'50s Movies Highlight Changes in Flying Melissa Block talks to Dr. Robert Vanderlinden, curator of air transportation at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Vanderlinden shares his observations of air travel circa 1954. The John Wayne film The High and the Mighty, came out at the dawn of widespread passenger air travel. It depicted a perilous flight, but watching it now makes one long for the security-free days of yore. We note the ways flying has changed.
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'50s Movies Highlight Changes in Flying

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'50s Movies Highlight Changes in Flying

'50s Movies Highlight Changes in Flying

'50s Movies Highlight Changes in Flying

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Melissa Block talks to Dr. Robert Vanderlinden, curator of air transportation at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Vanderlinden shares his observations of air travel circa 1954. The John Wayne film The High and the Mighty, came out at the dawn of widespread passenger air travel. It depicted a perilous flight, but watching it now makes one long for the security-free days of yore. We note the ways flying has changed.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Film buffs, airplane buffs, John Wayne buffs got a long-awaited treat this summer when the 1954 movie "The High and the Mighty" came out on home video for the first time.

(Soundbite of music from "The High and the Mighty")

BLOCK: John Wayne plays a co-pilot on a trans-Pacific passenger plane. It turns into a terrifying ride as engines conk out and fuel dwindles. Scary stuff, but there's another side, too. "The High and the Mighty" is a vintage moment: A cinemascope reminder of how cushy and glamorous airline travel used to be. Now we wouldn't be the first to note the ways in which flying has been altered by events over the decades, but here in the first 20 minutes or so of one movie, it's all on display.

(Soundbite of music from "The High and the Mighty")

BLOCK: Bob Van der Linden is curator of air transportation at the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, DC. We coaxed him into watching this artifact with us to share his observations of air travel, circa 1954. He says the mid-'50s marked a turning point in passenger flight.

Dr. BOB VAN DER LINDEN (Curator of Air Transportation, National Air and Space Museum): The number of people flying actually finally exceeded the number of people taking steamships across the ocean and exceeded the number of people taking railroads across the country. So it's a watershed.

BLOCK: OK. We're going to watch the beginning of "The High and the Mighty" here. This is the scene at the airport in Honolulu as passengers are getting ready to board the plane to fly to San Francisco.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Woman #1: Flight 21, Flight 21 now arriving, Gate 1.

BLOCK: OK. Now here we are. We're inside the very attractive Honolulu airport terminal and we're hearing an arrival announcement.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: That's how they did it, like a train or a ship arriving. It wasn't that busy.

BLOCK: Now one thing you notice right away, this is a tropical island, but everyone is dressed to the nines.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Always.

BLOCK: Hats, suits...

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Always.

BLOCK: ...gloves.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: There are a couple of people in Hawaiian shirts, but that's about it.

BLOCK: Now we see a well-dressed businessman approaching the check-in counter.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Man #1: Nice to have you with us, Mr. Flaherty. Please check with immigration now. You'll board in about 30 minutes. This is Ms. Spalding, your stewardess.

BLOCK: OK. Now...

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Nice man.

BLOCK: ...any number of things to talk about here. Check-in took about five seconds.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: No line.

BLOCK: No line.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: He's drunk.

BLOCK: The passenger, that is.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Yes. And he's going to get drunker. They would not let him on the airplane these days.

BLOCK: And it didn't look like any documents were required there.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: No, and basically took his word that he's an American citizen.

BLOCK: It was 1954. Hawaii was not yet a state, so there's some immigration activity involved.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Indeed.

BLOCK: And you have the flight attendant, or what was then called a stewardess, standing right there being introduced to the passengers at the check-in counter.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: This is Ms. Spalding, played by Doe Avedon.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Man #1: May I introduce your stewardess?

Unidentified Man #2: Things are improving. I don't know where my luggage is. The Royal was supposed to send it down.

Unidentified Man #1: We'll check right into it, sir.

BLOCK: I love that, that they're going to actually get the luggage for him from his hotel.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: That's passenger service.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Ms. DOE AVEDON: (As Ms. Spalding) Do you suppose it'll ever happen to me?

BLOCK: They had the flight attendant, the stewardess there, mooning about honeymooners...

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: ...wondering when she'll ever get married. Stewardesses back then could not be married and fly.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: No, they couldn't.

BLOCK: And the thinking there was, to the extent that there was thinking there?

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: To be blunt about it, rampant sexism. The typical traveler was a businessman, not a woman. They felt it would be in the airline's interest to have a very attractive--and that was one of their requirements. Not only did you have to be young and within certain height requirements and weight, you had to be pretty.

BLOCK: And single.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: And single. Yeah, they were selling sex.

BLOCK: There's the DVD extra here that talks about flying in the '50s, and they show a flight attendant who would have flown back then talking about how they were trained to calm people down. What they would do is fluff the pillows.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Fluff the pillows, yes.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

"Mr. LOCOTA": I'm a fisherman. My families have been fishermen for couple hundred years, maybe more. I don't know.

BLOCK: We have a man approaching, laden down with packages. He's not one of the better-dressed members on this flight.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: But he still has a hat.

BLOCK: Has a hat, yes.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: A nervous first-time flyer.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you, Mr. Locota. Your plane will be announced in a few minutes. Don't you want us to check that through for you?

BLOCK: OK. Now he's pulled out a picnic basket filled with food, and the check-in man is trying to grab it away from him and he's saying, `No, no, no.'

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Man #1: Just a minute, Mr. Locota.

(Soundbite of item dropping)

Unidentified Man #1: There you are.

"Mr. LOCOTA": I got in here my things for to eat for the trip.

Ms. AVEDON: (As Ms. Spalding) Well, you've hurt my feelings, Mr. Locota. To think you wouldn't eat my lunch, or the steak we're going to have for dinner.

BLOCK: And he wants that food. He wants his own...

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: He's got the salami.

BLOCK: Oh, look, he's got the salami.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

"Mr. LOCOTA": I don't know about these things. I never fly before.

BLOCK: I may not need any explanation for that scene.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: We're back to that now.

BLOCK: Got to bring your own food.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Bring your own food.

BLOCK: Would they have, back then, taken that much pleasure in in-flight service, or was she just trying to calm a nervous passenger?

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Oh, well, actually the in-flight service was quite nice, even if you bought the coach or tourist-fare ticket. You were served very nicely, and the food was quite good.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Man #3: San Francisco. I must go to San Francisco.

Unidentified Man #1: Sorry, sir. We're departing very shortly. You're not on the list.

BLOCK: The plane is boarding, but we've got one last-minute passenger.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Man #3: Mr. Kenneth Childs is on your plane, isn't he?

Unidentified Man #1: Why, yes. Mr. Childs...

BLOCK: OK. So he's divulged a passenger name; wouldn't happen now.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: True.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Man #1: Fortunately, we have space available today. If you're an American citizen...

Unidentified Man #3: I am. Oh, I am for sure.

BLOCK: So just walk up to the counter, last minute...

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: And put...

BLOCK: ...plunk down some cash and you're on that flight.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Well, you could still do that today.

BLOCK: Yeah.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Although if you did that, when you went through security, you would be stopped for sure. And, of course, if they stopped him, they would find that he's carrying a pistol.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty):

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, listen, honey, I always enjoy myself. But this place...

BLOCK: And here we go. They're on the tarmac...

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Waiting to get on the airplane.

BLOCK: ...and the passengers are waiting on the tarmac next to the plane.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Notice the tight security.

BLOCK: Yes. Nothing.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: There's a low chain-link fence.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Unidentified Man #4: Toby, will you tell your mother something for me? Tell her I wish she'd come with you next time.

BLOCK: OK. Now here we're coming up on the moment that just makes you realize more than any other that we are not in 1954 anymore. Got the little boy Toby, going to be flying on this plane. He's got a holster with a toy pistol in it, and he's looking at John Wayne in the cockpit. And John Wayne makes eye contact with the little boy, and the little boy pulls out his toy gun...

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

"TOBY": (Imitates gunshots)

BLOCK: ...pretends to shoot the co-pilot there...

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...and John Wayne sort of slumps over in his seat as if he's been killed. This was before, clearly before, there was anything remotely connected to hijacking or...

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Oh...

BLOCK: ...anything like that.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Well, actually,n stuff had happened, but not to the extent that started in the 1960s.

BLOCK: You said stuff had happened in 1954.

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Oh, there was a bombing of an airplane as early as 1933. They think it was a mob killing.

BLOCK: There are so many movies that have come out since this one about airplane travel. Do you see echoes of "The High and the Mighty" in other airline movies?

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Oh, constantly. Constantly. This was the first of this type of movie. If you look at this movie and you're familiar with the wonderfully funny and outrageous movie "Airplane!" there are an awful lot of similarities. You can see where they were inspired.

BLOCK: What kinds of things?

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: The overacting of the characters, the situations they were in, the flashbacks and, of course, having Robert Stack in both movies didn't hurt.

BLOCK: Bob Van der Linden, thanks for coming in to talk with us about "The High and the Mighty."

Dr. VAN DER LINDEN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Bob Van der Linden is curator of air transportation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, DC.

(Soundbite of music from "The High and the Mighty")

BLOCK: One musical footnote here: "The High and the Mighty" was nominated for six Oscars, but only won an Oscar for its score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin. This lush musical theme weaves all through the movie and it became a hit song. But many filmgoers from the '50s will remember this whistled version.

(Soundbite of "The High and the Mighty")

Mr. MUZZY MARCELLINO: (Whistling theme to "The High and the Mighty")

BLOCK: John Wayne's character, the co-pilot, is known as "Whistling" Dan Roman. But for all his many talents, John Wayne did not whistle on the soundtrack. The well-known Hollywood whistler Muzzy Marcellino called in to do the honors.

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