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Tag Archives: Disaster Films

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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The Hurricane (1937) – Disaster Film, Colonialism and Racism

The French flag is the symbol of colonialism in this movie. We see it at the beginning and we see it at the end, when it is being ripped to shreds by the hurricane. The movie was released in 1937 and directed by John Ford, who is best remembered for his Westerns and was often interested in themes of racism. The Hurricane is an interesting movie, very much of its times in how it blends a paternalistic attitude of the native people of the South Sea Islands with an attempt to expose the cruelties inherent in colonialism.

The biggest problem with Ford’s view is that the native islanders are portrayed as children that should be treated with the indulgence you would afford children. The other issue often mentioned is Ford’s decision to cast his two lead characters – both Polynesian – with Caucasian actors; however, I feel that the practice of casting white people in various non-white roles is such an old and long lasting problematic practice (it even occurs today) that it is unfair to single out Ford in this instance.

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Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall

The plot is a bit like Les Miserables meets disaster film. Terangi (Jon Hall) is a popular and free-spirited young man from the island of Manakura. He is first mate on a merchant ship and is engaged to marry the chief’s daughter, Marama (Dorothy Lamour). Everyone loves and admires him, even the governor and his wife. However, on a trip to Tahiti, a white man insults him and tells him to stand in the presence of his betters. Terangi is angry and knocks him out. He is sentenced to prison for six months, despite Manakura’s resident doctor (Thomas Mitchell) appealing to Governor De Laage of Manakura (Raymond Massey) to intervene.

Terangi doesn’t really understand what is going on and he can’t bear to be in prison and away from his new wife and tries to escape. He is caught and his sentence is upped to two years. The guards are cruel, he repeatedly tries to escape and the years pile up on his sentence. After six years of imprisonment, he has accumulated 16 years of prison time.

The Hurricane

Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, Jerome Cowan

Meanwhile, his family and friends are bitterly resentful of the governor’s contined refusal to intervene. Governor De Laage says that he must uphold the law, whilst his friend the doctor, his wife (Mary Astor), his priest (C. Aubrey Smith) and Terangi’s captain (Jerome Cowan) maintain that in this instance the law is unjust. Finally, Terangi succeeds in escaping for real and is reunited with Marama and their child. Her family are preparing to help them escape to another island when De Laage begins to get suspicious. However, before anyone can do anything else, a hurricane hits the island.

And I must say that the special effects are truly impressive. There are fifteen minutes, without music and only the church bell ringing, of rain and storm and water while people try to escape. It looks great…and all the better for not being CGI. When the actors were being hit with water and high wind and Mary Astor said in her book, A Life On Film, that the wind and the water hit their faces so hard that they would have little pinpricks of blood all over their faces.

In a way, the hurricane acts as a deus ex machina, but not in any way that anyone could have wished. It solves everything only because it is so terrible an event that the previous concerns no longer matter. The hurricane wipes the slate clean and those who are left must start afresh.

MV5BMTk1Njk2MzQ2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzA0MTI0NA@@__V1_SX640_SY720_Although the movie was marketed as a romance between Terangi and Marama – and a lot of time is spent with them – the most interesting character is Governor De Laage and one’s enjoyment of the film seems to partly rest with whether or not one can sympathize with or at least handle Raymond Massey’s portrayal of the character. No one can play implacable to the point of harshness quite like Massey.

Andrew Sarris has an interesting view of the film, in his book You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949. He writes that because Terangi and Marama are portrayed as Hollywoodized innocent victims, “the film’s dramatic focus shifts therefore to the Europeans, and particularly to one of the most fascinatingly civilized of all movie couples – Raymond Massey’s Governor De Laage and Mary Astor’s Mrs. De Laage. The Hurricane is ultimately their story as they argue with exquisite delicacy and tact the conflicting claims of the law and the heart.”

In fact, Mrs. De Laage seems to feel, unlike any other character in the movie, that she can appeal to De Laage’s heart. She always approaches him by addressing his heart rather than his reason (the doctor repeatedly appeals to reason without any effect) and he always responds by saying that it is not fair for her to attack him where he is vulnerable, as if the two of them have some secret knowledge that he is actually sentimental at heart even though no one else can tell. We do see it a little, at the beginning and the end, how much he loves his wife, as much as Terangi loves Marama, but he is more reserved about it. Massey and Astor do not have much time together, but it is still an intriguing relationship.

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Mary Astor, Thomas Mitchell, Jerome Cowan, Unidentified Woman, Raymond Massey

Sarris also argues that De Laage is far more subtle than sometimes supposed, not the cruel sadist and legalist that he is often called. It seems like he has trapped himself. He feels that he must uphold the law, not so much for the sake of the law but because if he does not act in solidarity with his fellow governors and lawmakers, then he is tacitly undermining the very principles of colonialism. If it is an injustice for Terangi to be put in prison for not knowing his place, then what business do the French have ruling over these people if they are not beneath them?

The result, unsurprisingly, of stubbornly and rigidly standing his ground is alienation and what the author of Jane Austen: Game Theorist, Michael Suk-Young Chwe, would call cluelessness. He alienates himself from his friends (the doctor and priest) and from all the people of the island, and one cannot help wondering a little about the state of his marriage (they seem a little tense together). As a result of his refusal to bend, he cuts himself off from everyone and he is the last one to know anything, such as when Terangi finally escapes from prison.

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Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour

This cluelessness is brought about by a refusal to put oneself in the place of others, which means you cannot understand them, their motives, or what they are capable of doing. By standing firm in keeping Terangi in prison, De Laage shows remarkable cluelessness in not understanding the people he governs. For one, as my sister pointed out, it is a very small island and everyone’s probably related – like one large family – so when Terangi is wrongfully imprisoned, they all take it personally. He is basically trying to apply cold law meant for nations to a family, and it is not clear that the people of Manakura fully understand the whys and wherefores of the laws of the French.

There is a scene at the beginning when De Laage is reprimanding one young man for “stealing” a canoe (to take his sweetheart on a moonlit trip). The doctor argues for clemency because the young man had all the excuse in the world – moonlight – which isn’t the point, I think. What is probably going on is that, if the islanders are all family, they might be used to borrowing and sharing their possessions. A family member borrowing my car, even without my permission, is not the same as somebody I don’t know in a large city, taking a joyride. In this instance, De Laage is attempting to apply European laws to a situation that does not merit them. It is the inherent cluelessness of colonialism.

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Thomas Mitchell

The doctor is an interesting character, because I think we are meant to agree with him, though I rarely wanted to. He is perpetually drinking and loves the island and never wants to go back to Paris. He is also one of the loudest voices against De Laage’s actions, or inaction. However, it is through him that we get most of the paternalistic arguments about how the people of Manakura are like children and need to be free like a bird. It is he who repeatedly makes bad arguments for good causes and although he gets along well with the native people of the island, he doesn’t seem to understand them better than De Laage. One can’t help but wonder what his past is and how much of his statements have to do with wish fulfillment, especially regarding being free like birds.

Ironically, all of these arguments, disagreements, suffering and misunderstandings go for naught. The hurricane hits and it essentially puts those who survive back at square one. In a way, it highlights the futility of human interactions in the face of nature. Nothing matters once an act of God occurs but survival; everything else seems petty. It’s like the flood of Noah in how it wipes away all else.

The film is currently available on youtube and can be found at this link, here, and if you would just like to see just the hurricane, click here. Below is the trailer for the film.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Movies

 

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