So I have now worked my way backwards through the entire Airport series, which I can’t necessarily say I’m proud of, but CAN say that I, uh, DID. This is the first and most respectable of all the films, but it’s also utterly dreadful, overbaked by about twelve days, and just generally sucks, while maintaining a sheen of respectability, at least for 1970.
Let’s see who we’ve got: Burt Lancaster! Dean Martin! Jean Seberg! Jacqueline Bisset! George Kennedy! Helen Hayes! Maureen Stapleton! Dana Wynter! Notice any Charo or John Davidson in there? No? And what does that tell you?
So it’s some night in an [I believe] fictional airport outside of Chicago, where there is a massive snowstorm. We start off with a bang [not] as a plane gets stuck in the snow on the runway! They evacuate the passengers, and call in George Kennedy as Joe Petroni, who is supposed to be some sort of mechanical genius. Kennedy is the only poor soul who was in all four Airport movies, the poor man. Anyway, get used to the first of many, many creative split-screens that will occur throughout, whenever anyone has a phone conversation. In addition to the down-the-middle split screen, you also have the little oval in the middle of the screen one, and, toward the end, the diamond one! Their thrill wears off right quick.
Anyway, so Lancaster as Mel is the manager of the airport. He’s got that plane stuck on one runway, which forces them to use this other runway, which causes a great deal of noise over this nearby neighborhood, which results in people picketing out front of the airport. Mel is called periodically to be bitched at by his wife Dana Wynter, who simply cannot understand what the giant snowstorm outside has to do with why her husband can’t attend this fancy dinner with her, and Mel is in love with his lovely assistant Tracy, but is staying in his awful marriage for the sake of the kids. He’s in a snit with his brother-in-law, Dean Martin, who is an arrogant asshole that has knocked up the stewardess, Jacquline Bisset. Amusing swinging 60s lounge music plays while Dean and Jacqueline talk, which is amusing in itself, but especially when you realize that Martin was supposed to be some sort of hot sexy ladies’ man back in the day.
After a long series of split-screen flashbacks as Mel has an argument with his wife, we introduce Helen Hayes as a stowaway. She just gets on the planes and is completely confident and unapologetic about it, as she figures the airline would never prosecute a nice little old lady. I have to admit Hayes is wonderful in this role. Hayes is an irritant to Mel’s blonde assistant, Jean Seberg, who bears a strong resemblance to Tippi Hedren, and kept bringing to my mind how totally hot it would have been to have Hedren in this role. Hayes ends up escaping and, surprise, ends up on our plane.
SPOILERS > > >
So about 35 minutes in we introduce our bomber, who is married to Maureen Stapleton, and who lost his job and hasn’t been able to keep one, possibly due to his mental instability. You will notice that the soundtrack plays creepy horror music as he asks his wife for more money. He’s gonna buy up a ton of life insurance then blow himself and the plane up. Fucking narcissist! If you want to die, do it by yourself and don’t take a whole planeload of unrelated people with you! Shows what a jerk he is.
Anyway, this movie floats the idea [hey, maybe it happened] that airlines ran a “downtown terminal” where you could check in, then ride a bus [that you had to pay $2 for, which seems like a lot for a bus ride in 1970] to the terminal where the planes are. The problem with this plan is that your bus can get stuck in traffic, delaying the flight for hours, as it does here. Soon after this, Bisset delivers a long dramatic speech that although she’s in trouble deep, she’s made up her mind; she’s keeping her baby. This is after Dean Martin, owner of the offending sperm, makes it clear that he has NO intention of taking any further role than maybe coughing up a few dollars to get rid of it, and tells her that modern abortions are quick painless and awesome, and in response receives commendation for being such a GREAT GUY that he didn’t just run off. Whaddya think, ladies? Isn’t Dean a real mench? Why are all the good guys taken? After all, your womb, YOUR problem.
So it’s an more than an HOUR in and people are finally getting on the plane. This shows the difference between this and the later movies in the series, which were all about problems on a particular flight, not a general overview of the many stresses of running an airport. Please note the amusing stewardess dance as she [supposedly?] gestures toward the exits at the front and rear of the aircraft. This made me realize that the stewardesses, or flight technicians or whatever they are now, don’t do this anymore—you usually just see a video. But you’ll also notice that meals are served on china with glassware, seats are wide and roomy, passengers are generally civil, and staff are polite, respectful, an honest when you have questions. Could this speculative science fiction world ever have existed?
Okay, so Mel and friends realize that there’s a crazy man with a bomb on board, blah, blah, and eventually it ends up blowing a hole in the side of the plane. Bisset gets splinters in her eye [ewwww!], but otherwise everyone’s fine—if the plane doesn’t come apart, which would have been so hot. So they turn back, and have to make a delicate landing, which means that Mel had better get that stuck plane out of the way! You’ll notice that the passengers are all SHOCKINGLY calm and well-mannered in the face of this situation, react with civility and are generally thankful—rather than litigious—upon making it back to safety. Oh—I ruined it!
< < < SPOILERS END
This is one of those things that puts one in mind of how what was “thrilling” back when now looks about as dull as it could possibly be. This is probably the best film of the series, in terms of quality, story structure and such [although be clear that this is NOT saying much], but it is also the least entertaining. This is pretty much a relic at this point and there really isn’t much reason for anyone but archaeologists to watch it.
This also hails from a time in which women were viewed as bringers of pleasure and various beverages to men, who transformed into shill harridans approximately one year after marriage. Both lead men in the movie end up leaving their wives—a decision treated in both cases as their finally “wising up,”—in favor of their mistresses. Don’t be fooled by the current state of things, young folks, sexism was very real and so casual as to just be an unquestioned aspect of American life. Not like we’ve all reached the promised land of freedom and equality, but it is amazing to look back and see how bad things were, and how it was just accepted.
Other than that, not much to say here, except for how the rest of the series departed from this. If you want fun and cheesy disaster movie thrills, I would say skip this one and go for any of the others. If you need to watch something with your grandparents when they visit from Iowa—well, there’s still better stuff to watch.
I wouldn’t, and you probably shouldn’t, either.
AIRPORT 1975 is a lot more cheesy fun and has that Mistress de Frommage, Karen Black.
AIRPORT ’77 is less immediately cheesy, but has a much higher body count, and is probably the best.
THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT ’79 is off the chart cheesy and a total delight for lovers of the humorously horrid.