Linda Harrison and Gloria Swanson in Airport 1975
Airport 1975 starts as sexist as the original 1970 Airport film. The pilots ogle the stewardesses and make comments that today would get them into a sexual harassment lawsuit. The most positive difference is that everyone is on the plane within minutes and it has a much shorter running time.
A collection of passengers including some drunks, some nuns, a sick girl and an old movie star all board a 747 headed for disaster. A pilot of a small aircraft has a heart attack, causing his plane to crash into the jet's cockpit mid-flight, killing most of the pilots. One of the flight attendants, Nancy, ends up having to take the controls. Her boyfriend Alan, working from the ground and another plane, tries to talk her through it.
Also like the original film, the cast is full or famous stars like Charlton Heston and George Kennedy. It features such -then- current stars as Linda Blair, who had just the year before appeared in The Exorcist. Pop star Helen Reddy had just scored the number one hit "I am Woman' in 1972. Erik Estrada was a few years away from television success on CHiPs. It also features such aging stars as Dana Andrews and Myrna Loy, who drinks like she is making a Thin Man film. After they discover a stewardess is flying the plane, Loy offers Sid Caesar her drink, who responds, "Thank you Mrs Devaney, but I don't drink." Loy looks confused and asks, "Well what difference does it make now?"
The real standout though is Gloria Swanson. Just as Helen Hayes stole Airport, Swanson steals every scene she appears in. It was probably in her contract. She does not even play a character. She plays herself in the midst of writing her autobiography. She spends the entire film talking about herself. When sickly Linda Blair is brought on board, Swanson says to no one in particular, "Oh how blessed I am, three children, seven grandchildren and all healthy thank God!" She name drops often. One story she tells is how Cecil B. DeMille flew them, "...from Hollywood nonstop to Pasadena. Yes, and on the way home we did loop the loops so I could see the moon upside down." I wonder if she realized that the film makers were sort of making fun of her? This would be her final film appearance.
Although the special effects are as horribly outdated as the sexist attitudes, Airport 1975 is a vastly superior film to the 1970 film. It is far more entertaining and has a much quicker pace. It even starts to make a bit of a feminist statement, with a stewardess being the film's heroine. That is until Charlton Heston takes over and continuously calls Nancy, "Honey." His, "Go do your thing baby." line is pathetically laughable.
Nancy Olson, Linda Blair and Helen Reddy in Airport 1975.
With Airport 1975 the disaster movie genre of the 1970s jumped the shark. It is the moment when the genre began to parody itself. And believe me these characters are ripe for spoofing. You have a singing nun, a fading glamor queen, an aging alcoholic with a taste for boilermakers, a sick child in imminent need of a kidney transplant, and a ceaseless chatterbox, among others. Although practically a spoof already, Airport 1975 was made further fun of in the 1980 movie Airplane! as well as on television's The Carol Burnett Show. In 1978 it was included in a book called "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time".
1974, as has been pointed out elsewhere on this site, represents the apex of the 1970's disaster movie. The genre was created at the dawn of the decade with the 1970 release of the original Airport, which contained more soap opera than human catastrophe. It was based on the novel by Arthur Hailey and is really about the behind-the-scenes goings-on of a large airport terminal, with an inflight disaster for a climax. Later movies in the genre would focus their entire plots around the disaster itself. 1974 saw not only the release of Airport 1975 but also Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. These movies were all known for their huge all-star casts but perhaps none has as diverse and unique a group of actors as this movie boasts.
I mean Erik Estrada and Myrna Loy in the same picture? If that isn't a WTF moment I don't know what is. Singer Helen Reddy, making her big screen debut, even garnered a Golden Globe nod for Most Promising Newcomer – Female. And there are several cinematic reunions going on as well. Sid Caesar and Norman Fell are both on the plane and they shared a scene together at the bottom of that roadside cliff in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison were Taylor and Nova in the original Planet of the Apes. But my favorite reunion of all is Norma Desmond (Swanson) with Betty Schaefer (Olson), her old rival for Joe Gillis's affections in Sunset Boulevard.
About Airport 1975, Gloria Swanson wrote in her autobiography that Universal originally wanted her for the Myrna Loy role but that she refused to play a drunk. Eric, it was her idea, and not the film makers, that she play herself. In real life she was about to begin writing "Swanson On Swanson" at the time and she said her favorite scene in the picture is where she dumps her jewels in order to ensure the safety of her recorded memoirs by locking them in a crash-proof safe. Here's what she wrote about the experience: “During the shooting of the studio scenes at Universal in Hollywood, Bill Frye gave me a star bungalow, and there I became a star attraction, pointed out by the guides over a loudspeaker to thousands of tourists on buses who passed by every day. It was marvelous.” That could be Norma Desmond describing her famous return to Paramount Studios.
Airport 1975 is a campy hoot from start to finish and it features one of the most bizarre casts ever assembled for a motion picture.
Oh my god! The stewardess is flying the plane!!!
The Airport movies have been famously sent up in the Airplane spoofs, but rewatching the originals now, you have to wonder why they even bothered. Airport 75 is enough of a spoof on its own so that you hardly need an outside film making fun of it. It's so completely over-the-top and awful that it's actually rather enjoyable, provided you don't try and take any of it seriously.
As Eric mentioned, this is one of the most sexist movies ever made. The stewardesses are only there to be leered at and treated like sex objects. The attitude of everyone towards them is best summed up by Sid Caesar's exclamation of horror when he learns that a stewardess is flying the plane. I could almost stomach Heston calling Nancy "Honey" when he tried to talk her through the flight controls since he was dating her, but then the other flight controllers begin doing the same. And the line Eric mentioned, "Go do your thing baby.", is cringe inducing and unintentionally funny at the same time. It's his way of saying, "Go serve the drinks. A man has the controls now." It's all too silly to really be bothered over though. You just have to laugh at how dated it all seems.
Several of the plot elements are equally unintentionally funny. The mid-air collision, for instance, is good for a laugh. Seconds before the crash, the small plane fills the windscreen of the 747 as if it's going to be a full on crash, but somehow all it does is punch a man-sized hole in the plane. Then there's the fact that the accident happens and then Heston and Kennedy have time to fly from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, a trip of at least an hour and a half while the pilotless plane flies straight on, but somehow stays in the Salt Lake City area. Plus, you have to remember that the reason the collision happened is because the 747 was redirected to Salt Lake City because the entire West Coast was fogged in, but their little plane is able to get through the weather without a problem.
In terms of campiness, how much more campy can it get than having Gloria Swanson playing herself? I agree that her scenes are some of the most entertaining, but attempting to insert her as herself is simply bizarre. Like Eric, my first thought upon seeing Myrna Loy and all the boilermakers she drinks, was that she must be playing an aging Nora Charles. The addition of Helen Reddy and the other assorted recognizable faces merely adds to the sense of camp.
This is an awful movie, but that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed. As Patrick said, it's a hoot.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1974)