In 1970, one movie invented the modern disaster film. After grossing more than $100 million at the domestic box office (adjusted for inflation, it made more than any of the “Lord of the Rings”), it spawned three sequels that stretched through the entire decade. But this landmark series is now almost totally forgotten, long eclipsed by the film that so brilliantly spoofed the genre tropes it helped define. In honor of its 40th anniversary, we’re looking back at the “Airport” franchise this week, one film at a time. Today, the first sequel, which is called “Airport 1975” even though it was released in 1974.
Airport 1975 (1974)
Directed by Jack Smight
Nature of Air Emergency: A pilot suffers a heart attack and loses control of his private plane, sending it into the path of Columbia Airlines Flight 409. The jet survives the collision, but the captain, co-pilot, and navigator are all killed or maimed. A disaster that implausible deserves an equally implausible solution, so it’s up to Chief Flight Attendant Nancy Pryor (Karen Black) to keep Columbia 409 in the air until her pilot boyfriend Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston) can fly to the plane and then lower himself into the hole in the cockpit via tether.
George Kennedy Plays: Joe Patroni, Vice President of Operations, Columbia Airlines.
Most Surprising Subplot: ’70s disaster movie casts are littered with old stars. So the appearance of somebody like Gloria Swanson in “Airport 1975” is par for the course; the film also features golden oldies like Sid Caesar, Larry Storch and Dana Andrews. What’s weird is that Swanson is playing herself, and playing herself as a sort of weird corrective to Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” who is such a monster, and who everyone assumes is heavily based on the real life Gloria Swanson. But this Swanson is so cartoonishly cheery — even in the midst of a plane crash — that she becomes an absurd self-parody. Is she taking a flight to Los Angeles or campaigning for a humanitarian award? Maybe she was just happy that Hollywood had finally taken her advice and made the pictures big again.
“Airport” Makes No Sense: Columbia 409 is a red eye flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, California. That’s fine except for one little problem: red eye flights travel from the west to the east, not vice versa. If you left for the west coast at 11:00 PM eastern time, you’d land around 2:00 AM local time. So how come when the flight lands after its harrowing ordeal it’s a bright sunny day? Because “Airport” makes no sense.
Character You Kind of Want To Die: Charlton Heston’s Alan Murdock. Sure, he’s the big hero and he does risk his life to save the day. But the whole time he’s talking to Nancy from the ground, he keeps condescendingly calling her honey. “That’s right honey, now check your altimeter.” “You’re doing fine, honey.” “I’ll be there just as fast as I can, honey.” Every line oozes with male chauvinism; Heston had more respect for Nova in “Planet of the Apes” and she was basically a cavewoman (Maybe he preferred the fact that she didn’t talk back). What I wouldn’t have given to hear Nancy sarcastically call to him as he’s suspended from that tether, “Hurry up, honey. What, are your arms tired or something, honey?”
Line That Makes You Wonder Whether The Whole Film Wasn’t Just An Informercial Paid For By The Air Travel Industry: “Oh and Mom, remember: the 747 is the best aircraft ever made. Remember? It can almost fly by itself. Dad calls it the big pussycat!” — Joey Patroni (Brian Morrison)
Parodied in “Airplane!”: Not only does Linda Blair play a little girl in desperate need of a kidney transplant like the one in “Airplane!” she’s even got a nun (Helen Reddy) that sings to her to make her feel better just like the one in “Airplane!” (Of course in “Airplane!” the little girl dies because the nun is too wrapped up in her song to notice her distress). Though Linda Blair is very sweet in the role, every time I watch those scenes between her and Reddy, I keep waiting for her to lean in and whisper “Hey, this is a swell song and all, but y’know what would really make me feel better? A kidney. Either give me one or shut up.”
How Does It Hold Up? Not nearly as well as the original. The first “Airport” had its share of outlandish moments, but it was grounded in a recognizable reality. “Airport 1975” only makes sense by the twisted logic of disaster movies, where horrible tragedy strikes swiftly and stupidly. All the genre’s cliches are here: improbable life-or-death scenarios, shameless audience pandering, and deranged cast lists — Gloria Swanson and Erik Estrada, together at last! The budget’s definitely bigger than the last time; now instead of a toy plane, we’ve got shots of a real jet in flight. But it’s hard not to notice the fact that the camera always shoots the side of the plane that wasn’t struck by the prop. And in the very brief exterior shots of the starboard side, the damage is minimal to non-existant.
Also, maybe this is me nitpicking, but shouldn’t a movie called “Airport” be about, y’know, an airport? The original “Airport” was; it had Lancaster and Kennedy as middle managers dealing with crummy weather and bad bosses amidst an emergency. They interacted with what looked to be real-life air traffic controllers playing themselves. “Airport 1975” is about a plane that has a mid-air collision. It’s as much about an airport as “Psycho” is about a bank in Phoenix.
Strange But True: Dana Andrews, the guy who saves the plane in “Zero Hour!” (the film that directly inspired “Airplane!”) turns up in “Airport 1975” as the guy whose unfortunately timed heart attack causes the disaster.
Today: “Airport 1975”
Wednesday: “Airport ’77”
Thursday: “The Concorde… Airport ’79”