anymore in order to avoid falling in love and getting entangled in romantic complications.


While visiting the home of Mrs. Mitchell (Frieda Inescourt) a Texas oil millionairess who owns one of Noah's paintings, he notices another, newer and unfamiliar painting nearby that features his father's characteristic style.  He learns that the painting is a recent work of his father, that he is still alive, and that Mrs. Mitchell was his father's second wife.  Mike's mother approached Mrs. Mitchell to help pay for Noah's commitment to an asylum after he had become a hopeless catatonic.  Mrs. Mitchell explains that she and Mike's mother decided it best to make Mike believe that his father had died rather than allow him to know the history of insanity in his family.  Mike visits his father in the asylum and admits how much he loves and misses him, but the catatonic man does not respond.  Mike is clearly shaken at seeing his father by the time he brings Kitty home.  The two admit they have fallen in love and begin a relationship that continues to prosper, despite Mike's continued refusal to ask Kitty to marry him, as the story returns to the present-day aboard the flight.  When the airliner is hit by the Navy jet, Mike, Barnett and Kitty work valiantly to keep the passengers calm and help bring the plane down safely.  After years of declaring that he will never get married or have children, Mike finally proposes to Kitty and declares his desire to have a family with her.


I am not attempting to build a case that "The Crowded Sky" is a particularly good film.  There are some cheesy, dare-I-say-it "campy" moments throughout the movie that prevent one from taking it too seriously as a fine piece of drama.  However, it remains an entertaining, engaging story with a very appealing cast.  John Kerr and Anne Francis stand out from the rest of the ensemble by giving their characters a bit more depth than the others.  They are committed to their roles to enough of a degree that Mike and Kitty become a sympathetic couple that you root for to end up together.  I particularly like the way director Joseph Pevney stages the "meet cute" flashback sequence where a hung-over Mike wakes up in Kitty's bedroom after she met him the night before in a bar.  As Mike looks up and sees his painting of Kitty staring down at him from the wall, he wonders aloud how he could have painted her if he had never met her until now.  Kitty cheekily replies, "I have an elegant theory about that.  You saw me somewhere.  Who knows where, it may have been some airport.  And then one day when you were painting, you just popped me out of your subconscious cortex."  Anne Francis' smart, insolent delivery helps to sell that contrived bit of writing so that the audience accepts the fact that: 1) Mike painted Kitty without ever meeting her before; 2) Kitty discovers Mike's painting of her in a gallery; 3) Kitty just happens to meet Mike by chance in a bar; and 4) Mike turns out to be a pilot working for the same airline as Kitty.  It's a cheesy scenario that normally would not be believable, but Francis' conviction makes it work.


Kitty then makes breakfast for Mike as the two continue their "meet cute" flashback sequence.  Kitty asks whether Mike's father Noah really had five wives, and Mike identifies his mother as wife #5.  Mike becomes attracted to Kitty and makes her a compelling offer, "I can pick up the phone, borrow a Cessna, show you the life work of Noah Rule and have you tucked in bed by midnight Saturday...Let's get one thing clear first.  $10,000 bucks in the bank and I quit flying.  I take five years to find out if I'm an artist as well as a painter.  I intend to stay unmarried, without child, unattached.  Now do I still pick up the phone and borrow the cessna?"  Kitty smiles and responds, "Let's get one thing clear first...You and I didn't indulge last night.  And we won't.  I'm an ex-tramp.  And I know myself.  One kiss and I blast off.  Past the point of no return.  So I just make it a point never to take that first kiss.  Now do you still pick up that phone and borrow the Cessna?"  Mike smiles as he starts dialing the number to make arrangements to borrow his friend's plane.  John Kerr and Anne Francis have an appealing and natural chemistry in this scene that I never tire of watching.  Right away, they seem completely at ease with one another that you are eager to see how their relationship develops.


I particularly like the way Anne Francis underscores how supportive and empathetic Kitty is of Mike when he realizes that his father is alive.  Francis demonstrates Kitty's depth and sensitivity, while Kerr projects a refreshing sense of vulnerability in Mike, throughout the sequence at the asylum when Mike is reunited with his father.  Kitty and Mike both appear to have made a deep, serious connection with each other by the time Mike brings her home after their cross-country, whirlwind tour of visiting each of his father's paintings.  Kitty appears deeply moved by what she has experienced and admits that "I think I could kiss (you) and not blast off beyond the point of no return" because she has fallen in love with Mike in a sincere and mature manner.  Unlike all of her previous relationships, Kitty genuinely cares about what happens to Mike, as opposed to selfishly falling in love with someone so that they can make her feel special.  When Mike kisses Kitty, it's a very touching and sweet moment, particularly when he tells her, "Go on in and lock your door...Maybe that kiss didn't blast you off, but me I..."  We see that Mike's resolve against ever making a commitment and having a family is beginning to weaken as he has finally found the right person for himself.  Kerr is effective at demonstrating how Mike has started to mature and put aside his selfish goals so that he can allow himself to fall in love with this special woman who has suddenly entered his life.  By this point, Mike and Kitty's cute rapport has evolved into a relationship characterized by caring and compassion. 


For much of the remainder of "The Crowded Sky," the Mike/Kitty subplot takes a backseat as the airline disaster storyline takes center stage.  Kerr and Francis continue to have significant screen time, but their characters are mostly focused on tending to their passengers and bringing the plane down safely.  Kerr and Francis do a good job at demonstrating how Mike and Kitty are dedicated, courageous professionals who are able to put aside their personal concerns to help their passengers face this disaster.  Kerr's low-key demeanor as an actor is used to good advantage as he effectively portrays Mike's calm, steely reserve while he helps Dana Andrews' Barnett bring Flight 17 down safely.  Francis is particularly good in the scene where she instructs the passengers to prepare for a crash landing, "Just the same I'm gonna ask you to do a few things to project yourself.  First and quick now, I want you to fasten your seatbelts as tight as you can.  Push your seat buttons and raise your seats up straight.  False teeth out.  Put them in your purses and your seat pockets.  We won't tell a soul that you wear them."  Francis projects leadership, confidence, and even a tension-breaking sense of humor during this sequence that demonstrates Kitty's ability to stay calm and strong in order to help the passengers keep up their courage throughout their ordeal.  We realize, as Mike already does, that Kitty is a special person who can handle any challenges and who he would be fortunate to spend the rest of his life with.


Which is why we're pleased, in the final scene of "The Crowded Sky," when Mike finally proposes to Kitty.  As they look at a cigarette billboard Mike has painted featuring a kitten playing with a ball of yarn (which Kitty sardonically describes as being "sentimental enough to make Santa Claus toss his cookies"), Mike finally tells Kitty, "Either way, flying or painting, I want to marry you.  Yeah, I want to wade knee deep into disposable diapers!  I want to name the first boy Noah.  Now where do you want to honeymoon?"  Kitty excitedly responds, "What difference does it make?  We'll never leave our hotel room!"  As Kitty hugs Mike, Anne Francis is given the last line of the movie in a stream of consciousness voice-over, "If there's a God of the game of love and kisses:  Gracias.  Merci.  And thank you."  What's wonderful about this scene is that John Kerr and Anne Francis play it sincerely without a degree of irony.  These days, because we have become a society who overindulges in cynicism and irony, there's not a current actor or actress in existence who wouldn't try to play this scene from a campy perspective.  The dialogue is so broad that it naturally lends itself to a humorous interpretation.  But Kerr and Francis never condescend to the scene, or to their characters, so that it's actually touching that Mike and Kitty will finally be together after all the personal and professional hardships they've endured.  "The Crowded Sky" might be considered a camp classic by some, but John Kerr and Anne Francis rise above the material to make Mike and Kitty's love story something rather special to watch. 

2 comments:

  1. You wrote:
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    Mike becomes attracted to Kitty and makes her a compelling offer, "I can pick up the phone, borrow a Cessna, show you the life work of Noah Rule and have you tucked in bed by midnight Saturday...Let's get one thing clear first. $10,000 bucks in the bank and I quit flying. I take five years to find out if I'm an artist as well as a painter. I intend to stay unmarried, without child, unattached. Now do I still pick up the phone and borrow the cessna?" Kitty smiles and responds, "Let's get one thing clear first...You and I didn't indulge last night. And we won't. I'm an ex-tramp. And I know myself. One kiss and I blast off. Past the point of no return. So I just make it a point never to take that first kiss. Now do you still pick up that phone and borrow the Cessna?" Mike smiles as he picks up the phone and makes arrangements to borrow his friend's plane.
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    Lines this good haven't been written for American movies in 20 years or more.

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  2. It sounds like there is some actual adult (as in mature) dialogue andback story in this otherwise "camp classic." The same I think could be said for "A Summer Place" from roughly the same time. You sold me on John Kerr and Anne Francis as a romantic duo. I'll look out for this one. Thanks.

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