Airport (1970)

*. With the hindsight of half a century, is it OK to enjoy Airport now?
*. I don’t mean “Can we laugh at it?” People thought it was ridiculous and laughed at it in 1970. It didn’t need Airplane! ten years (and three sequels) later to make fun of it.
*. Nor do I mean that only now can we see it as badly dated. This was, again, something noticed by everyone at the time. Judith Crist called it “the best film of 1944.” Pauline Kael dismissed it as “bland entertainment of the old school: every stereotyped action is followed by a stereotyped reaction — clichés commenting on clichés.” Variety‘s review saw it as “a handsome, often dramatically involving $10 million epitaph to a bygone brand of filmmaking.” Charles Champlin described it as “breath-taking in its celebration of anything which used to work when Hollywood was younger and we were all more innocent.” You get the point. We’re not more sophisticated today than we were then.
*. But the reviewers who saw Airport as a throwback were on to something. Today I think it’s most often seen as the beginning of the spate of disaster movies that were so popular throughout the 1970s. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno being two of its more famous offspring. But really it’s a movie that I think does look back.

*. It has the feel of earlier times for many reasons. It was Van Heflin’s last film. It was the final score by Alfred Newman. There were apparently 23 Oscars among the cast and crew, which gives the proceedings a kind of Hall of Fame feel (Helen Hayes won her second Oscar for her role as Ada Quonsett, coming nearly forty years after her first). There isn’t a single interesting style note, unless you’re impressed by the use of a split screen every damn time there’s a telephone call. The cast is all white, and the leading men all of a certain vintage, the names of their characters betokening varieties of ethnic masculinity: Mel Bakersfeld, Vernon Demerest, and Patroni (no first name required, he’s the troubleshooter and “They don’t call them emergencies anymore. They call them Patronis.”). Their love interests, meanwhile, are 25 years younger. As was customary in this golden age.
*. If you really want whiplash though, compare Jean Seberg as she’s done up here in the height of Edith Head’s “Airport style” to what she looked like in Breathless ten years earlier. Don’t be afraid to cry. Let it all out. I’ll wait.
*. What it’s all a throwback to, it seems to me, is the kind of melodrama that Douglas Sirk popularized in the 1950s (think Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind). Airport is nominally about multiple crises at a busy Chicago airport but it’s really a soap opera. Based on a bestseller by Arthur Hailey that might have established the genre of airport novel, it gives us a bunch of stock characters in an overripe drama where the setting takes a backseat to all the usual shenanigans. Shenanigans that come at us with dialogue like that delivered by Captain Demerest the Horny Pilot (played by Dean Martin) to the sexy stewardess (Jacqueline Bissett): “You get me up to full throttle then throw me into reverse. You could damage my engine that way!”

*. Alas, Captain Demerest has put a bun in her oven, which leads to the Abortion Talk:

Why didn’t you tell me this before?
I tried. But we were in a hurry and . . .
You’re sure?
Do you mean am I sure I’m pregnant, or am I sure you’re the father?
Come on, Gwen. I didn’t . . .
The answer to both questions is yes.
You know I wasn’t asking.
You have a perfect right to. I want you to know something, Vern. That there hasn’t been anyone else but you. You see, there couldn’t be. I happen to love you. I’m afraid I was careless. I stopped taking the pills because they were making me gain weight. So instead of being plump, I’m pregnant. Stop twisting your wedding ring. I know you’ve got a wife. I know you can’t marry me. I knew it in the beginning. I won’t make things difficult for you.

*. Just as fluffy as the Abortion Talk is the Divorce Talk. This takes place between airport manager Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) and his wife:

We don’t have a home anymore. We have a waiting room, a place where I can walk the floor, wondering whether you’re going to leave this damn airport long enough to drop by for a few minutes.
Why did you have to pick tonight to come out here and fight with me . . .
I came here to tell you that Roberta [their daughter] left home.
What do you mean left home? When?
I called from the banquet to say goodnight, and I spoke to Libby. Roberta, she said, told her that she couldn’t stand our fighting anymore. That she couldn’t stand the “atmosphere of hate.” And that’s a direct quote.
Where is she? Did Libby say?
She’s at Sally Bolton’s house. She’s going to spend the night there. I spoke to her.
Cindy, we can’t do this to the kids. We’ve got to call a truce, even if it’s a pretense. We’ve got to start being civil to each other.
And add hypocrisy to the problem? They’d see through that in a minute. That’s not the answer.
Well we’ve got to do something.
You’re right, and the only answer is a divorce.
You think that will make them feel more secure? A broken home?
It’s better to come from a broken home than to live in one.

*. I’ve quoted all this at length because I think it gets at the real charm of Airport. As I say, this is what the movie is really all about. And I think it’s the kind of thing Roger Ebert might have been responding to when he began his review by saying “On some dumb fundamental level, Airport kept me interested for a couple of hours. I can’t quite remember why.” Well, this is why. It’s a soap formula and on the most basic, perhaps even subconscious level that stuff works.
*. So if we can all enjoy Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind today not just as camp but as representing a certain kind of story told a certain way then I think we can do the same for Airport. I can’t write it off, as Lancaster did, as “the worst piece of junk ever made.” In fact I was surprised at how much I liked it. I especially got a kick out of how the stupid passengers screw up the bomb scenario not once but twice. They all deserved to die.
*. Meanwhile, with the template that had been established, could they do it all again? Given the box office they were certainly going to try!

7 thoughts on “Airport (1970)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Please tell me you’re going for all four, I love these movies for the reasons you describe; the sudsy soap opera scenes have to be seen to be believed! 79 The Concorde is the genre high for me….

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        I’d insert some kind of popcorn muching emoji if I could. Saw 77 in the cinema, and that’s got a special place in my heart as well. And 75 is a Philadelphia cheese sandwich of a movie…bring it on!

      2. Alex Good Post author

        The only one I remember seeing in the theatre was Concorde. I was surprised at how well the trashiness of all of them has held up though.

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