As my dad said, “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.” I’m not sure it was the intent, but the film Airport does testify to the durability of the Boeing 707, with George Kennedy’s mechanic character repeatedly and lovingly discoursing on how it’s the finest of its time. The plane even survives a bomb blowing a hole in the side of the plane from the lavatory.
I was interested in seeing Airport because I had heard that it was the film that inaugurated the string of 1970s disaster films (including The Poseidon Adventure ) and that it was exactly the kind of film that was spoofed in Airplane!. The film is also interesting for the bonanza of familiar faces: Burt Lancaster, Jean Seberg, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Lloyd Nolan, George Kennedy, Maureen Stapleton, Dana Wynter, Jessie Royce Landis, and Barbara Hale.
The film is based on a novel by Arthur Hailey, an author of a number of bestselling novels that were also turned into movies. The setting is an airport in Chicago, at night, during a snow storm. One 707 is stuck in the snow, having turned too quickly and missed the runway. Picketers are outside, protesting the noise pollution that disrupts their sleep at night. Mel Bakersfield (Burt Lancaster) is the manager of the airport, who has marital issues at home. His brother-in-law is Captain Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin), a playboy pilot who does not get along with Mel and has gotten stewardess Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset) pregnant. Costumer relations Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg) has to deal with a variety of issues, including chronic airplane stowaway Ada Quonset (Helen Hayes), as well as her relationship with Mel. To top things off, a bomber (Van Heflin) gets on a flight for Rome, which is Captain Demarest’s flight.
It’s an eventful night. One only hopes that all nights are not like it for poor Mel.
One thing that fascinating me was the totally blase attitude towards security. Ada Quonset would never be able to stowaway in today’s security-obsessed world. One of her favorite tricks is to say that her son dropped his wallet and is allowed to go up to the plane to return it. The only thing the airport seems particularly alert to is customs (with Lloyd Nolan playing an experienced custom’s officer). And there is no way that Van Heflin’s bomber would have gotten anywhere near an airplane now.
It’s a very earnest film, with the exception of Helen Hayes, who appears to be having a ball stealing every scene that is not nailed down (those scenes that she is simply not in). She is a sweet little old lady who knits on flights and pretty much has the entire system figured out, to the frustration of Tanya Livingston.
Dean Martin plays the captain who is irresponsible in his personal life, but is at least a responsible pilot who is calm under pressure. I am used to thinking of Dean Martin as a very charming guy, but he’s actually rather a jerk in this one. It’s not Dean Martin’s fault; I think he’s playing the character as written.
Dean Martin is one of those actors who is living proof that singers can be good actors. In fact, there are a surprising number of singers who were so successful in acting that they were able to make movies where they do not need to sing to justify themselves: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Barbra Streisand. I often think that when musicals are made today, instead of having actors try to sing, get a real singer and have them act. It worked wonderfully for Dean Martin.
Airplane is not his finest film. It would make a good soap opera, actually. But I was pleased to see him in one of his non-musical roles.
This post is my contribution to “The Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon,” hosted by Musings of a Classic Film Addict. For more posts celebrating Dean Martin, check out the recap for Days 1, 2, and 3 of the blogathon.