Airport ’77

Heavy humidity outside
Jerry Jameson
Jack Lemmon, Lee Grant, Brenda Vaccaro, James Stewart, Christopher Lee
The Setup: 
Big private plane crashes and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Wuh-oh!

So, having been enthralled and appalled by The Concorde: Airport ’79, I knew that I must immediately turn the DVD over and experience the power of Airport ’77. Now, ’79 I had never seen [and it rewarded me by being the absolute worst in the series], but ’77 I had seen about 17,000 times between the theater and television. So at certain points the memories would come flooding back and it would be, you know, a slight frisson.

Anyway, we open with Jowly Jimmy Stewart on his island or wherever, where he plans to turn this mansion into a museum. He has chartered a huge jet to carry guests for his opening, and also to deliver all of the priceless art. Umm, aren’t they going to need some time to HANG all that stuff and make sure it’s installed properly? They movie acts like they’ll just waltz in, throw the paintings up in 10 minutes, then party! But I guess this is not the movie in which to quibble about verisimilitude.

Then the credits: Jack Lemmon! Lee Grant! Brenda Vaccaro! Joseph Cotton! Olivia De Havilland! Christopher Lee! Richard Foxworth! Kathleen Quinlan! Gil Gerard! And that’s about it. Oh wait: Costumes by Edith Head. I didn’t particularly notice any.

Anyway, we join Richard Foxworth, who would later go on to star on Falcon Crest, as the co-pilot, who exchanges cases with some other guy and then switches costumes and goes and helps with loading the paintings. This is one of the most amusing things, as the movie needs to show us, the viewing audience at home, that we have some serious-ass paintings here [symbolized mostly by one really poor copy of a Rembrandt self-portrait]. So what the movers so is pull it out of a truck, UNWRAP IT [so we can see the painting], then wrap it up again and put it on the plane. I just love this whole concept, as well as the idea that these actors had to go through these motions without having any clue what they’re doing. Like, when you’re moving out of your apartment, do you wrap up all your china, take it out to the moving truck, unwrap it, nod, and then wrap it up again before putting on the truck? I just live for shit like this.

So now we join Jack Lemmon as captain Don, who is in a relationship with Brenda Vaccaro as Eve. The only thing I had paid attention to Brenda Vaccaro in prior to this was Supergirl, so it was quite a surprise to me that she can actually act. She sees Don every time he’s in town, but he wants to get married. When she asks why they can’t just leave things as they are, he answers, in quite a threatening tone: “Because I WANT a wife and CHILDREN.” This is how casual sexism was back in the day. You could forgive Eve for asking: “And what am I supposed to get out of this?” Nevertheless, this movie succeeds in introducing its million characters fairly elegantly, as we spend a long time with the crooks, then with Lemmon, before meeting all our passengers.

But meet them we must. First there’s Lisa, Jimmy Stewart’s estranged granddaughter, and her son Benji. The boy is clearly named after a certain dog and seems to have about the same mental level, which I suppose is meant to be cute. He sort of looks like a drugged beluga whale at times. Also present is Olivia DeHavilland as Mrs. Livingston, who brings her black maid Dorothy—I didn’t recognize her at first as the black maid from Imitation of Life—and soon reunites with her old flame Joseph Cotton. None of their stories really go anywhere.

Now the first time I ever really noticed Lee Grant was as the very soul of insipidity in Damien: Omen II, so it was quite a shock to find that she could actually act in Shampoo—although based on her other work I mostly credit the director and script. But if you have to have her, the ideal role is that of a drunken, vicious harpy [which she got some training for in Shampoo], and that’s what she is here. She’s married to reserved businessman Christopher Lee, but has had an affair with his hunky associate, Buck Rogers himself, Gil Gerard. You can tell that this movie is defiantly NOT about giving audiences what they want to see, simply by the fact that Gerard never doffs his shirt—OR rubs hot oil all over his chest. Hello, entertainment??? Anyway, based on this movie, I cannot fathom WHY Lee Grant has not spawned a million and one drag queens, but you know, mysteries.

The skeletal blonde stewardess asks that the guests direct their attention toward the front for some important exposition. They then literally breakdown the entire layout of the plane for us in the audience, complete with color-coded diagram. She then steps over to this laserdisc [!!] player the size of a small desk. Look at that picture below, then think about the portable DVD players of today—and keep in mind that laserdiscs couldn’t even fit an entire movie on one side. Holy moley.

So anyway, it's not long after departure that the bad guys release gas into the main cabin and everyone passes out. The co-pilot takes control of the plane and brings it down low to disappear from radar. The other two guys go down into the hold to steal the paintings, which AGAIN requires them to unwrap them individually in order to determine which ones are worth taking. Uh, if you guys were really professionals, wouldn't you have this figured out already? Their whole plot is that they're going to land on some remote island, steal the paintings, and leave the passengers to wake up in their own time. BUT! It gets foggy, and they didn't count on that giant offshore oil rig! It just hits the edge of the wing [in an image that was seared into my consciousness due to this being the big money shot that appeared in every trailer and commercial, and that's it, right below], then the plane starts skidding across the water [but stays perfectly intact!], finally stops and sinks. Luckily for them, the water is pretty shallow there, or else I bet the pressure would have destroyed the plane!

The passengers, who, we were told, would be sleeping soundly until LONG after the crooks had landed on the island and made away with their loot, start waking up during the water landing, the better for them to scream and panic. No one cares about a crash with a bunch of unconscious people, right? We see them fly around and get hit by stuff. Lee Grant wastes no time in blaming Lemmon, then runs over to the window just in time to see the plane sinking. Within a few minutes they're on the seafloor, balanced, of course, right on an unstable precipice.

I forgot to mention a few humorous touches; The first is this singer crooning this horrid—I mean, UNBELIEVEABLY horrid song to Stewart's granddaughter while wearing these ludicrous dark glasses inside. I thought he was just trying to be impossibly hip, but I think we were supposed to understand that he is blind, which makes his song ["Beauty… is in the eye… of the beholder"] TOTALLY ironic. Whatever, he's soon dead. That's him, below. Another detail I love is how when the plane disappears from the radar map, the air traffic controller says "They're in the Bermuda Triangle!" as if this is a SERIOUS threat that all air traffic controllers recognize, and like, what the hell, the plane crew should have EXPECTED to disappear if they're going to go into the Bermuda Triangle! We won't even bother going into the whole thing about how the plane would be crushed by the water pressure because hello, SO boring.

So everyone's all panicked and having to work together and think of solutions, etc. I guess one of the reasons this movie works better than most is that they keep the complications to a minimum and the story progresses in a fairly linear way. One thing you HAVE to admire are the obvious small fish tanks right outside the windows, making it look like they're submerged n a swimming pool. We don't see a single fish. Turns out the plane was way off course, so the rescue planes would be looking in the wrong place, so Lemmon decides to try to get to the surface with an inflatable raft that has a homing beacon. Christopher Lee decides to go with him, for the simple reason that he might be killed, as he accomplishes absolutely nothing. Before he buys it Lee Grant tells him not to think of others, but only of himself and her. You have to admire her shameless straighforwardness. She just happens to be looking outside as his corpse floats up, then loses her grip on sanity and tries to open the cabin door! This causes Brenda to go over and struggle with her, and you know it's only a matter of time before Brenda hauls off and socks her one. She does—which was approximately 1/80th of the punching Grant's character deserved. But alas, Grant is out of commission for the rest of the movie, and she was SO fun.

Somewhere in here you may also look at the black bartender whose wife was giving birth back home and say "Wait a minute—is that Robert Hooks, star of Trouble Man?" And it sure is. Anyway, Lemmon is rescued in seconds, and guides everyone over to where the plane is. Here's where the movie gets somewhat distressingly straightforward, as the rescue pretty much goes off without a hitch, and everything works out fine. There is a moment at the end where Lemmon and Vaccaro are inside as the plane starts to sink, but rather than go toward the open door that is three feet away, they somehow have to struggle into the plane and up the stairs and get out this different door at the top. Around this point I turned to my friend and said "$10 says that the last line is an offhanded joke about how Lemmon and Vaccaro have a date that night," and well, why do I always have to be right? The film closes with a title saying that the events of the film are fictional [WHAT?!!?], but that the Navy rescue methods featured are real. Good to know!

Although perhaps the best of the sequels in terms of quality, it's also the most boring for that very reason. It's just all so straightforward and relatively restrained, and you know, I want high hysterics and singing nuns and people being slapped and Charo from my Airport movies. But maybe it's just that I've seen this one ten billion times before—although I was surprised to find that I only remembered certain little bits. I don't know—I wish I had more to say about it, but, it's just kind of dismally straight and narrow. I'll take the uber-ludicrousness, stratospheric drama and mega-cheesiness of The Concorde: Airport '79 over this film any day. Apparently Airport '75, the one where Karen Black is the stewardess flying the plane, is better in that department. Bring it on!

Should you watch it: 

If you must see an Airport movie, and you want it to be relatively good and restrained for some reason.


Someone should check that plane's cargo manifest to see if there were any expensive paintings on board, maybe