Thursday, March 12, 2015

Airport (1970)

Airport (George Seaton, 1970) TV Guide film critic Judith Crist called the original Airport (it became a series for Universal Studios) "the best picture of 1944." Crist was usually more interested in comedy writing than providing any worthwhile analysis, but it's a good line and actually zeroes in on what's great and not-so-great with Ross Hunter's star-studded production about the trials, tribulations and turbulence (and pre-TSA terrors) associated with the modern (for the 1960's) aeronautical transportation hub.  

And it's quite the hub, with spokes constantly threatening to detach and fly hither and yon...without a ticket. It's a Grand Hotel with everybody either in transit or in a holding pattern, and nobody questioning why they're called "terminals" (and perhaps they should). Airport shows just how complicated the airplane industry is on a good day, and then complicates things by focusing on a bad one. Given the modern computer glitches that can ground hundreds of flights at a time, as well as the thousand shocks to the security system recent years have presented, a simple mad-bomber on a single flight may seem routine.

"A cast of thousands" (but few were paid)
Airport is an example of "old school" movie production, brimming with established actors and up-and-coming contract players, fussy with detail and the kind of production design that made everything look like a brushed and scrubbed set. The story feels like it could have come out of the '40's (or '50's), the type of thing Ernest K. Gann used to write, that literally was like Grand Hotel in the skies, accentuating all-walks-of-life characters (homo-gentically white), while displaying the author's knowledge and obvious love for the subject matter—in Gann's case, flying. But, this is Arthur Hailey.
"We've got to make room for the new SST's!"  Mm-hmm. No, you don't.
The fictional Lincoln International Airport (not located in Chicago) is socked in by bad weather, there's a jet stuck in the snow blocking a runway, a local neighborhood where a couple councilmen live (councilmen live in trailer parks—aren't those around airports?) are protesting being under the glide path, there's a serial stowaway (Helen Hayes, who won an Oscar for pixiness), a smuggler (Jessie Royce Landis), a gigolo pilot (Dean Martin) who's gotten a "stew" (Jacqueline Bissett) pregnant, and a mental patient (Van Heflin) who wants to commit suicide by blowing up a plane for the insurance money (Maureen Stapleton being the chief beneficiary). The axis at the center of the hub is Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster), trying to manage all this mess like he's herding cats, while also doing a balancing act between his wife (Dana Wynter) who wants a divorce and the pretty public relations officer for one of the airlines (Jean Seberg).

Wow! Working at an airport is fun!
"No! If the bomb goes off, this is NOT what the plane is going to look like..."
Well, maybe it isn't, but it sure isn't dull, not when there's a character actor around every corner (Hey! There's Whit Bissell sitting next to Helen Hayes!). It tends to make customer service (which along with office politics seemed to be the specialty of author Arthur Hailey, who also authored "Hotel," "Wheels," and "The Moneychangers"*) a bit more interesting.
"Roger, Roger...Over, Oveur"
Dean Martin, Gary Collins, and Barry Nelson
With Lancaster's Bakersfeld handling the politics, George Kennedy's Gus Patroni (who would show up in other Airport movies) handling the mechanics (and putting in plugs for Boeing planes), Dino playing it cool when he's not grousing, and everybody else fretting, the place can handle the bomb-threat and still keep everything grounded (except for the planes). 
"Ev-rybody bombs somebody some-time"
Screenwriter-director Seaton keeps everything in focus, and manages to give the '60's decor as much presentation as the stars (which is usually a trait of the Fox studio, but this was produced by Universal) and it's amusing to watch all the smoking (even on the planes), the helmet hair on the women, and playing "find the black man?" (a 60's movie variation of "Where's Waldo?") because the movie is filled predominantly with whites. However, there are a few black porters (with lines of dialog, even) and there's actually an African-American doctor on the plane. This was considered "progressive," back in the day. What is interesting is those porters are real porters. So, too, are the security guards and air-traffic controllers, lending a bit of verisimilitude to the proceedings. There's also a nice collection of cliché passengers—the grouser, the wisenheimer adolescent, nuns and vets (but not together), and "the ethnics" (in this case, greek). Only thing missing is the "child going to specialty medical treatment." The men are men and the women are grateful (if they're not cheating on them).
"Hey, look, this is a 60's movie—split-screen"
Airport ushered in the era of the all-star disaster films of the 1970's ("Who will live? Who will die?"), followed by Irwin Allen's ones for Fox, and Universal's series of rumbling "Sensurround" movies (usually starring Charlton Heston). Debris from those films still litter the current movie market-place—I've just seen a trailer for a movie called San Andreas. And whose fault is that?

Airport's, obviously.
The cast and a couple of the crew (although Wynter and Kennedy are cardboard cut-outs)
Of COURSE, they're sitting in First-Class

* Hailey also wrote the book the film Zero Hour was based on, which, in turn, inspired The Zucker Brothers to make Airplane! (which Airport resembles in all sorts of respects).

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