At half-past six on a Friday evening in January, Lincoln International Airport, Illinois, was functioning, though with difficulty.
In 1968, Arthur Hailey's best-selling novel Airport seemed like a permanent fixture at the top of the best sellers' list. It was an intricately detailed telling of the inner workings of the fictional Lincoln International Airport trying desperately to function during one of the worst snow storms in decades. Hailey had researched the book for five years. As he weaved his soap opera storyline magic, we gained a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at airport operations, why airlines function the way they do and a detailed look at the stressful lives of air-traffic controllers.
It was these details that made the novel such a great read. Hailey wrote his characters with substance, digging deep into their personalities, motivations, and psyche so that we always understood their actions and reactions. The basic storylines may have been the stuff high-class soap operas are made of. Still, everything seemed incredibly fresh when placed against the behind-the-scenes backdrop of a major Metropolitan airport.
Things have changed quite a bit in the forty years since Hailey's book was published. In those days, airports and Airlines were willing to bend over backward to please the paying customer. As you know, the worm has turned. Most airline policies seem to be based on one industry-wide proposition: Make the cash and screw the paying customer any way you can with add-on fees, cramped planes, and generally shitty service.
Still, some things are the same. Being an air traffic controller is just as stressful now as it was then, if not more so, despite the improvements that may have occurred in the system. Aren't there even more large and small aircraft up there, like chess pieces in a daily game of chicken trying to stay out of each other's way?
And airlines and airports are just as clueless about dealing with the weather as they were in 1968, and probably even less so since pleasing the customer is no longer put above raking in the profits. But I can't swear to that, and since Hailey departed for that great big runaway in the sky years ago, he isn't around to update his book for us.
Half an inch of snow coming, you say? Close every airport east of the Mississippi.
All of that aside, in 1970, Universal Studios brought Hailey's book to the big screen. Unable to put all of the intricate details of Airport operations into the script, Director and writer George Seaton gave us a whole lot of soap opera about love affairs, spousal cheating, divorce, and general hanky panky, all done with a ton of blowing snow and a busy International Airport as the backdrop.
Only a tiny smidgeon of the actual inner workings of an airport are thrown into the mix. One huge subplot of the novel and one of the book's best storylines regarding a suicidal air traffic controller didn't make the cut. But the remaining major storyline involving another suicidal character, this one wanting to blow himself up and take a bunch of airline employees and passengers along with him just for kicks, remains.
In a film such as this, with enough plots to make six movies, you are bound by the unwritten law of Hollywood to have a recognizable all-star cast. So get your pens and pencils out and prepare to draw a chart, or use the handy pictorial I have included.
Headlining Airport is Burt Lancaster as Mel Bakersfield, the airport manager, and Dean Martin as Mel's brother-in-law and philandering pilot, Vern Demerest. Lancaster is easily the better of the two. He has this aura of efficiency about him that makes us believe he could be running a Metropolitan Airport. And that's what he does throughout most of Airport's running time.
Mel deals with pickets, an aircraft mired deep in the fallen snow, and a stowaway between juggling phone calls from his wife and lusting after Tonya Livingston (Jean Seberg).
Dean Martin plays Dean Martin pretending to be the aforementioned philandering playboy pilot. His wife, played by Perry Mason's reliable Secretary of nine years, Della Street (Barbara Hale), is kept around solely as his insurance policy to guard against any of his playmates becoming too serious. She also happens to be Mel Bakersfield's sister, which means she spends much time playing referee since Mel and Vern loathe each other wholly and thoroughly. The reasons are given in the novel, but you're on your own to figure it out in the movie.
Still, Martin does the impossible and manages to make the character a likable guy because Martin always had this amicable, casual persona about him which was displayed when he did his weekly variety show on NBC. Martin was the most easy-going guy in the room.
Martin and Lancaster only have two brief scenes together. It would have been nice if Seaton added a few more just so we could watch two legends co-existing on-screen, even if the material was nothing more than a Twinkie sandwich.
Lancaster is said to have once called the film "the worst piece of junk ever made" This despite making a fortune from his 10 percent profit participation once the film hit 48 million. Martin did even better, pocketing a remarkable seven million from his ten percent of the gross, about $36 million in today's dollars.
Seberg's Tonya Livingston is an airline representative with designs on Mel. However, Mel is still married to Cyndi, played by Dana Wynter. We believe Seberg is the airline liaison, but the romantic chemistry between Seberg and Lancaster is DOA.
And although we know Tonya is attracted to Mel through some of her actions, we do not get any clue from Bakersfield's character that he feels any emotional involvement with her other than their "being honest with each other" chat.
It is short-changed, and there are only a few hints about what their relationship may or may not be or is going to be. The only thing we know for sure is that Tonya gives excellent omelets. Leave it to your imagination whether she was giving old Mel other great things.
In the book, Mel's wife Cyndi is played as a horny shrew who has only two things on her mind: Getting laid and moving up in social status, not necessarily in that order. She had one rich boyfriend on the side for social climbing. In one memorable chapter, she found another to care for her physical needs, which left Mel out in the cold. But alas, all that is missing from the screenplay, and Cyndi is only portrayed as a social-climbing frigid bitch (instead of a social-climbing horny wench) who appears on the screen just long enough to annoy the crap out of Mel and us. Except for one scene, she is mainly seen chewing his ass off in split screen mode over the telephone. This movie leans heavily on split screens, but they're necessary in the grand scheme of things.
Jacqueline Bisset, who plays British stewardess and Vernon's Mistress Gwen Meighen. As Gwen, Bisset gives us the most likable character in the movie. She seems so lovely and efficient you'll wish she was on board whenever you hop onto your next flight to wherever. Not sure why she would fall for a guy like Martin, whom she knows is just a womanizer, but I gave up trying to figure out the inner workings of the female psyche a long time ago. But hey, it's Dean Martin, and everybody loves Dino sometimes, no matter how much a philandering p.o.s. he is.
George Kennedy, coming off an Oscar win for Cool Hand Luke, provides comedy relief as Joe Patroni, an ace airline mechanic, who is brought in to remove an airliner mired in the snow and blocking a critical runway.
It was also the beginning of a long career for Kennedy in not only three more Airport flicks, but Universal hauled his ass into LA to play a cop in Earthquake.
You could say that Kennedy is your quintessential disaster film actor. When I first saw Airport, Kennedy was precisely how I would have pictured Petroni.
Helen Hayes makes a three-point landing at Lincoln International as Ada Quonsett, a professional stowaway. Though she may look like a sweet old lady, don't be fooled.
Having won an Oscar in 1932 for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, she would pick up another one thirty-eight years later as a supporting actress for her role as Ada Quonsett. Here, she is cute and cuddly in a conniving way. In the book, she was anything but that as we were clued into what Ada thought when she was the sweet little old lady. Her thoughts didn't jive with her outer persona, thus letting you know there is no expiration date on being a conniving old witch.
The very best in this film, though, are Van Heflin as D.O. Guerrero, a down-on-his-luck, out-of-work construction worker who hatches a chilling desperate plan to change the financial fortunes of his family. As his wife Inez, Maureen Stapleton may not have copped the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Still, she probably should have won over sentimental favorite and co-star Hayes. Annoyingly cute little old ladies who stow away on airplanes trump everything else in Hollywood.
There are also a few lesser characters. Lloyd Nolan shows up as sharp as a tack customs agent, Harry Standish, Gary Collins shows up as flight engineer Cy Jordan, and Barry Nelson plays Captain and co-pilot Anson Harris.
Standish does play a crucial role in a significant plot development, which he does right after he finishes terrorizing wealthy old ladies and their dogs coming through customs. Out of necessity, his character made the cut from book to film.
Harris is Demerest's family-oriented co-pilot who advises Vern when the opportunity arises. In other words, a bore. Jordan's job is to keep the airline's mechanics functioning.
One of the other great stars of Airport is the snowstorm itself. In scenes filmed by Ernest Lazlo and directed by Henry Hathaway, the outdoor settings of snow blanketing the Airport are so realistic; you'll be going to the closet to grab a coat.
Alfred Newman's terrific score over the opening credits makes the title sequence of this film one of my all-time favorites. Who knew that snow could also be made to look this incredible and exciting. As for Newman, he also wrote and conducted another favorite score of mine: How The West Was Won. Sadly, Airport would be his last complete work before passing away.
Ross Hunter was the producer on Airport. His involvement in past glitzy Hollywood soap operas, such as Imitation of Life and Madame X, would help explain much of the goings on in this film. But those two movies were born of a need to make people cry. This film was born of a need to give as many stars as you could fit into it a paycheck.
I was unimpressed with Edith Head's costume design for the film. The stewardess uniforms seem bland to the point where Bisset's outfit seems almost matronly, and everybody else walks around as if dressed in strait jackets. It's all a bit too formal for me. So despite having a closet full of Academy Awards for some fine work, it leaves me snowbound here. No worries, as just three years later, she would rake in another statuette for The Sting.
Director and screenwriter George Seaton manages to keep his myriad of plots from running into each other, and the film zips along at just a tad over two hours' worth of running time. As mentioned before, removing about half of the novel for the film and skimping over other plot lines made that accomplishment a lot easier.
Airport will never be confused with great filmmaking. Nonetheless, it is still highly watchable entertainment and an airplane hanger full of fun. It's also a film of a bygone era, and it's the kind of lavish all-star melodrama super technicolored extravaganza we may never see again. Airport gives us a lot of plots, a lot of stars, a shit pot full of snow, and just enough suspense to keep things moving along. It also does it in grand style, and if you do anything in great style, no matter how predictable everything else may be, I have no choice but to give you my grade, which lands on runway two-niner as a solid B+.
Airport and its successors show up, courtesy of Universal, as a complete set. I highly recommend it as a vital part of Hollywood's 70's infatuation with disasters lurking around the not-so-friendly skies.
Other than having George Kennedy's Petroni character in them, none of the films are real sequels in the true sense of the word.
Although The Concorde probably proved that Universal's Airport movies had worn out their welcome, they're a lot of fun. I keep hoping for at least a 4k of the original Airport movie, but I'm not holding my breath.