Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film reviews – the Airport sequels

My notes on the 1970s Airport disaster franchise.

Airport 1975 (1975)

The three Airport sequels are their own little strain of 1970s disaster movie – all are closer in tone to The High and the Mighty or such quickies as Zero Hour than the 1970 adaptation of Arthur Haley’s behind-the-scenes-at-an-institution best-seller Airport (he also wrote Hotel on the same formula).  That spent as much time on dreary complicated romances whereby craggy middle-aged stars (Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin) ditched their smothering long-term wives (Dana Wynter, Barbara Hale) in favour of younger models (Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Seberg) and odd comic sub-plots – with Helen Hayes as a persistent stowaway – as on the mid-air suspense stuff that required a lot of expertise and daring the bring the jet in to a safe landing in a blizzard despite a hole blowin in the cabin wall by a mad bomber (Van Heflin).  When The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno clicked, Universal decides to retool the premise as a franchise – though very little time in any of the three films is set in any airport – by trimming the documentary and the soap (except in micro-bite chunks) and focusing on the peril.  So, we get three movies in which planes get in trouble but don’t crash outright causing all-round fatalities and Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), who spent most of the first film grouching and shovelling snow on a runway, is called in to cope with yet another crisis.

I remember these movies more thanks to the MAD Magazine satires than anything else, and they’d become objects of ridicule – this is the one where Sid Caesar gasps ‘the stewardess is flying the plane?’ – well before Airplane!.  Indeed, though the heroics are played straight, the comedy subplots spill over into lampooning the ludicrousness of it all.  Here, the pilot of a small plane (Dana Andrews) has a heart attack and crashes into a jet liner, blinding the Captain (Efrem Zimbalist), killing the radio operator (Erik Estrada) and causing the co-pilot (Roy Thinnes) to be sucked out of a gaping hole.  So, stewardess Nancy (Karen Black) has to take the controls … several earlier plane suspense movies had played the ‘talk me down’ game, so this one-ups things by having hero Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston) – who, wouldn’t you know it, is in an on-off relationship with Nancy and has been whingeing about not wanting to be tied down – transfer between planes in mid-air, after a luckless Air Force guy (Ed Nelson) has blown his chance.  Back among the passengers are a singing nun (Helen Reddy), a cute moppet en route to a kidney transplant (Linda Blair), an older alcoholic (Myrna Loy), Gloria Swanson (as herself), and Patroni’s wife (Susan Clark) and son (Brian Morrison).

There’s also room for Larry Storch, Norman Fell, Jerry Stiller, Beverly Garland, Linda Harrison, Irene Tsu, Alan Fidge, Austin Stoker, John Lupton, Sharon Gless, Clyde Kusatsu, Lara Parker, George Wyner, Sally Yarnall and Laurette Spang.  Most of screenwriter Don Ingalls’ credits are for TV – including the mini-disaster Flood! – which explains why, for all the huge names and screen-filling spectacle, the dialogue and drama is so rote.  In a way, it’s a shame that all the money and cinema release went to this while its conceptually demented cousin The Horror at 37,000 Feet was shunted off to television.  Like all these movies, it’s full of acceptable-then/wincemaking-now behaviour – and yet again grizzled geezers cop off with lissom gidgets.  Directed by the always-efficient, seldom-much-noticed Jack Smight.


Airport ’77 (1977)

It’s a mild puzzler that Universal never settled on a title format for their Airport sequels, following Airport 1975 with the more informal Airport ’77 and winding things up by downgrading the franchise to sub-title form for The Concorde … Airport ’79.  They did however otherwise stick close to a formula – embarrassingly overqualified big name stars playing the sort of roles that wouldn’t have stretched Sonny Tufts or Buster Crabbe … an array of varied supporting actors as crisp-uniformed crew or sweating passengers … a tangle of soap opera threads (here, with a crime caper tossed in) … and a model aeroplane having a bad time thanks to natural disaster and human perfidy.  There was obviously an impetus to be more ridiculous each time out – even when the original was ridiculous enough in the first place – and that leads to this entry, in which a private jet-liner is carrying the fabulously valuable art collection of tycoon Philip Stevens (James Stewart) to a gallery along with an array of the millionaire’ friends and hangers-on but a bungled heist – masterminded by Banker (Monte Markham with a false moustache) with the connivance of co-pilot Chambers (Robert Foxworth) – leads to the plane going down in the Bermuda Triangle.

Pilot Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon), who has the regulation on-off relationship with the heroine (Brenda Vaccaro), and stiff underwater archeologist Martin Wallace (Christopher Lee), who is stuck with a maniac drunk slut wife (Lee Grant), think there’s a way to get out of the plane and signal for help.  Guess which one drowns?  Regular Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) gets his smallest role in the series, billed way down as if he were an afterthought, and hanging about for a dull-ish last reel which shows off the co-operation of the US navy as they use underwater deplaning skills to attempt to rescue folks played by the likes of Joseph Cotton, Olivia de Havilland, Darren McGavin, Robert Hooks, Maidie Norman, Kathleen Quinlan, Gil Gerard, James Booth, Arlene Golonka, and M. Emmet Walsh.  Joining Lee in the cast are Michael Pataki (Dracula’s Dog) and Charles Macaulay (Blacula) – making this a three-Dracula movie.  The balance of ridiculousness and suspense tips over here, making for a busy but not terribly engaging slice of hokum – albeit with a few decent shock moments.  That robbery plot gets forgotten as soon as the plane hits the bottom of the ocean and the water starts pouring in, and no one ever mentions whether it’d be a good idea to try and save some of those irreplaceable priceless artworks as well as all those useless stereotype characters.  Scripted by Michael Scheff and David Spector, who’d done Skyway to Death for TV, from a story by H.A.L.Craig and Charles Kuenstle.  Directed by Jerry Jameson (The Bat People).


The Concorde … Airport ’79 (1979)

It’s tempting to speculate that if Airplane! had never been made, George Kennedy might have spent the ‘80s rescuing even more planes from even bigger catastrophes.  Did the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team gave him a recurring gig in the Naked Gun films out of some sort of guilt at lampooning his prior franchise into obvlivion?  The theory doesn’t take into account The Concorde … Airport ’79, which is series-killingly dreadful even by the standards of disaster movie follow-ups and rates lower even than Beyond the Poseidon Adventure or The Swarm.  Not coinicidentally, it elevates series regular Joe Patroni (Kennedy) to the cockpit and makes him the star of the show – pushing aside some international names (Alain Delon, David Warner, Sylvie Kristel).  With the wife seen in Airport 1975 killed off between films, Patroni even gets a ridiculous love scene that turns out to be a set-up  — the Concorde’s Captain (Delon) generously hires a mature Pariasian call girl (Bibi Andersson!) to cop off with him, in a scene that plays as creepy but which is supposed to be sort of sweet.  The mcguffin is that TV newso Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely) has learned that her arms tycoon boyfriend Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner) has been selling weapons illegally to enemies of the US and is taking a trip so he can think things over and do the right thing … which, by his lights, turns out to be using either a ground-to-air missile or sneaky sabotage to bring down the wonky-nosed jet on its trip from the US to Moscow via Paris.  Here, Patroni takes the controls and flies the Concorde as if it were an X-wing, dodging heat-seeking missiles by firing flares out of an open window … he even seems to do a barrel roll in the bird, which would be too cartoonish for the Airplane! series.

The film was delayed and came out overseas as The Concorde … Airport ’80 – by which time it was rendered even more obsolete by a shift in the political landscape following Reagan’s election and the invasion of Afghanistan.  Several of the supporting passengers – Andrea Marcovicci, Avery Schreiber, Mercedes McCambridge – are uncomfortably cast as members of the Russian Olympic team, on a goodwill mission to the US before the games (which America actually boycotted).  Also on board or plotting on the ground are a ridiculous array of names – Charo (doing a pet poodle gag Zsa Zsa Gabor would have nixed as too obvious), Eddie A|lbert, Martha Raye, Cicely Tyson, Sybil Danning, Jon Cedar, Ed Begley Jr, and John Davidson.  Scripted by Eric Roth – who would later write Munich, The Insider, Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button but here knew better than to carp about plot points from the story by series producer Jennings Lang – though he’s probably responsible for the classic awful exchange when the stewardess (Kristel) observes ‘you pilots are such … men’ and Patroni deadpans ‘they don’t call it the cockpit for nothing, honey’.  Not only is it utterly ridiculous, it’s somehow thin even as camp entertainment – and the quality of the special effects has slipped badly from earlier entries.  Signing up to direct is David Lowell Rich, who had actually made the classic TV supernatural disaster film The Horror at 37,000 Feet not to mention small-screen gems like Satan’s School for Girls and Brock’s Last Case.  His next project was the earnest TV docudrama Enola Gay, which didn’t drop a bomb as big as this one.



One thought on “Film reviews – the Airport sequels

  1. Lee Grant couldn’t be funnier in Airport 77 if it had been a comedy.

    But according to George Kennedy, the reason he was in The Naked Gun series was because he called up ZAZ and asked them why they hadn’t invited him to be in Airplane, as he thought he would be more than qualified for it. They realised their error and made up for it in a nice bit of generosity.

    The marriage scene in Concorde would make even the strongest man (or woman) cringe so much they’d practically disappear.

    Posted by THX 1139 | August 6, 2018, 4:52 pm

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: