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The star-studded Airport movies reach great heights of unintentional comedy

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

There’s a giddy pleasure to be had watching celebrities in (mostly fictional) peril. When bad things happen to iconic personalities, it bolsters a viewer’s sense of self. Life seems, perhaps perversely, a little less horrible when it’s clear that no one, not even an on-screen luminary, is safe from catastrophe. This speaks to the enduring popularity of the disaster movie genre, which has existed in one form or another throughout cinema’s 100-plus year history (James Williamson’s 1901 short “Fire!” is one of the earliest examples), and reached a pinnacle in the 1970s with a series of goofy spectaculars set in everything from a topsy-turvy ocean liner (1972’s The Poseidon Adventure) to a flame-engulfed skyscraper (1974’s The Towering Inferno).


The film that inaugurated this decade-long cycle is Airport, directed by George Seaton and an uncredited Henry Hathaway, based on a novel by Arthur Hailey. It was an unexpectedly massive success, grossing $100 million (or a little over half-a-billion dollars adjusted for inflation), garnering 10 Oscar nominations (one of which turned into a win), and spawning three sequels that mostly outdo it for sheer camp value. That’s not to say that Airport lacks in the unintentional laughs department, in large part because it seems to uncomfortably straddle two worlds—glamorous Old Hollywood with its emphasis on escapist, star-studded fantasy, and cynically gritty New Hollywood, which was just then coming into its own via envelope-pushing movies like Bonnie And Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969).


Airport bears plenty of marks of Hollywood history: It was produced by Ross Hunter, best known for shepherding many of Douglas Sirk’s subversively soapy films—such as All That Heaven Allows and Imitation Of Life—into existence. (Despite Airport’s fortunes, Hunter’s next produced feature, 1973’s gut-bustingly atrocious musical remake of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, featuring a warbling Liv Ullman among many other indignities, would effectively end his movie career.) And the starring roles boast such luminaries as Burt Lancaster as beleaguered airport manager Mel Bakersfield, Dean Martin as macho pilot Vernon Demerest, and Van Heflin (looking like death warmed over) as suicidal passenger D.O. Guerrero, who’s ready to end his life, and the lives of many others, by blowing up an airplane.

Before the movie gets to that set piece, however, it spends an extended amount of time in the blizzard-beset Chicago terminal (actually filmed in Minneapolis-Saint Paul) where the passengers on that ill-fated flight mingle, Bakersfield deals with both work-related and domestic crises, and the film’s ludicrous visual style (the widescreen frame often broken up into split-screen stacks, shards, and ovals) sears the corneas. It must be said that this is the only one of the Airport movies that takes place primarily in, you know, an actual airport. But there’s a lot of narrative tedium to navigate: Lancaster, who scored a hefty payday from the film, but later decried it as “the biggest piece of junk ever made,” could clearly give two shits about the whole production, and he’s nearly outdone by Martin, who seems to be glancing sideways in each scene, eyeing the cocktail just out of reach that will take all the pain away.


Yet their indifference strangely works for the film, in large part because of all the clashing acting styles on display. As Guerrero, Heflin seems genuinely conflicted and tortured (one gets the feeling this isn’t all play-acting) and as his anguished wife Inez, Maureen Stapleton, goes full Method, lending the movie a clammy intensity that it in no way deserves. A bewigged Jean Seberg (far from Breathless as the unhappily married Lancaster’s devoted amour-in-waiting) and Dino-impregnated stewardess Jacqueline Bisset are reduced to window-dressing. However, the award for Most Tenderized Ham must go to Helen Hayes as Ada Quonsett, the effusively charming elderly grifter who cons her way onto flights and plays a crucial role in foiling Guerrero’s explosive plan. She’s the mischievous vaudevillian of this motley crew, prone to exaggerated fainting spells and groaner witticisms. (“My late husband… once played the ‘Minute Waltz’ in 58 seconds,” she purrs.) This is a “Best Supporting Actress” performance par excellence, and Hayes was indeed awarded one of the coveted gold statuettes, though she wasn’t on hand to receive it. Fellow over-actor Rosalind Russell accepted it in her stead.

Airport climaxes with its finest line of dialogue, as Lancaster and Seberg’s characters prepare to consummate their relationship: “Well, you’ve been bragging about your scrambled eggs,” he says. “It’s time I found out just how good they really are.” This also makes for a perfect segue into the greatest of the Airport films, the beyond-hilarious Airport 1975, which opens with a Shakespeare-worthy exchange between flight instructor Al Murdock (Charlton Heston) and his stewardess lover Nancy Pryor (Karen Black). “How was Europe?” she asks. “Oh, it’s still there,” he sighs—and it only gets, uh, better from there. Hunter is out as producer, Jennings Lang (prominently credited on every subsequent Airport film) is in. And Jack Smight, a TV-to-film transplant who previously helmed adaptations of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, is in the director’s seat.


The airport itself is no longer the main attraction. Now it’s the damaged Boeing 747 that boasts on its passenger manifest guitar-strumming nun Helen Reddy, mugging bundle of nerves Sid Caesar, alcoholic spinster Myrna Loy, lecherous drunkards Norman Fell and Jerry Stiller, kidney transplant-requiring moppet Linda Blair (demonic even out of Exorcist makeup), and the inimitable, close-up-ready Gloria Swanson as herself. (Look quickly, too, for Alice Nunn—soon to play the terrifying Large Marge in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure—as the plane’s resident dog lover.)

Where to begin with this accidental comic classic, which gives its direct descendant—the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker parody Airplane!, effectively the nail-in-the-coffin of the ’70s disaster movie cycle—some very real competition in the guffaw department? Perhaps Reddy’s earnest serenade of young Ms. Blair with the bizarre ballad “Best Friend”? (Sample lyric: “Would you be more forgiving of your human imperfections / If you realized your best friend was yourself.”) How about Swanson’s constant reminiscences about the old Hollywood glory days? “In 1917, I was flying in something wilder than this. Do you know who the pilot was?… Cecil B. DeMille.” (She reportedly wrote all her own dialogue because why the hell not.) Or maybe Caesar becoming the movie’s unwittingly pathos-ridden heart after he builds up his cameo appearance in the in-flight movie (American Graffiti, if you can believe it) before the film-within-a-film breaks!

Really, though, nothing can top the voluptuous horror that is Karen Black, whose character is forced to fly the plane after light-aircraft pilot Dana Andrews crashes his craft into the jet mid-flight. Fully committed to the role in all particulars, Black screams, convulses and, in the most remarkable moment of the ’port quartet, inexplicably flicks her tongue around while trying to help a helicopter-tethered replacement pilot in through the cockpit’s gaping hole. Ms. Hayes may have taken home the gold, but it’s Ms. Black who gives a performance for the ages.


From this sky high we must now sadly sink to the lower depths… of the Bermuda Triangle! The nadir of the Airport series (which doesn’t mean it’s without its pleasures) is undoubtedly Airport ’77, in which a decked-out aircraft, built by rich art collector Jimmy Stewart and piloted by a mustachioed Jack Lemmon (hot for hysterical stewardess Brenda Vaccaro), ends up at the bottom of the ocean after an in-air heist gone wrong. The plane must be hoisted from its watery prison (director Jerry Jameson would later revisit this trenchant plot, on a much larger scale, in 1980’s ridiculous Raise The Titanic), and while the rescuers scramble on the surface, drama boils over below the waves.

Almost all of the sturm und drang comes courtesy of Lee Grant as Karen, the alcoholic spouse of cuckold scuba diver Martin (Christopher Lee). She tears into and around the very ’70s decor (“Excuse me, I don’t mean to intrude, but could you move your ass, dear?” she hisses at one of her plane-mates). And she leaves her co-stars—who include Joseph Cotten, Olivia De Havilland, Darren McGavin, and M. Emmet Walsh—stunned and slack-jawed at just how much scenery one person can chew. No one else quite stoops to Grant’s level, which makes for a fairly dull experience overall. But there is one truly sublime bit of unintentional hilarity: a musical number that rivals Helen Reddy’s Airport 1975 interlude, in which blind singer-songwriter Tom Sullivan croons an easy-listening romantic ditty, “Beauty Is In The Eyes Of The Beholder,” in an ear-splitting falsetto to an audience of one. His aroused, heavy-lidded listener? A very young Kathleen Quinlan.


The first three Airport movies were all big successes, but the circle came to a close with the unprofitable and highly ridiculed The Concorde…Airport ’79. An early screening reportedly went so poorly that the studio tried to rebrand the film as a comedy. And indeed, the laughs are legion in this… thing, which somehow contrives a situation where French superstar Alain Delon, character actor extraordinaire David Warner, blustery George Kennedy (more on him in a moment), soft-core icon Sylvia Kristel (of the Emmanuelle series), and Green Acres pitchfork-wielder Eddie Albert all share the same screen space.

By this point, the Airport template was so familiar that screenwriter Eric Roth (whose scripts for Forrest Gump and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button can’t hold a candle to this masterpiece) had the brilliant idea to crash the titled supersonic passenger jet twice. It’s all part of a plan by arms-trading industrialist Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner) to off his reporter girlfriend Maggie (Susan Blakely) after she discovers his nefarious dealings. The first attempt, in which one of Harrison’s drones pursues the Concorde while Delon and company do evasive loop-de-loops, fails. So after a stopover in Paris, Harrison has his henchmen sabotage the Concorde’s baggage hold so that it will open mid-flight and force the plane down.


This is probably the craziest cast ever assembled for an Airport feature. In addition to those already mentioned, we have comedian Martha Raye (most famous for her hilariously broad and boorish performance in Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux) as an elderly passenger with an overactive bladder. Running to the restroom, she butts heads with a pot-smoking saxophonist played by Good Times star Jimmie Walker. (“I’m not feeling too well,” she pleads. “You’re a minority of one,” he replies with a cannabis-inflected grin.)

There’s also a team of Russian gymnasts onboard: One of them, played by cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci, is being romanced by an American news reporter (game show host John Davidson), much to the chagrin of her taskmaster coach (Mercedes McCambridge). Cicely Tyson pops up as a neurotic mother traveling to Europe to oversee her young son’s heart transplant, freshly excised organ in tow. And right before the second leg of the journey begins, who should pop onboard (very briefly) but Charo! She doesn’t even have time to say “Cuchi cuchi!” (she says, “Don’t misconscrew me!” instead) before she’s kicked off the plane for trying to hide a Chihuahua in her muff. (The hand-covering kind—head out of the gutter, dear reader.)


It’s during the Paris stopover, however, that the most horrifying scene in any of the Airport movies occurs as Ingmar Bergman favorite Bibi Andersson (playing a high-priced European call girl) is forced to play a semi-nude fireside scene with George Kennedy’s widowed Captain Joe Patroni. It’s at this point that we must make mention of Patroni’s indispensable presence in the Airport series. Indeed, he’s the only character who recurs through all four films. In the first installment, Patroni is a cigar-chomping mechanic who helps dig out a snow-stranded airplane that’s blocking a runway. In Airport 1975, he plays blustery second fiddle to Charlton Heston. He’s barely there in Airport ’77—just a guy back at headquarters who offers comfort and quick-thinking inspiration as required. So seeing him, finally, in the captain’s chair is a thrill beyond compare to Airport aficionados. (There are lots of us out there, yes?)

It hardly matters that Patroni’s career path makes no bloody sense: From mechanic in Airport to airline executive (of varying standings) in Airports 1975 and ’77 to full-on pilot in Airport ’79. But then, should one really expect narrative consistency from the Airport franchise? It’s enough that Patroni gets both the girl and the spotlight—to say nothing of being able to open the Concorde pilot’s window at Mach 2 so he can shoot out the flare that will confuse the heat-seeking missile and save the day. He’s the series’ emotional through-line as well as its resident sexist. After Kristel’s stewardess observes that Patroni and his aviator cronies are “such men,” he retorts, “They don’t call it the cockpit for nothin’ honey.”


Now a final word for Airport completists: The films under discussion here are the four theatrically released Airport movies, which are all available on home video. However, there are longer versions of both Airport ’77 and The Concorde…Airport ’79 that later aired on television, both of which are difficult to find. They don’t exactly sound like holy grails: The studio basically financed additional shooting so that the networks could fill out their time slots, and these extra scenes are mostly filler, with flashbacks to the passengers’ lives and additional on-the-ground derring-do. (The TV version of Airport ’79 even has a whole new subplot involving José Ferrer as an INTERPOL agent.) You can see a breakdown of the ’79 additional scenes at the blog Original Vid Junkie. Also not discussed is Ruggero Deodato’s Italian ripoff of The Concorde…Airport ’79, which is known as Concorde Affair ’79 and features Beneath The Planet Of The Apes star James Franciscus, former MGM matinee idol Van Johnson, Mimsy Farmer (of the 1969 Pink Floyd-scored heroin drama More, directed by Barbet Schroeder), and Airport ’77 victim Joseph Cotten. There’s only so much plane-crash cinema a critic can take.

Final ranking:

1. Airport 1975

2. The Concorde… Airport ’79

3. Airport

4. Airport ’77


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