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Airport – A Star Studded 1970s Melodrama

Written by Jesse Kowalski • April 12th, 2011
Airport – A Star Studded 1970s Melodrama

M4DAIRP EC002 — AIRPORT, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Seberg, Burt Lancaster, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen Stapleton, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Dana Wynter, Barry Nelson, Barbara Hale, George Kennedy, George Seaton and Ross Hunter, 1970

The first of its kind, Airport set the standard for the disaster films of the 1970s. Films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and my favorite – Rollercoaster (1977) collected A-list, B-list, and C-list movie stars and put them into some pretty crummy situations. But their pain is our pleasure; the films grossed a ton of money – Airport made over $100 million on a $10 million budget.

Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, Airport provides a cavalcade of Hollywood superstars – Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bissett, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, and Barry Nelson.

Airport stars Burt Lancaster, the Head of Operations at fictional Lincoln International Airport in Chicago. A snowstorm has hit Chicago and a plane is stuck on Runway 29, closing the runway to all traffic. In the middle of this mess, Burt’s wife calls to make sure he won’t miss dinner again. In the first of many split screens throughout the film, Burt explains that he has to stay at the airport to oversee removal of the plane off the tarmac in the worst snowstorm in 6 years. She complains he loves his job more than her and their children and hangs up.

Burt then does what I would do, and have done, in a similar situation – call George Kennedy. The film veers into what may be the real disaster here as we’re exposed to George Kennedy’s hands and tongue all over a woman in a muumuu. Thankfully, the phone rings. Burt explains the problem and tells George he’s the only man for the job. In another split screen, George asks Burt to “Hold the whipped cream – I’ve just had dessert,” and promises to come in right away.

Meanwhile, airline pilot Dean Martin’s wife drops him off at the airport. He walks into the airport, waits until the coast is clear, then catches a cab for his girlfriend’s hotel room. His girlfriend is also his stewardess who explains she is pregnant with Dean‘s child. She has thought about an abortion, but hasn‘t made up her mind. They head back to the airport for their all-night flight to Rome. Burt is still pretty broken up about the argument with his wife and seeks comfort in the arms of his assistant, who has been busy dealing with elderly stowaway, Helen Hayes.

Striking a more serious tone, the camera flashes to Van Heflin in a seedy apartment preparing a suitcase bomb. He stops by a café to check in with his waitress wife and tells her he is changing his deadbeat ways and is off to a meeting about a job. Although, he takes a bus to the airport where he buys a ticket to Rome and a life insurance policy of $150,000, which he mails to his wife. Van Heflin then boards the plane to Rome, where his nervous nature and tight grip on his suitcase attract the attention of a flight attendant, who alerts Burt. Helen Hayes stows away on this flight and grabs the seat next to Van Heflin. The plane takes off.

Back at the airport, Burt’s wife shows up to ask for a divorce. She announces she has been cheating on him for some time. Burt blows her off and looks into Van Heflin’s background – discovering he paid cash for his flight, bought a large life insurance policy at the airport, was a mental patient, and stole dynamite from his last job. Uh-oh. Burt tells the pilots of the plane to come back to Chicago before they’re blown up.

Being the captain of the plane, Dean enlists Helen Hayes’ help to snatch Van Heflin’s briefcase. While Helen Hayes causes a diversion, Dean‘s girlfriend grabs the briefcase. Although, a nosy passenger takes it back to Van Heflin, who runs into the bathroom and blows himself up, leaving a large hole in the plane. It’s up to Dean and co-pilot Barry Nelson to land the plane back in Chicago before anyone else gets sucked out into the snowy oblivion.

Airport marked the final score for legendary composer Alfred Newman, whose credits include The King and I, South Pacific, The Fighting Sullivans, My Darling Clementine, and many others. His work on Airport earned him his 45th Oscar nomination. The Director of Photography was Ernest Laszlo (Judgment at Nuremberg, Stalag 17, D.O.A.), and the costumes were designed by Edith Head (Man’s Favorite Sport?, Sunset Blvd., Vertigo, Double Indemnity, Sullivan’s Travels).

I’ll review the rest of the Airport series in the coming months – Airport 1975, Airport ‘77, and The Concorde: Airport ‘79. Some forewarning: after seemingly making a deal with the devil, George Kennedy stars in all four Airport films. If you watch the films – man or woman – I dare you to try not to fall in love with Mr. Kennedy. That man is a hero to all men.

If you haven’t already, I suggest you download the great compilation of airline related songs Chris put together.

"The sudden decompression at 30, 000 feet is something you gotta see to believe."

Above: “The sudden decompression at 30, 000 feet is something you gotta see to believe.”

Trans Global Airways stewardesses

Above: Trans Global Airways stewardesses

Alfred Newman's dynamic score was also his last one

Above: Alfred Newman’s dynamic score was also his last one

The fictional Lincoln Airport was in reality Minneapolis-Saint Paul International

Above: The fictional Lincoln Airport was in reality Minneapolis-Saint Paul International

"Chicago Supervisor listen carefully! Any approach is no damn good if it lands on runway 2-2. We need 2-niner."

Above: “Chicago Supervisor listen carefully! Any approach is no damn good if it lands on runway 2-2. We need 2-niner.”

A cavalcade of Hollywood's finest at the time

Above: A cavalcade of Hollywood’s finest at the time

Jesse Kowalski

Jesse Kowalski grew up watching B-movies on a Zenith console in his parents' basement. Has a soft spot for beach movies, lounge music, and Jerry Lewis.

Find out more about Jesse Kowalski

  • I dig the Airport movies and George Kennedy. One of my favorite parts he played was in The Dirty Dozen.

  • Compound Eye

    Rollercoaster is superb – a true sunday afternoon guilty pleasure… It hasn’t got quite the same ‘ham’ angle as distaster movies though [even though it’s about funfairs!], this is more of a thriller instead surely? I can’t think of a single thing wrong with Rollercoaster though… I even like the Sparks segment, and the rest of the soundtrack is pretty damned good too. Perhaps my favourite part is the cable car ride segment. This and the equally excellent Two Minute Warning are two of the very best all-star cast movies to come out of the US in the 1970s.

  • Pingback: Roadtrip: What Airports Looked Like in the 1970s | Ultra Swank()

  • Mark_KTO

    Please enroll in an English 101 class somewhere so you can learn the proper use of the word, “although”.

    It does not mean what you think it means.

  • And I am pretty sure KTO doesn’t mean what I think it means.

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