AIRPORT was hardly the first imperiled-airliner movie, nor the first big-scale picture centered around a catastrophe, but its runaway (runway?) success in 1970 jet-started the cycle that came to be dubbed “disaster movies”; star-laden, multi-subplot extravaganzas spun about some geophysical event or human act that would reduce the supporting cast one death at a time, make a lot of money for producers and bring reams of chuckles to critics and crowds. The dorky Krakatoa, East Of Java beat it into theaters, but failed to detonate box office, whereas this enjoyable, “old-fashioned Grand Hotel of the air”, as producer Ross Hunter deemed it, was boosted by Arthur Hailey’s novel having stayed on the bestseller roost for 65 weeks. $10,000,000 got Hunter his flying hotel, which jetted home to Universal with nearly 13 times that in receipts, 10 Oscar nominations to crow over and three sequels to incubate. The nominations were an industry joke, the sequels notably doofy, but $128,400,000 in cash greenlit earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanoes and meteors. *
Hailey’s winning formula was to pick a major industry, provide dope on how it functioned and what lay ahead, then mix in a slew of characters, all beset with some personal crisis. In this case, the director of a large airport (in Chicago) has to deal with a crippling blizzard, marital discord, angry local residents, a precocious elderly stowaway and finally a bomb threat on a plane bound for Rome. George Seaton (Miracle On 34th Street) wrote the script and directed (with an uncredited assist from Henry Hathaway), filming exteriors at the airport in Minneapolis.
Melodrama, true, but what works is the smooth meshing of studio craftsmen and a pro cast. Alfred Newman jolts it to life with a rousing title theme. Burt Lancaster heads the team as the harried manager, with Dean Martin (a decent dramatic performance) as the pilot dealing with the bomb, as well as his pregnant stewardess lover (Jacqueline Bisset). Jean Seberg (stuck with an unflattering hairdo) is Burt’s loyal aide and hopeful partner: he’s fighting with angry wife Dana Wynter. Helen Hayes, 70, has fun imping it up as the stowaway: she walked off with the movies only winning Oscar, for Supporting Actress. More telling is Maureen Stapleton (also nominated) as the distraught wife of depressed bomber Van Heflin: they add genuine pathos. George Kennedy powers in as ‘Joe Patroni’. Filling up the ranks are Lloyd Nolan, Barry Nelson, Barbara Hale, Gary Collins, Larry Gates, Whit Bissell, Paul Picerni, Virginia Grey, Jessie Royce Landis, Benny Rubin, Marion Ross, Ena Hartman and Pat Priest (‘Marilyn Munster’). Peter Turgeon is the loudmouth complainer who gets the biggest laugh when a priest backhands him across the aisle. **
In a year that saw Patton, Five Easy Pieces, Woodstock, Catch-22, MASH and Little Big Man, tossing a host of Oscar nominations to the slick but safe Airport was a bit rich: aside from Hayes sentimental win (she was fun, Stapleton was better) it went on the nomination list for Best Picture, Screenplay, Stapleton’s Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Music Score (Newman’s last of 45 nominations, this one posthumous), Art Direction, Film Editing, Costume Design and Sound. We’d allow for Stapleton and Newman, the rest not so much.
* Before Airport, flight logs included Five Came Back, No Highway In The Sky, The High And The Mighty, Zero Hour! and The Crowded Sky. After the sap of Love Story, Airport was 1970’s #2 hit. Aside from topping Ross Hunter’s glossy career, it was a particular boon to Lancaster and Martin, who besides their hefty salaries, made millions off profit-sharing. Dino was already flush thanks to his TV show, records and Matt Helm movies, but Burt (who dismissed the movie as “the biggest piece of junk ever made”) needed not just the bread but a hit: he hadn’t had one since The Professionals four years earlier. Airport’s tail wind covered his previous duds The Swimmer, The Scalphunters, Castle Keep and The Gypsy Moths and a string of subsequent losers.
** Casting Call— rewatching this after many years, scanning the cast not for the obvious stars but for familiar faces in bit parts, your alert bombardier took notice of a young, particularly pretty lady playing a stewardess. A little research discovered this was Patty Poulsen, who actually had taken the title “World’s Most Beautiful Stewardess”. Miss Poulsen passed away in 2019, at 75. No doubt, in today’s woke joke climate, something so ghastly as ‘beautiful stewardess’ would bring down more wrath than the bubonic plague. Well, this blog flies friendly skies, so put your seat up and stow the outrage.