Disaster month closed out with the granddaddy of the genre, Airport. It broke the $100M mark—a rarity for the time, and what used to constitute a “blockbuster”. Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, whom I constantly get confused with Alex Hailey (the guy who plagiarized the white guy to write Roots), it’s a seedy little soaper that is jam-packed with…stuff.
Oscar-winner Burt Lancaster, who hated this movie, plays Mel Bakersfield, the guy in charge of the Lincoln airport in Chicago, who is trying to get a runway cleared of snow while fending off his shrewish wife (Ilana Dowding) and having some kind of fling with his assistant, Jean Seberg. He’s all handling all the trouble his brother-in-law Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin) is making, while hating the fact that he’s gadding about with anything in a stewardess’s skirt (designed by 8x Oscar-winner Edith Head!).
In this case, the “anything” he’s gadding about with is Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset) who, like everyone else, has a last name. She’s pregnant and there’s a full-on discussion of abortion, which is safe and has no side-effects! (This is parodied in Airplane! by the P.A. announcers.) Gwen prefers to have the baby and put it up for adoption, which is good because his wife (Barbara Hale) is expecting him to give up his philandering ways, eventually.
Oscar-winner and disaster-movie icon George Kennedy is our only one-named (ok, main one-named) character, Patroni, whose job is to clear the snow out from in front of the stuck airplane, but nobody’s got the guts to get the job done. His goal is to get the plane free and go back to making out with his wife. He’s the sole happy marriage representative. (It’s 1970. Whaddayawant?)
Well, unless you count the widow Ada Quonsett (2x Oscar-winner Helen Hayes) who escapes Jean Seberg’s clutches to get on the doomed flight. She’s fun. The flight is doomed due to D.O. Guerrero (Oscar-winner Van Heflin) who has decided to blow up the plane so that his wife (Oscar-winner Maureen Stapleton) can collect the insurance.
Inspired by the actual incident.
Though it was an expensive shoot, it actually feels least gimmicky of the disaster movies, with the effects (except for maybe the volumes of plastic snow) seeming pretty organic. You can see how the tropes formed here, though: There is a wide variety of characters, mostly likable, and each involved in their little dramas which are thrown in to sharp relief by a sudden greater incident.
Acted out by some really fine actors. Helen Hayes won her second Oscar for this, beating out Karen Black and Lee Grant, who would both end up starring in one of the sequels.
A mostly great score by Alfred Newman—his last. The Boy actually pointed out how good it was, which he doesn’t usually notice. I loved most of it, especially how Newman managed to be so contemporary without sounding as shrill as that woodwind/brass heavy style of the ’70s tended to be. There are a couple of points that seem straight up pop music, though, which I didn’t care for much.
It’s more than a little corny, with Dean Martin discovering he wants to settle down but with his pregnant mistress, and Burt Lancaster discovering that divorce is probably the best answer. I can see why Lancaster hated it. Maybe ironically, since I’ve started to feel like the ultimate template for the disaster movie was From Here To Eternity.
It’s not great cinema. None of these movies were. But they’re fun escapism which seems in very short supply these days.