Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Airport (1970)

I have been living a lie for about 2o years. I had always assumed that Airplane!, one of my favorite movies of all time, was a send up of this movie, Airport. As I was doing a little background research today, I discovered that I had been wrong all this time. In fact, Airplane! is almost completely a satire of an old 1957 movie called Zero Hour!, and yes, the exclamation point is part of the title of that movie as well.

Arthur Hailey was the author of the books that both Zero Hour! and Airport were based off of. He must have really disliked flying.

Anyway, some info about Airport. Made in 1970, it was the movie that really launched the 70's disaster genre. Airport was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Only one was won, by Helen Hayes - Best Supporting Actress. It also grossed over $100 million (off a budget of $10 million) back in 1970. To put that in today's money, that's over $500 million box office, making Airport the #42 all-time highest grossing movie, adjusted for inflation (according to

Airport also ushered in many of the disaster movie cliches that I've mentioned several times. You have the litany of big stars - mostly past their primes (Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, and Barbara Hale), you have the random celebrity that seems out of place (Dean Martin), and you have the odd comic relief character (I don't know his name, but it's the whiny passenger'll know the one).

Enough blabbing, let's get to the movie.

Airport is a tangled web of a film. The disaster elements don't even start to form until well over an hour into the movie. It starts out in Lincoln, Nebraska with a tremendous winter storm blowing, causing a plane to get stuck in the snow. This causes them to have to close their main runway...THIS BECOMES IMPORTANT LATER. The main focus for the first 2/3 of the film are the inner political workings of a major airport, and one of the airlines located therein as well as the relationship webs woven by Mel Bakersfeld (Lancaster) and Captain Demorest (Martin). Let's put it this way, they are both married, and they both have girls on the side.

*A quick sidetrack*

I know the filmmakers wanted another major star in the movie, but Dean Martin as a Pilot? Have they never seen his variety show? I don't believe Dean Martin has sobered up YET from the Rat Pack days, and he died 15 years ago! But hey, if they want Dean Martin as a pilot, I'll accept him as a pilot, I guess.

*back to the movie*

So, we have the helter skelter of an airport going on, and all of a sudden...we meet Mrs. Ada Quonsett, played by Helen Hayes who was 70 at the time. Mrs. Quonsett is a the stereotypical sweet, kind, little old lady. That happens to know exactly how to scam free flights out of the airline. There's about a 10 minute scene where she goes into exacting detail about every step she takes in order to take cross-country flights without ever buying a ticket. She has to rank right up there as one of the most conniving characters to ever be put on screen. She may be 70, she may look sweeter than your own grandma, but you'll want to slap her in the face.

I do not want to discuss her character much more, but suffice it to say, her con skills become very important later on. If you need a single reason to watch this movie, watch it for Ada Quonsett.

*SCOTT, where's the disaster??*

We're getting to it. As all this chaos is going on, we briefly leave the airport to meet Mr. Guerrero, a down on his luck guy that is unable to support his wife...he tells her a story about going to Milwaukee for a temporary construction job, but we quickly learn that his plans are more sinister. He plans to buy flight insurance, and blow up a plane, so that his wife will get the insurance money, and be set for life.

*Where have I heard that before??*

Yep, you got it. The makers of Airplane II must have been the ones inspired by Airport, as this is almost exactly the same as the Sunny Bono storyline in that movie. In fact, now that I truly think about it...Airplane II has much more in common with Airport than Airplane! does.

*We now return you to your regularly scheduled review*

Well, as you may have guessed, Mr. Guerrero manages to detonate the bomb, and he rips a hole in the side of the plane. Fortunately (I guess) he detonates in the bathroom, so they can seal the hole off from the passengers, meaning the cabin doesn't depressurize for very long. The last act of the film concerns itself with trying to land the plane safely in a blinding blizzard, trying to keep the passengers breathing and warm, the health of one of the stewardesses that got severely injured in the blast (I guess it's at this point I should mention this stewardess was Demorest's hot young girlfriend...who is also pregnant...more on that in a minute). All this chaos leads to...

*Favorite scene*

During the final descent, there are several shots of the crew of the plane. There is no talking, no music, nothing but the facial expressions of the cast. The camera just shows you long takes of them just doing their work. You could practically see the pilot's teeth grinding. I thought that scene was particularly striking. Perhaps because I am not used to seeing that kind of restraint used in today's films. If Airport were made today (and I expect it will be eventually) there would be chaotic music, tons of yelling, overdone CGI shots of the plane flying by at high velocities, and somehow fire would be involved. But you had none of that, you had something much closer to the reality of the situation would dictate. Quiet, calm, stern concentration. These were excellent shots, in stark - almost jarring - contrast to the chaos happening inside the main part of the plane.

Airport isn't quite on as grand a scale as a Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno, but you can definitely see the seeds of those movies being sown here. Airport led to 3 sequels: Airport 75, Airport 77, and Airport 79. I have not seen any of these, but I hope to in the near future. Although I have heard that none of them are as good as the original. The original Airport, at least, is a very enjoyable movie.

*What the?*

There is a subplot in Airport that I found a bit startling when it first came up. At one point, Captain Demorest is having a conversation with his young mistress (dude, you're married to Della Street...why do you have to play the field? Oh wait, Dean Martin, never mind), Gwen (played by Jacqueline Bissett) where she confides in him that she's pregnant...and the very first thing they discuss is whether she should get an abortion. Looking back, this was an extremely hot-button issue in the political and social landscape at the time. However, for that topic to come to a head in a movie such as really felt forced, and a bit clunky.

*How times have changed*

A guy brings sticks of dynamite onto a plane, the case never gets checked. A woman is able to walk onto a plane to Rome without getting noticed. Another woman was able to get all the way to the gate without stepping through a metal detector.

*Something I never wanted to see*

George Kennedy playing tonsil hockey with his young lady at home. Maybe it's all those years of watching him as Ed on Police Squad and the Naked Gun movies...but I really don't need to see him licking a girl's face like it was the inside of an Oreo.

*Closing thoughts*

This movie again confirms why I never want to fly. I also really need to find Zero Hour! That movie sounds like a lot of of fun. Until next time!