40 Years of “Airport”: “Airport” (1970)

40 Years of “Airport”: “Airport” (1970) (photo)

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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 fortieth anniversary, we’re looking back at the “Airport” franchise this week, one film at a time. Today, the movie that started it all, based on the novel by Arthur Hailey.

Airport (1970)
Directed by George Seaton

Nature of Air Emergency: A distraught man detonates a crude suicide bomb on a commercial jet in the hopes that his wife will collect his life insurance. Captain Vern Demerest (Dean Martin) has to land the damaged plan in the middle of a brutal Chicago snowstorm at an airport where the main runway is closed.

George Kennedy Plays: Joe Patroni, Chief Mechanic of Trans Global Airlines.

11082010_airport2.jpgMost Surprising Subplot: Flight attendant Gwen’s (Jacqueline Bisset) unwanted and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, which prompts a weirdly frank discussion about abortion between Bisset and Martin. “I stopped taking the pills because they were making me gain weight,” she tells him. “So instead of being plump I’m pregnant.” His response: “I’ll make sure you don’t go to some butcher two flights up over a drug store. I hear Sweden’s the best place. Good doctors, good hospitals. Medically safe.” Call me naive, but I wasn’t prepared for the silly disaster picture about the plane that gets blown up and still lands safely to set aside a few minutes for a sincerely moving conversation about family planning. Go ahead. Call me naive.

If “Airport” Were Made Today: it would be hard to play Helen Hayes’ stowaway character as the comic relief. Mrs. Ada Quonsett is a widow who hitches rides on airplanes whenever she feels like it. Everything she does is illegal and immoral, but she’s a little old lady and she’s having a lot of fun being bad; even after she’s caught, she still tries to talk her way into the admiral’s club with a “borrowed” membership card. In 1970, people sneaking onto airplanes with forged documents could be kind of charming (talk about being naive). In 2010, people sneaking on airplanes with forged documents, even little old lady types, not so charming.

11082010_airport3.jpgCharacter You Kind of Want To Die: This one random passenger who keeps screwing things up for everyone else. When the flight crew get wind of the bomber’s plan, they hatch an elaborate scheme to grab his explosives, hidden in a briefcase, away from him. The plan works, until this one random guy sees what’s happening and sticks his nose in where it doesn’t belong; he stops the flight attendant with the case, and the bomber is able to grab it back. Then a few minutes later, just as Dean Martin is about to convince him not to blow himself up, a man comes out of the bathroom and bumps into the bomber, and the same random douchebag screams out “He’s got a bomb!” That starts a scuffle that results in the bomb going off. That one idiot is indirectly responsible for everything that goes wrong on that airplane! Is it weird that I kind of enjoyed watching him struggle for air when the cabin depressurized? Also: how intense does a trip to the bathroom have to be to not hear a guy threatening to blow up an airplane right outside the door?

Line That Makes You Wonder Whether The Whole Film Was An Informercial For The Air Travel Industry: “Remind me to send a thank you note to Mr. Boeing.” — Capt. Harris (Barry Nelson), inspecting the damaged plane after its safe landing.

Parodied in “Airplane!”: The opening credits of “Airplane!” are an obvious parody of “Jaws”: a model 747 tail fin snakes through lines of clouds while ominous John Williams-esque music plays. You assume the model looks so cheap because the Zuckers couldn’t afford anything fancier until you watch some of the flying sequences in “Airport,” which actually tries to pass off an incredibly phony toy plane skimming through cotton balls as a real plane in flight.

11082010_airport4.jpgHow Does It Hold Up? Better than I expected. “Airport” may have helped invent the modern disaster movie, but it’s a lot less over-the-top than many of the films that would follow (I’m looking at you, movie about Michael Caine fighting millions of angry bees). Most of the movie isn’t even about the airplane disaster; it really does focus on this airport and the tough decisions that have to be made by its manager, Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster). Even amidst all the movie stars and the big action set pieces, the movie has a nice working-class vibe. While Martin’s romancing Bisset, Lancaster and Kennedy are doing the unglamorous stuff: dealing with corporate bureaucracy, fielding complaints from angry customers, and digging planes out of snow banks, all on their nights off. For the people in the sky, air travel is exotic and exciting. Even though their flight gets attacked, it’s all this grand adventure that works out in the end. For the people on the ground, it’s just a job, and a pretty crappy one at that; it destroys at least one marriage before the picture’s over. I guess the powers that be at Universal felt that the movie stars and big action set pieces were what put asses in the seats, not the promise of tough management decisions. That would have a major impact on the tone and plot of the sequels.

Strange But True: According to Wikipedia, the plane that Universal leased to double for the damaged Trans Global jet was later sold to a Brazilian airline. On March 21, 1989, it was involved a real-life air disaster resulting in over twenty-five fatalities. Creepy.

Tomorrow: “Airport 1975”
Wednesday: “Airport ’77”
Thursday: “The Concorde… Airport ’79”
Friday: “Airplane!”

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Documentary Now! Robert Evans Mansion

The Reel Deal

Everything You Need To Know About “Mr. Runner Up” Inspiration Robert Evans

Watch the two-part finale of Documentary Now! this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

In its upcoming two-part finale, Documentary Now! spoofs the crown jewel of docs: The Kid Stays In The Picture. It’s the autobiographical documentary about Robert Evans, the unlikely Hollywood mogul whose mix of self-aggrandizing bravado, classic good looks and extremely circumstantial good luck took him from being a salesman to an actor to the head of Paramount Pictures.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s totally worth it. Rotten Tomatoes agrees, with a staggeringly-high approval rating. Watch it before, or watch it after — doesn’t matter. You’ll appreciate it whenever.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of background that will come in handy…

Robert Loves Robert

Robert Evans desk

USA Films/Everett Collection

Robert Evans is the ultimate Robert Evans fan. The movie was written, produced, directed and narrated by Robert Evans. It is totally unbiased.

He’s Kind Of A Big Deal

Robert Evans, Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

Evans produced some of Hollywood’s true classics: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story…the list goes on. Totally legit and amazing movies.

He’s Also Kind Of A Joke

Wag The Dog
New Line Cinema

Evans has been parodied in TV shows and movies like Entourage and Wag The Dog. He is the quintessential “producer” you already have in your head.

So Wrong He’s Right

Robert Evans Slap
20th Century Film Corp

Robert Evans is a notorious narcissist whose love of self is so blind and sincere that it’s actually adorable.

There’s Something Missing

via Giphy

Entire sections of Robert Evans’ life are left out of the documentary. Maybe it’s because of timing. Maybe it’s because real life isn’t a tidy narrative. Who knows.

He Blew It

Spider coke

Evans had a pretty spectacular fall from grace. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking in the early 80’s, and was connected to a contract killing during the production of The Cotton Club. Oops.

Losing Is For Losers

Everett Collection
Everett Collection

In the Robert Evans mythology, all tragedies are just triumphs in disguise, and every story has a happy ending…for Robert Evans.

Bill Hader Jerry Wallach

With these simple facts in hand you are now prepared to thoroughly enjoy the two-part finale of Documentary Now! starting this Wednesday at 10/9c on IFC.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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