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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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The Crimson Pirate (1952) – An Exuberant, Athletic Pirate Film

TCP-PosterOne of the most exuberant and athletic adventure movies, let alone pirate movies, that you will ever see is The Crimson Pirate, with Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok and directed by Robert Siodmak. Rather than sword fight their way through the film, Lancaster and Cravat jump and leap and throw things and use whatever comes to hand to rout the enemy, all the while demonstrating their perfect coordination.

Before Burt Lancaster became an actor, he and his childhood friend, Cravat, formed an acrobatic team and worked in a circus. When Lancaster went to Hollywood, his friend eventually joined him. Cravat would train Lancaster and keep him in shape and the two of them appeared in nine movies together, with two of them allowing them to demonstrate their acrobatic abilities. And they really are fine acrobats. They do back flips, walk in unison, jump in unison, scramble up ropes, turn somersaults, pull each other up, and generally romp through the Spanish Main as Barbary pirates.

Captain Vallo (Lancaster) is not only a fearsome pirate, but also a tricky strategist. The movie opens with the King’s man, Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley), who is coming to put down some rebels on the Island of Cobra. But when they encounter a small ship that has apparently been decimated by scurvy and is filled with dead bodies, they tow the ship behind them, only to discover that those dead bodies are really live pirates led by Captain Vallo, who promptly take over the ship. But instead of killing Gruda he comes up with a scheme. He’ll let Gruda go, sell all of Gruda’s guns to the rebels, led by El Libre, and then sell El Libre to the king and Baron Gruda, who promised to throw in something extra, thus making three times the money than if they killed Gruda and sold the guns elsewhere.

The pirates take a little convincing, though. They are old fashioned pirates, led by first mate Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher), and they like good old fashioned pillaging and plundering. This scheme of their captain’s smacks too much of legitimate business, even if it does involve selling out the rebels. But Vallo and his constant companion, Ojo (Cravat), go ashore to Cobra to find the rebels and sell them the guns.

Nick Cravat and Burt Lancaster

Nick Cravat and Burt Lancaster

After some hilarious and invigorating gymnastics, driving the soldiers mad with their antics, Vallo and Ojo find the rebels, one of whom is Conseulo (Eva Bartok), the daughter of El Libre. It turns out that El Libre has already been captured by the King’s men, so in order to keep his complicated money scheme alive, Vallo takes Conseulo with him to the prison island of San Pero, to rescue her father so they can sell the guns to him so they can sell him right back to the king.

But when Vallo starts to fall in love with Consuelo and has second thoughts about his plan, his crew take matters into their own hands and make a deal with Baron Gruda, selling out their captain, who must now rescue Consuelo and, in the process, assist in the liberation of Cobra.

The Crimson Pirate doesn’t take itself at all seriously – though most good pirate films don’t. I suppose it’s because pirates in history were so awful that if a film were a serious drama it would be too gory and intense for general, family consumption. But The Crimson Pirate especially doesn’t take itself too seriously. Burt Lancaster’s Vallo is not just a pirate captain, he’s also a bit of con artist. He plays it like a used car salesman, always saying “Gather round, lads and lasses” to talk either his crew or the rebels into one of his latest schemes.

Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok

Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok

The romance is not quite as riveting as other aspects of the film; it is more of a reason for Vallo to grow a conscience. It’s really about his adventures with his faithful Ojo. Because Nick Cravat had a fairly strong Brooklyn accent, in his two historical adventure films with Burt Lancaster (the other was The Flame and the Arrow) he plays a man who does not speak. Instead, he mimes, makes faces and communicates as clearly as if he were speaking. There is one fun scene when he is showing Vallo how his heart has been hooked by Consuelo and gets him to admit that he no longer wants to go through with his original scheme. It is fun to watch the two of them interact; they have the kind of easy rapport and coordination that comes from long familiarity, as if they can anticipate each other’s movements.

In a feature on how The Pirates of the Caribbean was made, the screenwriters of that film said that they wanted to capture the feel of the classic pirates films, like Captain Blood and Treasure Island. Another movie that they mentioned being heavily influenced by was The Crimson Pirate and watching it recently, I can see how. There is the scene in the original Pirates of the Caribbean where Jack and Will walk in the water holding an upside-down rowboat over their heads, which comes straight out of The Crimson Pirate, though it is a more extensive and hilarious scene in the latter film. Vallo, Ojo and Professor Prudence (James Hayter) are cast adrift and chained to a rowboat. The professor gets the idea that, according to Archemides, if they overturn the boat, if the boat is airtight, the air will prevent the water from rushing in. With their heads poking into the air pocket of the overturned boat, they walk ashore. But because they are still chained to the boat, they do quite a bit of running through the streets and ducking around corners, still carrying the boat over their heads. All that can be seen is their feet and I will say that no one pussyfoots better or has more personality with his pussyfooting than Burt Lancaster.

3aUmbLGOQppAoBUxUeyPu1DSuWrVallo is always running around saying “Avast” more than anyone else I’ve seen, a line spoofed by Will Turner when he unsuccessfully attempts some pirate talk with his “Aye, avast!.” There is also a scene when Vallo and his crew jump out of their ship and into the water to swim to the enemy ship and take them unawares; a scene with them all in the water that is reminiscent of the skeleton pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean walking across the ocean floor to reach the other ship.

With adventure, swashbuckling, romance, a fight for liberty, explosions, mutinies, hot air balloons, liquid explosives, The Crimson Pirate is one of the great pirate films of all time and certainly one of the most fun.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2015 in Adventure

 

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Mister 880 (1950) – Romantic Comedy and Counterfeit Money

Mister_880It’s a bit like Miracle on 34th Street, though surprisingly I liked Mister 880 even more than the celebrated Christmas classic. It was made in 1950 and stars Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire and the man who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, Edmund Gwenn. Despite the similarities, it’s a more low-key film, a bit less sentimental and has a little less of a point to make. It’s also based on a real story and so the film feels more everyday, about people doing their job and doing the best they can for themselves and other people. There are no villains in Mister 880.

The Secret Service has been interested in the case of an amateur counterfeiter they call Mister 880 for ten years. He’s a terrible counterfeiter, he even spells Washington as Wahsington, but because he only counterfeits one dollar bills and never uses them at the same place, the secret service has never been able to catch him. For a fresh perspective, they bring in Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) to work on the case.

He begins to notice that there is a geographical pattern to how the money is being used and soon a suspect turns up. Two counterfeit one dollar bills are used by Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire). Ann is a respectable translator who works at the UN and Buchanan quickly rules her out as the source of the money, but thinks that perhaps she can lead him to the real counterfeiter. 

The real counterfeiter is an elderly war veteran called Skipper (Edmund Gwenn). He likes to deal in ‘antiques’ and barely has enough money to live on. Whenever he’s really in a bind, he tells people that he must go to “Uncle Henry,” who turns out to be a money press. He only uses it in extreme emergencies, and then only prints one dollar bills and makes sure that he never gives anyone more than one dollar (though he did give his neighbor and friend, Ann, two dollars, but he really felt she over-payed him for an antique he bought her). He’s such a lovable guy; he likes kids and people really respond warmly to him.

Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Edmund Gwenn

Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Edmund Gwenn

Buchanan is convinced that the counterfeiter is in Ann’s neighborhood, but although he is always visiting Ann (they’ve fallen in love) he doesn’t realize that the man he is looking for is right under his nose.

It’s a fun, irresistible and warm film. Gwenn really does play him as a lovable, though vulnerable, guy. When Buchanan is closing in on the counterfeiter, Skipper has to stop making his one dollar bills and without that source of income he must sell his beloved collection of antiques (some people would call it junk); antiques that he always said kept him company and which he made up stories about. It’s not a drawn out scene, but very poignant that this lonely old man, without a word of complaint or a tear, is selling off all he owns and cares about.

But his creed is that he doesn’t want to be a bother. That is why he refused a service pension that he is entitled to. He thought he could save the government time and money by just making a dollar here and there as the need arose, ironically causing more trouble for the government than he ever could have imagined.

Dorothy McGuire and Burt Lancaster are also really good in this film. She’s competent and smart and gets on to Buchanan almost from the get go, though she says she hopes that once he figures out she’s not a counterfeiter that he won’t drop her too fast; she thinks he’s hot (and it’s Burt Lancaster, so I can’t disagree). And although he could play extremely tough men, Burt Lancaster is also endearing in this film. He’s a bit gung-ho about his work and talks a hard line about catching and prosecuting counterfeiters, but he’s no Inspector Javert. He’s really a nice guy.

phot6360Another thing I enjoyed about this film is that no one has to change. Sometimes, these kind of films can be a bit preachy; how the by-the-book secret service man must learn compassion and bend his principles, but there is none of that here. Nobody has to change and nobody gets mad at anyone. Ann doesn’t even get angry at Buchanan when he does his job and arrests Skipper, though she is grieved. Even the judge, who also believes in taking a hard line on matter of counterfeiting, is not antagonistic, though he is stern. He too responds to Skipper’s warm personality and it doesn’t take much for Buchanan to talk him into a lenient sentence. It’s a charming film about good, affectionate people trying to do the right thing.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Comedy, Romance

 

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