The 1970s Disaster Film Genre takes off to a Flying Start…
Burt Lancaster picks the worst time for taking overtime with snow, eco-protesters, an irate wife, a loved up colleague, a hot headed mechanic and a bomber in the first of the Airport movies.
Airport (1970) (Theatrical Trailer),The Baltimore Movie Trailer Park and photos by Universal Pictures
Surprisingly, Burt Lancaster wasn’t talking The Cassandra Crossing (1976) when he called this movie “the biggest junk ever made”. Lancaster talking 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 Voyage of the Damned (1976) and 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, 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. And 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 (?2020).
Airport tells of a work day 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, home might have been a better option) – his work, home and love troubles collide.. BIG TIME!!!!
Firstly, a plane lands short of it’s 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 of those split (and one of the more creative) 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. Dermerest 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, as she tells him about two minutes before their work colleagues join them on the plane to Rome. Telling him with the most bad 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 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 offin her 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 behaving way to much fun throughout her role.
He 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 can be sent on the next flight to only flight the US and see her daughter at the same time – and she sits next to a potential bomber (with more of this story line later).
There’s also some protesters complaining outside the airport about the new (now snow and plane blocked) runway and it’s noise levels. But this cast are not dwelled on too much. Possibly as they are not as important as the calamities around the characters played by 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 obviously 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. So the married pair reflect on their marriage and the effect on their daughters in his palatial work quarters.
These offices complete with fully equipped living room with open fire (the sets also won a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Oscar nomination). She tells him its time to divorce and 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 for understanding and support. 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.. his work was concerned about some missing explosives. With Stapleton winning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in this Best Picture movie.
Mr Guerrero fully meeting the description of the nervous trilby wearing man who has been clutching onto his briefcase . A briefcase which may or not have a homemade bomb in it. He paid for a one way ticket and for his life insurance 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 those 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 running at a total of 2 hours and 17 minutes also ironically getting an Oscar nomination for Best Editing. It’s Oscar nominated screenplay (based on material from another medium) was based on the Arthur Hiller novel Airport, a best seller which 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 more crazy than the last and a guest star list of Oscar winners and more including Olivia De Havilland, Lee Grant, Karen Black, Charlton Heston 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 one still had Captain Joe Patroni, and still played by 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, The Love Boat and Circle of Fear. 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 in The Shining.