Dean Martin in Airport.
Airport launched the disaster movie craze of the 1970's and spawned 3 sequels. It was also one of the last movies to be produced by the legendary Ross Hunter, whose trademark was larger than life Hollywood glamour at a time when society was rapidly gaining a more casual rock and roll sensibility. This mix of old-fashioned Hollywood sophistication combined with a cynical view of the modern world formed the template for all the big-budget disaster movies that followed. Each of these successive movies featured an impressive cast of famous stars of the past and present.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Arthur Hailey about life at Lincoln International Airport. This Midwestern hub airport managed by Mel Bakersfield (Lancaster) is dealing with its worst snowstorm in years. Things go from bad to worse when a plane gets stuck blocking a vital runway, a little old lady stowaway is discovered (Helen Hayes in her Oscar winning role) and it is learned that a deranged man with a bomb is on board one of the flights. There is also plenty of melodrama thrown in for extra flavor.
Today this movie seems dated and chauvinistic. Especially the relationship between married pilot Dean Martin and stewardess Jacqueline Bisset, but it is an accurate rendering of the times. George Kennedy adds to the machismo and he has the distinction of being the only person to appear in all 4 Airport movies.
Helen Hayes steals every scene she is in and provides most of the comic relief. Maureen Stapleton, on the other hand, is the emotional core of the story and she has the most dramatic scene in the movie when she rushes through the airport apologizing agonizingly to the surviving passengers for what her husband did.
It's a tad long and a bit slow but all in all the original Airport remains a pretty decent movie.
Helen Hayes in Airport
Patrick is not kidding when he wrote that this movie is chauvinistic. Burt Lancaster's wife is a shrew, who bitches about Lancaster staying too long at work and missing dinner. When married pilot Dean Martin jokingly suggests to his stewardess/mistress that she and her female friends start their own airline, she says that she thought of that, only she does not have a pilot. Dean Martin then makes with this zinger, "With the kind of fringe benefits you girls have to offer, I could get you a crew right now." Gloria Steinem must have loved this movie, where women are only appreciated in the kitchen and the bedroom.
That all makes for some dated laughs but that is also one of the film's flaws. The movie goes on and on about what a miserable marriage Lancaster has. All we need was one little phone call, not two, a flashback montage and a conversation with an attractive co-worker that Lancaster allows to get far too close. When the bitchy wife shows up at the airport and tells him she has met someone else, I lost all interest. Martin's girlfriend telling him she is pregnant and that she does not expect anything from him is groan inducing. I felt nothing for a woman who got knocked up by a man she knew was married and I felt nothing for the married man who impregnated her.
The very best Airport has to offer is the stellar cast. If you know movies, you will have fun seeing so many stars throughout. Patrick appropriately complimented Helen Hayes. Not only does she steal every scene she is in, but she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress. After getting caught stowing away, she still expects to get waited on and even complains about the in flight meal. She easily outsmarts the young man assigned to watch her while they wait for her return flight to take off. Her method for getting onto a plane for free, does however, seem far too simplistic.
Patrick wrote that this film started the disaster craze of the 1970s. Although it ends with one, it is first and foremost a soap opera. It focuses on several melodramatic plots that touch each other more and more as the film goes on. Helen Hayes ends up sitting next to the bomber on the airplane. The film does not become tense until the hour and 40 minute mark, when they try to get the brief case away from the bomber. The scene is unintentionally funny. Stewardess Bisset bitch slaps 70 year old Hayes and a minute later pilot Martin says out loud, where passengers can hear, that the man has a bomb. I want to fly with that airline. No wonder someone thought to parody this mess, and don't even get me started on all of the split screens.
Burt Lancaster and George Kennedy in Airport.
As Eric wrote, this movie feels like a soap opera. In fact, it runs so long that it almost feels like a whole television season's worth of soap opera. They've since done documentaries and spoofs of life at an airport, but I'm surprised that no one has tried to do a dramatic series about it, particularly given the success of this film. There's certainly enough melodrama to go around.
The chauvinism is quite dated and often unintentionally funny, but it also demonstrates what a time capsule this film is. It's no wonder that feminism took off so strongly as a movement in the 1970s when you look at how the women are treated here. In some ways though, the politically incorrect behavior is refreshing. In the PC world of today, studios are so anxious to avoid offending anyone that you almost never see or hear anything like the dialogue spoken by the men in this film.
What really dates this movie however, is the airport security. Or rather, I should say, the absence of airport security. Eric suggested that Helen Hayes' method of boarding the planes for free was too easy, but given that there was basically no security checkpoints, I had little problem accepting that point. Seeing how the bomber was able to take an attache case loaded with dynamite onboard the plane without being questioned, is it any less plausible that an innocent looking little old lady would be able to slip onboard without being noticed?
And speaking of little old ladies, I must add my voice to the chorus of praise aimed at Helen Hayes for her delightful performance as Ada Quonsett. While everyone else at this airport is dealing with extramarital affairs, unexpected pregnancies, divorce and job tensions, she brings some much needed levity to lighten the load. Van Heflin might be playing the bomber, but it's Hayes who hijacks this movie.
This is a soap opera, but then so were all of the disaster films of the 1970s. They always start by introducing the main characters where we learn of some problem or personality trait and then just when we get to know them, some tragedy strikes. It's because of this character buildup before the disaster that we care what happens during the disaster. What makes this movie different is that you can see that they hadn't quite worked out the proper ratio of melodrama to disaster yet. Here it's about 75% to 25% in the wrong direction. Later films in the genre would realize that audiences preferred it more the other way and that you could also combine the disaster with soap opera rather than keeping them separate.
This is a well acted, dated film that plays everything very earnestly. If you can get past that, there is some entertainment to be found. Certainly it could have been improved by chopping out at least 20 minutes of all the soap opera, but even with it all it has something to offer. Perhaps not as much as it once did as somehow this film took in over $100 million at the box office and was the second highest grossing movie of the year, behind only Love Story. Adjusting for inflation that's more than any of The Lord of the Rings films made. It's no wonder that it spawned three sequels. It's only surprising that it took 5 years for the first one to appear.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1970)