The Duke's long-awaited film return

After decades, John Wayne films digitally restored

July 16, 2005|By Susan King | Susan King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Two of John Wayne's best films from the 1950s - The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky - have been missing in action for decades.

In fact, the last time The High and the Mighty saw the light of day was on CBS in September 1979, the year Wayne died. And it's been more than 40 years since Island in the Sky was telecast or shown theatrically.

That's because the films, directed by William Wellman (Wings, A Star Is Born) and produced through the Duke's own company, had fallen into disrepair. The High and the Mighty's original negative had particularly suffered - water damage, dirt, fading - and several reels were missing.

But thanks to Wayne's daughter-in-law Gretchen Wayne, both films are flying high once again.

The newly restored Island in the Sky premieres at 8 tonight on AMC; The High and the Mighty will be unveiled tomorrow night at 8 as part of a 32-film retrospective of the two-fisted superstar on the cable network. On Aug. 2, Paramount Home Entertainment will release a two-disc DVD special edition of The High and the Mighty and a single disc of Island in the Sky.

Already, The High and the Mighty ranks No. 4 on Amazon.com's presale orders list.

Michael Wayne, the eldest son of the actor, had been working for years to restore films made under Wayne's Batjac Productions. In the 1990s, he restored and released on VHS two of his dad's most popular films, Hondo and McClintock! Though he had started work on both The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky, Michael Wayne hadn't gotten far before his own death two years ago.

"Michael was judicious about what he put out," Gretchen Wayne said of her husband. "He took his own sweet time about it, but he made sure that everything was always perfection."

Adding to the delay was a major obstacle: "He went into the film vaults one day and there had been a leak, and a lot of our films were sitting in water," she said.

Originally released in 1954, The High and the Mighty was one of the top-grossing films of the year and was nominated for six Oscars, including best director for Wellman and supporting actress nods for Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor; it won for Dimitri Tiomkin's memorable score. The granddaddy of disaster films, it stars the Duke as an airplane pilot who guides a crippled airliner to safety on a flight from Hawaii to San Francisco.

Wayne wasn't originally scheduled to be in the picture, said the director's son, William Wellman Jr. The role of Dan Roman was to go to Spencer Tracy, but "at the last minute he decided not to do it." Wellman said. Because the character is not the typical macho Wayne hero, the late director had to talk Wayne into playing the part.

Then, "they had trouble casting the two leading women," Wellman added. "Every major star turned them down - Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Loretta Young. So they ended up with Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling, and they both got two Academy Award nominations."

The popularity of The High and the Mighty overshadowed Island in the Sky, released in 1953.

In it, Wayne - once again playing a pilot - finds himself stranded in the uncharted Arctic wilderness when his plane goes down. "I think it's one of Wayne's very best performances," said Wellman. "It's a survival story."

Gretchen Wayne said she had no hesitation about stepping into her husband's role. "It was something Michael had wanted to do, and it gave me a sense of connection. It kept me from sitting around and crying all day."

Island in the Sky was not too difficult to restore. "It just needed a lot of cleaning up," she said of the black-and-white film. But she thought The High and the Mighty was a lost cause. Several reels were missing, others were beyond repair.

It turned out, though, that her husband had made a copy that escaped water damage. They were able to replace the missing reels with the second-generation copy. Then she teamed with Paramount Pictures, and the studio took the restoration to the next step - digital - because photochemical repair couldn't fix all the problems in the original and the copy.

"She is the one who gets the credit for really taking the whole thing in hand," said Barry Allen, executive director of Paramount's film preservation and archival resources program.

"She was very intimate with the process," Allen said. "She wouldn't let go until it had been done the best we could do."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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