Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was intent on signing Gregory Peck for the lead in the film Twelve O’Clock High even before the novel on which the film was based hit bookstores. “From the very beginning,” Zanuck wrote the actor in 1947, “we have all visualized you in the role.” As an added incentive, Zanuck pointed out that Clark Gable, who at the time was set to star in another war-themed film, MGM’s Command Decision, preferred Twelve O’Clock High.

Though Peck ultimately landed the plum role of General Frank Savage, when it came time to cast the film in early 1949, thirteen other prominent actors also were in the running, among them James Cagney and Burt Lancaster.

For the supporting role of Major Harvey Stovall, casting director James Ryan compiled a list of a whopping fifty-five names, including Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, and Raymond Burr. Dean Jagger was eventually cast and went on collect an Academy Award for his work.

In Special Collections, documentation on Twelve O’Clock High can be found in the Gregory Peck papers and in the collections of director Henry King, casting director Billy Gordon, and Frances Richardson, longtime director of the research department at Twentieth Century-Fox.

Richardson kept copies of a number of set plans for the film’s fictitious location, Archbury Airfield, as well as captioned continuity drawings that depict the action, such as the one shown below. Look closely: that’s Peck’s character, Gen. Savage, dropping out of the plane’s nose hatch. The film takes its title from the point directly above the B-17 aircraft’s nose (12 o’clock), where it was most vulnerable to attack.

In a confidential preview report, Fox Riverside theater manager David Lackie noted, “This is a big picture—big in every way and should be a contender for top honors when the ballots are tallied.” Indeed, the film was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture and best actor.

Zanuck himself believed it would be the one great film to come out of the war. Decide for yourself when “Hollywood Takes to the Air” screens Twelve O’Clock High at the Linwood Dunn Theater on Saturday, August 16, at 7:00 p.m.

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