Functioning as a producer and star was such a gratifying experience that in 1952 John Wayne established the Wayne-Fellows Productions, with Robert Fellows, a veteran producer. This company was responsible for a series of pictures directed by William Wellman and highly profitable at the box-office.
One of the company's blockbusters was The High and the Mighty,” a forerunner of the “disaster” movies, which became very popular in the 1970s. Similar in plot to that of Airport” (and its sequels), “High and the Mighty” could be described as “Grand Hotel in the air” in the same way that Ford's “Stagecoach” was “Grand Hotel” in a Western carriage).
The tale centers on a diverse group of passengers aboard a big plane over the Pacific. The threat of crash landing motivates each member to react in a different way, based on his or her personality and problems. The narrative is the equivalent of a quasi-psychological experiment that studies people's reaction in stress-induced situations.
Surprisingly, even the pilot has his demons, which could cloud his judgment just when it's needed the most. Of the four crew men, John Wayne is the strongest, a vet pilot who's second-in-command but has the cool and courage and alert but calm awareness to bring some sense back into the confused captain
The two standout performances (both Oscar nominated) were given by Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor. Sterling plays Sally McKee, a faded and soiled beauty on her way back to the U.S. to marry a man she has never met. All the “mysterious” man knows about Sally is based on an old photo of 6 years back, when she was younger and more appealing. Fearing both life and death, Sally the former playgirl is helpless, when it's time to apply her life vest. She is a middle-aged woman, who's deeply frightened and at the same time tries to be hopeful about her unknown future.
In contrast, Claire Trevor plays Mary Halt, an all-knowing woman, who has been around and has seen it all. Mary was dedicated to a married man until he died, never caring about what people thought of their relationship, because their love was true and fulfilled needs that his wife could not meet.
The High and the Mighty” was based on a book by Ernest K. Gann. The movie was so popular with audiences that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the film with four Oscar nominations, winning an Oscar for Dimitri Tiomkin's melodic music. (See Oscar Section).
Though the movie is 147 minute long, some critics complained that there were too many members with too many problems to the point where each persona was “only a draft of a character,” as the Herald Tribune pointed out.