I recently wanted to switch off, tune out, and relax, so I picked one of the least threatening movies in my DVD collection, Airport. As it happens, I own the “Terminal Pack” of airplane disaster movies, a box set of four of these films that also includes Airport 1975, Airport ’77, and The Concorde… Airport ’79, and I also own Airplane!, the parody of them all.
A quick word about these names: during that era, we lived in a world that thought the 1970s was so modern, and shows like Match Game sounded the coolest when it became Match Game 75! that year.
The senior film of the bunch is easily the one of the four that seems to have a legitimate story to tell, in which various intertwined plots (seven, in fact) flow around a busy fictional international airport in Chicago. It’s somewhat formulaic, but in many ways, it created this formula, the so-called “disaster” film.
Abby and I watched this film together, and typical of her, Abby fell in love with the elderly stowaway played by Helen Hayes. I loved the film for its campy self-importance and overblown drama, and, of course, for the aviation angle.
One of the best performances of the show (as Abby always called movies) came from Maureen Stapleton as Inez Guerrero, wife of suicidal passenger D.O. Guerrero. Her urgency and utter dismay that ends in learning her husband was dead is completely believable.
Air traffic controllers and pilots actually have some realistic conversations, including the tense, foreboding “PAR approach” near the end of the movie. A PAR approach, which is a type of ground-controlled approach using precision approach radar to provide both vertical and horizontal guidance for an aircraft, is never used any more except maybe by the military for combat training.
There are some charming and funny scenes, but none more that Dean Martin bullshifting a nosey young passenger…
Schuyler Schultz: [pointing out the window] Before, Virgo and Leo were right there, sir. Now I’m beginning to see Ursa Minor and Cassiopeia. We MUST be turning around.
Capt. Vernon Demerest: You have a young navigator here! Well, I’ll tell ya, son… due to a setslow wind, Dystor’s vectored us into a 360 turn for some slow traffic. Now, we’ll maintain this board and hold until we receive a Forta Magnus clearance from MELNIX.
Of course, some of the characters are flat, like the airport manager’s wife, who is monotonously hateful for most of the movie, and George Kennedy, who, well, is George Kennedy.
An interesting and tragic side note to this movie is that Lancaster’s romantic interest, Jean Seberg, killed herself in Paris in 1979.
Airport is the pick of the litter, but when I was a kid, I fell in love with Airport 1975. Sure, the writing, acting, and directing are clumsy and insincere, especially between Charlton Heston and Karen Black, but it has a 747 in it!
Okay, yes, you read that correctly. Heston and Black’s utter romantic miscasting remained unrivaled until the chemistry between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis made our libidos shrivel to nothing in Top Gun.
One direct effect of Airport 1975 when I was 12 was to immerse me even deeper into aviation, and I decided then, and kinda believe to this day, that the Beechcraft Baron is the coolest, sexiest airplane ever built.
The plot is pretty unrealistic: a giant airliner is flying across the country when ATC tells them the “entire coast is socked in, but Salt Lake is available.” Meanwhile, the gorgeous Baron (which doesn’t bear the tail number of the aircraft in the dialog) ends up wildly out-of-control because Dana Andrews’ pilot character has a heart attack.
Yes, I know. ATC has radar, and they would vector the jumbo jet away from the twin, but I guess maybe, uh, reasons.
Before I continue: if you thought the infidelity and womanizing in Airport is bad, Airport 1975 is absolutely appalling, especially the mercilessly sexist, demeaning “flirtation” toward the flight attendants by the second officer, played by Erik Estrada.
The twin crashes into the jumbo, with hilarious results! Okay, maybe not intentionally hilarious results, but between the crash-test-dummy first officer being sucked out of the hole in the cockpit, the ketchupy blood on Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the fact that we have a critical kidney patient (Linda Blair!), and Heston saying “damn!” every 40 seconds, it is a non-stop parody of itself.
My sister Nicole does a hilarious impersonation of Karen Black at the controls of the stricken 747.
So, yada yada yada, dramatic midair suspense, and we land in Salt Lake City. But, wait, “Damn! Brake pressure’s dropping!” Heston screams, and we crash into a utility shack at the end of the runway.
It really isn’t a very put-together movie.
Predictably, the next two in the series, Airport ’77, and The Concorde… Airport ’79, are even less watchable, to the point of being insufferably pointless.
It’s kind of a shame Jack Lemmon got connected to Airport ’77, because just a year later he was excellent in The China Syndrome. Watch this space for a review of that hidden gem.
But then, a new hope dawns on the airliner movie scene: Airplane! If you felt unclean after attempting to watch the Airport series, you will feel literal pain from laughing so hard at Airplane! It takes something from every Airport movie, plus a few others that take themselves way too seriously, like The High and The Mighty, even Saturday Night Fever, and crams it into 88 minutes of irreverent, and often inappropriate, humor that, if you can lower your offendable defenses for a bit, will have you pausing it just to catch your breath from laughing so hard. It makes fun of everybody in a way movie makers just can’t do today.