The 1970s Disaster Film Genre takes off to a Flying Start…
Burt Lancaster picks the worst time for taking overtime in the first of the Airport movies.
Airport (1970) (Theatrical Trailer), The Baltimore Movie Trailer Park and photos © Universal Pictures
Surprisingly, Burt Lancaster wasn’t talking The Cassandra Crossing (1976) when he called this movie “the biggest junk ever made”. Lancaster was talking about Airport (1970) – another disaster film – and this the one which launched the disaster movies finest decade.
These movies included fictional films with everything and anything including hordes of bees in The Swarm (1978), an avalanche in Avalanche (1978), cruise liners (see Juggernaut (1974) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972)) and supertall skyscrapers in The Towering Inferno (1974). Other disaster films – to be taken more seriously – were based on real-life tragedies like The Hindenberg (1975).
Airport was nominated for a massive ten Academy Awards. It spawned a franchise and two parody Airplane (1980) movies. Not forgetting those other disastrous movie flights including Skyjacked (1972) and Snakes on a Plane (2006).
Airport was surprisingly was not one of the Master of Disaster aka Irwin Allen’s movies, yet with the melodramatic plot, an all-star cast and the nod to the good work of the emergency services, it so could be. So let’s go back to the start of this decade of disaster (movies) and go back to that airport film where it all began…
Grab a bag of popcorn, and enjoy that Oscar-nominated thrilling opening score. Watch those choreographed random shots of a snowy airport (as nominated for Best Cinematography). Then strap yourself in for the first (and not the last) of those Airport movies.
While you are at it, marvel at the font as later seen in The Love Boat (1977-87) TV show credits. If you didn’t get that reference, it is also seen much later in that new James Bond movie poster, for the still to be released No Time to Die (?
Airport tells of an overtime shift in the life of Mel Bakersfeld (Lancaster), the airport head honcho. Bakersfeld insists on keeping his airport open despite the biggest snowstorm ever. Cue the Finnish nation laughing their socks off at the lack of the white stuff. He’s a bit like that mayor in Jaws (1975) crossed with Rock Hudson’s winter resort owner in Avalanche.
But he’s got more tough-guy presence as he’s played by Burt Lancaster. Then as you’d expect in a disaster movie … just as Bakersfeld takes some overtime – as he states later he can’t face going home, and this the perfect alibi (but on reading this plot, his home might have been a better option) – his work, home and love troubles collide… BIG TIME!!!!
Firstly, a plane lands short of its designated runway and the pilot tries to rectify the situation. He ends up blocking another runway, as the plane gets stuck in the deep snow on the taxiway. Bakersfeld calls home to warn his wife Cindy (Dana Wynter) he’s now on overtime and will be late home.
His young daughters are happy to talk to him (yay) – but Cindy’s already telling him off for not coming home. All the Bakersfeld family are seen and heard in three various screen sizes within one split screen. In a crazy touch, there’s a wee screen for every family member. With this just the start (and one of the more creative) of those split-screen moments…
Bakersfeld is also battling his bourgeoning romantic affections for his pretty, blonde, and uncomplicated (she’s a widow) customer relations agent Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg). Tanya is his dependable right-hand woman and at the start, she’s not exactly subtly hinting she’s kinda into him too.
Meanwhile, Bakersfeld’s got more potential problems brewing up, as his brother in law, Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) – who is happily married to Bakersfeld’s intuitive sister Sarah (Barbara Hale ) – is a pilot at the same airport. Demerest has extra-marital problems of a different kind which he confides with his long-suffering co-pilot (Barry Nelson) – and pipe smoking – during their flight.
Demerest has fallen in love with his chief air hostess, Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset). His relationship with Gwen is one where they can only speak and reply in full on innuendo. Gwen’s just found out she’s pregnant and only he can be the daddy. With her worst timing in telling him this news. This as she tells him about two minutes before their work colleagues join them on the plane to Rome.
Telling him then with the worst timing ever rather than tell him when she was packing her Edith Head designed wardrobe (Head got an Oscar nod for this, and it is very groovy costume design) before they left for the airport.
These calamities just a few blots on the horizon… But luckily Bakersfeld’s favourite mechanic Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) is on hand – and Patroni effectively postponing a rare date night with his wife – to try to help move the plane (and tell the pilots how to do their job). But there’s snow, snow and more snow… as things mount up.
Bakersfeld also has to deal with a wiley old habitual stowaway Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes). After her “reprimand”, she sneakily goes and does it again. But to be fair she did cut off mid-conversation on telling how she would do it.
In her full-blown confession she – for no apparent reason – regales all of her motivations and misdemeanours to Tanya and Bakersfeld. The elderly Ada – with no prompting whatsoever – tells us everything, we should know about her character in this one scene. Hayes won the only Oscar for this film, with her delightful turn here and seems to be having way too much fun throughout her role.
Bakersfeld is more impressed and bemused than annoyed. So he arranges Ada a free flight home and assigns a colleague to make sure she takes the flight. Instead of taking this flight, Ada gives this escort the slip and gets on the doomed plane to Rome – as she’s worked out she can visit her daughter at the same time, through a return flight from Rome – and she sits next to a potential bomber (with more of this storyline later).
There’s also some protesters complaining outside the airport about the new (now snow and plane blocked) runway and its noise levels. But this cast is virtually ignored. Possibly as they are not as important as the calamities around the characters played by the all-star cast.
Unless I missed some famous big name having dinner in the house who seems to have been subject to the brunt of this noise. This seen in that obvious mansplaining – in this Oscar-nominated screenplay – brief blink and miss it screen moment. This scene no doubt contributing to the Oscar nomination for Best Sound.
Then to top it all, Bakersfeld learns his the oldest of his young daughters has run away from home. This meaning that a now livid Cindy has (braved the snow) to tell him personally. The married pair reflect on their marriage and the effect on their daughters in his palatial work quarters.
These offices complete with a fully equipped living room with an open log fire (the sets also won a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Oscar nomination). She tells him it’s time to divorce. They reach a mutual understanding – with a narrated montage showing and telling everything that went wrong in their marriage – that divorce is the best option.
Timing it perfectly, the loyal Tanya is there to provide understanding and support for Bakersfeld. But there’s more, Tanya brings some random woman, Inez Guerrero (Maureen Stapleton) to his office. Inez tells them that her husband (D.O.) Guerrero (Van Heflin) may or not be suicidal but… is (cue fanfare) a demolition expert.
Inez tearfully telling Bakersfeld – in response to his “delicate” questioning – that her husband has mental health problems. Her husband has also just taken out a hefty life insurance policy and bought a one-way ticket. He’s depressed as he can’t keep a job and.. (the icing on the cake) his work was concerned about some missing explosives. Stapleton winning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in this Best Picture movie.
Mr Guerrero fully meets the description of the nervous trilby wearing man who has been clutching onto his briefcase during his check-in. A briefcase that may or not have a homemade bomb in it. He paid for a one-way ticket and for his life insurance with the last of his cash…
Everyone he’s encountered at the airport – and all are seen in the split screen with the most wee screens within a screen ever – think that he looks very hot and bothered (and increasingly sweaty). Despite their concerns, he’s got on the flight and this flight has just left for Rome. Surprise, surprise he is on the same Rome flight as Bakersfeld’s stowaway, his brother in law and the pregnant mistress.
That’s just some of this film story. This film runs at a total of 2 hours and 17 minutes also ironically getting an Oscar nomination for Best Editing. Its Oscar-nominated screenplay (based on material from another medium) was based on the Arthur Hiller novel Airport. This was a best-seller that was published two years previously. But before you think this plot is a hard act to follow. This franchise continued with Airport 75 (1974), then Airport 77 (1977) and ending with The Concorde Airport 79 (1979).
Each of these Airport films boasted a plot crazier than the last and a guest star list of Oscar winners and more including Olivia De Havilland, Lee Grant, Karen Black, Charlton Heston, Joseph Cotten, Jack Lemmon and Christopher Lee. The last of these Airport films bombed at the box office despite a cast including Alain Delon, Robert Wagner, David Warner and Susan Blakely.
But this Concorde excursion still had Captain Joe Patroni and still played by George Kennedy, who appeared in all four films. Many of these actors and actresses were casualties of other disaster movies of the decade. But despite the plunging in profits, the good news is that many of the cast in that final flight of this franchise soared into first-class roles.
Weeper Rating: 😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂/10
Hulk Rating: /10
This film was added to Midnite Drive In and Dubsism‘s Disaster Blogathon. Other films with this cast included Helen Hayes in Murder is Easy and Murder with Mirrors, George Kennedy is tributed HERE and starred in Dallas, Airport 77 and Airport 75. Burt Lancaster starred in The Cassandra Crossing. Jacqueline Bisset stars in Class and Murder on the Orient Express. Dean Martin in The Cannonball Run and Barry Nelson stars in The Shining.