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Airport (1970)

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.

Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset

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.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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Zero Hour! (1957)

“Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.”

Zero Hour! is the film that inspired Airplane! and much of the dialogue and scenes were lifted wholesale from the earlier film. With such gems as the quote above, I can see how Zero Hour! was a candidate for spoofing (along with disaster films in general), though it is actually not a bad little B thriller. It’s quite tense at times.

Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) was a squadron leader during WWII, but when he makes a poor decision that costs the lives of six of his pilots during a bombing raid, he is shattered. Over ten years later, his confidence is still shot. He can’t settle down to a job, his marriage is in trouble, and he’s never flown a plane since. When his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell) takes their son and leaves him, he manages to get on the same plane to talk with her.

And then the fish lays waste to half the passengers, as well as the pilot and co-pilot. It’s almost enough to reconcile one to those little bags of pretzels they hand out on flights now.  It’s a potentially fatal case of food poisoning and the only one who can fly is Ted (who, fortunately, had lamb chops for dinner). But not only does he still have a bad case of PTSD, but he’s also never flown a jet. The airline must get someone to talk him through his landing. The man they chose is Captain Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden), who knew Ted during the war.

I think what adds a little tension to the film is the fact that literally no one has faith in Ted, including Ted. His wife has no confidence, Treleaven has no confidence. In fact, Treleaven thinks Ted is the kind of guy who always folds up under pressure, but he still has to instill in Ted that confidence he does not himself feel. There’s a lot at stake for Ted. No one respects him, his son could die of food poisoning, and he must wrestle with his sense of personal failure, all during a bad storm.

There seems to have been a whole spate of airplane disaster films during the 1950s: The High and MightyNo Highway in the Sky, and even Julie, where Doris Day notoriously plays a flight attendant who must land the plane after her insane husband shoots the pilot. In Julie, the exact same thing happens, where she has to be talked down by those on the ground with access to radar, who gives her blow by blow instructions via radio.

Perhaps it makes sense, since the 1950s was the first decade where average Americans were beginning to afford flying. We’re so used to flying now, it has less novelty or sense of danger (more like a sense of cramped and disgruntled impatience). Though perhaps that’s not strictly true. There was the recent film Sully, which captured some of the immediacy and potential tragedy of a plan crash. On the whole, I think our fears in regards to planes are more related to terrorism than accidents now. But by pilot error or terrorist, the fear that passengers must feel on a plane, which they cannot control, is still a relatable fear.

I have to comment on how flying is portrayed practically like a holiday (at least until the fish incident). Stryker is able to take his son up to meet the pilot, who gives his son a toy airplane. They serve meals, the seats look roomy, even the airplane bathroom looks about twice the size of the bathrooms today. Since movies tend to err on the side of fiction over fact, I have to ask: does anyone know how accurate that portrayal is? How much has flying really changed over the years?

If you have not seen Airplane!, I would recommend watching Zero Hour! first. I’ve read many people say that after seeing Airplane!, it is impossible to watch this without cracking up every few minutes. I must admit that I have not seen Airplane! yet, but after watching the trailer, laughed so hard that I decided I absolutely had to see it next.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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