Karyn Gerhard is a senior editor at Alpha Books and an information addict looking for an adventure. This blog documents her explorations into of all those dusty corners of human culture that no one has bothered to clean in years.
For me, ’70s films will forever be summed up by one word: DISASTER.
I don’t mean the films were disasters—you could hardly call The Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon catastrophes—I’m talking about the disaster genre. Irwin Allen and his blockbusters The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were benchmarks of this craze, but my favorites of the genre are the Airport movies. These big-budget blockbusters were crammed with stars, sex, and yes, disaster, with a bit of comic relief thrown in. They may not be on anyone’s list of top ten movies of all time, but they did garner ten Academy Award nominations, and managed to pull in the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Olivia deHavilland, Jack Lemmon, Gloria Swanson, and Dean Martin. Best of all, every film had George Kennedy as Joe Patroni, the guy who knew more about his “babies” (the airplanes) than anyone alive and whose job it was to tell us just exactly how much of a disaster was coming down the pike.
These films were made in the time before frequent flyer miles, airport security, cramped seats, and tiny packs of peanuts, and depict a very different kind of air travel than we have today. Planes were decked out more like swank clubs than air buses; stewardesses were portrayed as, ahem, “amiable” (“Coffee, tea, or me?”) beauties forever locked in torrid affairs with the pilots; and the pilots—well, let’s just say Dean Martin played a pilot. Cool doesn’t even begin to describe these captains.
There were four Airport movies made in all. Each one has their high—and low—points, but they are all worth watching. Here’s the low-down on each of them.
Airport, based on a best-selling book, has just as much action going on down on the ground as it does in the air. We start off with airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) being confronted by his nagging wife (Dana Wynter) who has driven through a raging snowstorm just to tell him she wants a divorce. No worries, though—Bakersfeld has his lovely assistant (Jean Seberg) to keep him warm. Before their plane takes off, flight attendant Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset) tells her lover, the pilot Capt. Demerest (Dean Martin) that she’s pregnant with his child. On the plane is Mrs. Quonsett (Helen Hayes), a habitual stowaway (and the comic relief in the film), and the broke and very depressed D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), who has decided to blow himself up with the bomb in his briefcase (DISASTER!) so his wife (Maureen Stapleton) can collect the insurance money.
Back on the ground, Patroni (George Kennedy) and Bakersfeld are trying to figure out how to deal with the major snowstorm and get one of their planes out of a snowdrift, while in the air Demerest finds out about the bomb and the stowaway. He (inexplicably) decides to use Mrs. Quonsett to distract Guerrero so they can get his briefcase. It doesn’t work, and the bomb goes off, blowing a hole in the fuselage and forcing them to land at Bakersfeld’s airport—on the runway with the stuck aircraft.
Patroni is determined to get the lame plane out of the way in time, though everyone thinks it’s impossible (“You keep those dinky toys out of my hair and away from this plane for 15 minutes, maybe less. I’ll DRIVE it out!”) Of course, with all of those stars on board, you pretty much know how it’s all going to turn out; yet, watching Patroni struggle with the plane while the bombed craft bears down on him is pretty exciting.
With the major success of Airport, the heat was on to make the next one bigger: bigger plane, bigger disaster—and more stars. Airport ’75 delivered. Again we have the personal stories: a sick little girl (Linda Blair) is being transported to a hospital; this time the flight attendant Nancy Pryor (Karen Black) is having an affair with a flight instructor (Charlton Heston); silent film star Gloria Swanson plays herself; and singer Helen Reddy is Sister Ruth, a nun who comforts Linda Blair with a song (given Blair’s previous role in The Exorcist, this scene is just a little bit more than … weird).
There is no bomb, though. This time a small plane, piloted by a man who has a heart attack mid flight, crashes into the cockpit of the jet, immediately sucking out the co-pilot and leaving the rest of the crew dead or near-dead. The only person left to get the plane on the ground is—you guessed it—the stewardess, Nancy. Air traffic control gets her boyfriend Alan in to save the day, first by telling her how to fly the bucket through some insane mountains, then by being lowered into the cockpit to land. Black is fantastic as the panicked stewardess, and Heston is at his heroic best. The comic relief here centers around a woman who has smuggled her dog on the plane in a purse, but the funniest moment is actually seeing Gloria Swanson’s stunt double (who looks about as much like Swanson as a butterfly looks like an elephant) take a header down the escape ramp.
Art thieves! Millionaires! A 747! Airport ’77 takes the glamour of air travel and ramps it up about a hundred notches—and then throws in the Bermuda Triangle for some extra fun. This also has the most stellar cast of the entire cycle. James Stewart plays a millionaire philanthropist who rents a luxury 747 (complete with couches, a lounge area, and a second story) to transport a priceless art collection to his estate, as well as a passel of his rich friends (including Joseph Cotton and Olivia deHavilland). A group of art thieves, led by the co-pilot (Robert Foxworth), knocks the captain (Jack Lemmon) unconscious, releases sleeping gas into the cabin, and hijacks the plane. On their way to a remote island, the plane disappears into the fog of the Bermuda Triangle. The fog clears just long enough for them to see an offshore drilling rig straight ahead. They clip the rig, one thing leads to another, and bam! They’re at the bottom of the ocean. (Luckily they hit a part of the ocean floor that is above the crush-depth of the fuselage.) Since the plane was off course, no one has any idea how to find them—not even our faithful Joe Patroni, who is heading up the search efforts. Luckily there is a diver on board (Christopher Lee) and he and the captain (who is now conscious) try to get a signal buoy to the surface; unluckily, Lee is crushed when the main hatch malfunctions. (Maybe it’s lucky for him, as he can finally get away from his nagging wife, played by Lee Grant.)
The captain decides to go it alone and manages to get the buoy to the surface. Patroni has now gotten the navy involved; they have a great idea to put flotation devices under the plane and float her to the surface. They only have one chance, and it’s a risky one. Will the plane get to the surface before it breaks apart? Will the singing blind man make it out alive? Will the captain keep up his affair with the beautiful flight attendant Eve (Brenda Vaccaro)? And what about all of that art? With all of this suspense and a legendary cast, it’s no wonder Airport ’77 is considered the best of the four Airport films.
With the success of the previous three films, the expectation for the next installment was huge. Unfortunately, what we got was an entertaining, but very flawed film. Although there are a few A-list actors, the majority of the cast reads like an episode of Love Boat. The story also doesn’t stand up as well as the others. Here we have a billionaire (Robert Wagner) who has decided to get rid of his lover (Susan Blakely)—a reporter who is about to expose him as an illegal arms dealer—by shooting a missile at the Concorde in which she’s flying. The plane is piloted from France to Washington, D.C. by Captain Mertrand (the fantastic French actor Alain Delon); in D.C. they pick up none other than Joe Patroni, who has been promoted to Captain. On the flight back to Paris—a goodwill flight with the reporter aboard—the missile is launched. Luckily an F-15 shoots down the missile before it hits.
Our adventure isn’t over yet, though! Even with all of the missile drama the passengers get back on the plane and head to Moscow. Having not gotten his way, Wagner now pays a mechanic to put a device in the Concorde’s cargo hold that would force the door open mid flight. That’s exactly what happens, and at supersonic speed, the plane starts breaking apart. The two captains pilot the plane to a mountainside ski lodge, where they crash land. When he hears of this, the millionaire kills himself. As stories go, it’s a bit more than unbelievable, but having Kennedy in the pilot’s chair makes it worth watching.
Yes, the Airport plot lines may be a bit formulaic, and the dialogue can sometimes border on the hokey. But with all of the stars and the suspense—not to mention, George Kennedy—these movies are just a heck of a lot of fun to watch. If you’re looking for a good guilty-pleasure marathon, you can’t do better than the Airport movies.
Given the high cheese factor in these movies, it seems only fitting that we have a little cheesy goodness to go along with them! If you’ve never had cheese curds, you don’t know what you’re missing; if you have, this recipe will turn your love for them into an obsession. Enjoy!
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cheese Making by James R. Leveretz