Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Now Playing at the Starlite Drive-in: A Disaster Movie Double-feature!

The disaster movie genre was still flying high when Airport 1975 landed in theatres in (ironically) 1974. But, alas, the genre was already poised for a crash by the time Airport '77 appeared. It's interesting that Airport, the 1970 film based on Arthur Hailey's bestseller, spawned a trio of disaster movies (yes, there was also The Concorde: Airport '79). Critics nor moviegoers considered Airport a disaster movie, though it certainly contained the ingredients of what would become the standard formula. Airport was embraced simply as a big-budget blockbuster. The "disaster movie" was officially born two years later when The Poseidon Adventure turned into an unexpected smash. Though there were plenty of disaster pics before Poseidon (e.g., The High and the Mighty back in the 1950s), Irwin Allen's waterlogged adventure justly gets credit for making disaster pics popular fare in the 1970s.

All of which brings us to our first feature: Airport 1975. It has a scene or two in an airport and one of the stars is George Kennedy, the connecting thread in all four Airport movies. Hey, that's good enough to slap the Airport name on it!

Charlton Heston stars as Al Murdoch, an executive and former flight instructor for Columbia Airlines, who doesn't have time for meaningful conversation with his girlfriend, stewardess Nancy Pryor. He does have time for some quick hanky panky, but Nancy lets him know that's not going to happen. She wants to talk about the future of their relationship. (At this point, two things came to mind: (1) My wife convinced me that Nancy was going to deliver big news about being pregnant; (2) I was trying to get past the fact that Nancy was played by Karen Black, who played "crazy" exceptionally well in the classic made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror).

I think this movie--more than any other--inspired the hilarious 1980 spoof Airplane! The cast includes: Linda Blair as a little girl needing an organ transplant; Helen Reddy as a singing nun; Sid Caesar as a talkative bit actor; Myrna Loy as a lush; and Gloria Swanson as...herself. Plus, the flight crew includes TV all-stars Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (The FBI), Roy Thinnes (The Invaders), and Erik Estrada (CHiPs). Toss in Dana Andrews as a businessman pilot on the verge of a heart attack and you've got a cast for the ages.

Karen Black in the breezy cockpit.
The plot is pretty transparent, but skip this paragraph if you don't want to know it. I'll wait a second. OK, here we go: While flying a small plan during a nasty storm, Dana's businessman has a heart attack (surprise!) and his out-of-control plane makes a hole in the nose of the 747. Roy and Eric bite the big one and Efrem suffers injuries that prevent him from piloting. It's up to Nancy the stewardess to take the flight controls with some radio assistance from her crappy boyfriend.

Other than the joy of watching some classic movie stars in their twilight years, Airport 1975 has little to offer--other than Karen Black. After some great early roles (e.g., Five Easy Pieces), Black was beginning to find good parts harder to find. Considering that she spends a good portion of Airport 1975 in the cockpit on the radio, she delivers a believable performance worthy of a better movie. She made me temporarily forget how creepy she was in Trilogy of Terror.

Our second feature, Airport '77, is a definite upgrade. Jack Lemmon, sporting huge sideburns and a mustache, plays the pilot of a new luxury jet designed by James Stewart. It's the kind of plane I'd like to travel aboard, with bedrooms, a library, lounge, and even a built-in Pong game. The only downside is the exceptionally bright 1970s decor (I keep waiting for orange and purple to make a comeback...take a note HGTV). The passengers are all guests of Mr. Stewart, including: his estranged daughter (Pamela Bellwood from Dynasty) and her son; businessman Chris Lee and his adulteress wife Lee Grant; Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten as art patrons; singer Tom Sullivan; and engineer Darren McGavin. The only problem is that the crew includes some bad guys, led by Robert Foxworth and Monte Markham, who plan to hijack the plane and steal the precious art on board.

Pilot Lemmon faces plenty
of problems.
The thieves' plan goes horribly awry during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle and the jet crashes into the ocean. The result is a reasonably interesting mixture of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. Some of it is silly, especially George Kennedy reassuring James Stewart with cliched lines like: "Don't worry, Phil, we'll get that plan up...in one piece." However, there are some exciting scenes such as when Lemmon and Lee try to release a buoy with a distress signal as the ocean water begins to crush the aircraft.

Though Airport '77 made a tidy profit, it marked the beginning of the end for the disaster movie genre. Despite their big budgets, The Swarm (1978), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), and When Time Ran Out (1980) all tanked at the boxoffice, effectively ending the disaster movie craze.


  1. Perfecto beginning for Double Feature month, Rick! I just love the Airport movies, all of them really -- they are so much fun, even when they are cheesy! "Airport" was a really good film, and the sequels you chose, '75 and '77 were the best! I felt like you about Karen Black, but she was so good. The only time I noticed "crazy" Karen was her cross-eyed attention to flying up over the mountain! LOL! Jack Lemmon alone was enough to save '77, and all the wonderful stars.

    How true about "Airplane." And I can never, ever again see an Airport movie without Airplane overlaid like a pieceof cellophane! Really fun post, Rick! Perfect drive-in material!

  2. poor Dana Andrews can't get a break in these airplane movies - not only does he have a heart attack in AIRPORT '75, he was the panicky pilot in 1957's ZERO HOUR!, in which tough-talkin' Sterling Hayden talked him into flying the plane after the official pilot collapses from food poisoning (one thing these disaster movies have is an ingenious method for getting the plane into troublel). Great post on what, in hindsight, seems a 70s subgenre of the disaster movie, the out-of-control plane. And all of it done without CGI!

  3. GOM already pointed out "Zero Hour!", which to me is the real inspiration for "Airplane". Watch the movies back to back and you'll be screaming with laughter at "Airplane" as many of the scenes in the latter are a direct rip off on "Zero Hour." Though certainly "Airport 1975" delivers many moments for parody in "Airplane."

    "Airport 1975" played on one of the cable channels Sunday night and by golly it sucked me in again. I think Karen Black is quite good in the role.

    A most enjoyable post.

  4. Great post Rick. But seeing Joe Patrone (George Kennedy)was always good for a chuckle. I wonder how many cigars he chewed up in Airport. Lloyd Nolan I think was the airport security guard in the first film, and showed genuine concern for his neice.

  5. I Absolutely love disaster movies, the cheesier the better. Am I wrong.. is, George Kennedy, in most of them? :) We just watched Airport 75' and 77' just the other night on, On Demand.

  6. Dawn - George Kennedy is in all of the Airport films. In the first one he's the chief mechanic. In the films '75 and '77 he's an executive. In Airport'79 he's the copilot of the Concorde. French actor Alain Delon is the pilot checking Patrones skills as a pilot. He also gets him hooked up with a high class french hooker.

  7. Wasn't George Kennedy, in another airplane crash/survivor movie, The Flight of the Phoenix?

  8. Yes, he was, Dawn. PHOENIX is one of my favorite movies (included it in the most recent installment of my 100 countdown). By the way, I did mention George was in all the AIRPORT movies in my post :)

  9. When we were kids we called him, Larry "Wolfman" Talbot whenever we refered to Larry. :)

  10. Another genre and topic that brings me back to my childhood. I like disaster movies in general - not sure what that says about me but...

    Airplane series has none of my favorite disaster pics though. But it is time I revisit the series - have the trio in a boxed set I bought for $12 at a Walmart near me. And your great recap and review brought much of it back to me.

    Anyway, I prefer the two biggies of the genre, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. the latter (as a side note) the cause of one of the very few times I've met and got an autograph from a star of any film. In this case, Stella Stevens. I have a great picture of the entire Poseidon cast - all water logged and soot-ridden - and her autograph on it. Pretty silly but fun. She also spoke not-too-enthusiastically about working with Elvis that day when I asked about her experience in Girls! Girls! Girls! So, as I walked away with autographed picture in hand, I was none too sad about how her Poseidon character never saw the light of day! :-)

    Another enjoyable entry! You are great! thanks for indulging me with my silly comments.



    I think this movie--more than any other--inspired the hilarious 1980 spoof Airplane!




    Treleaven: I guess I picked the wrong week to give up smoking.

    Dr. Baird: Our survival hinges on one thing - finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn't have fish for dinner.

    Dr. Baird: Possibly because of an undetected bacteria strain or untreated cleaning processes of the seafood...

    but that's not important right now!

    Tell the captain we need to land this plane as soon as we can. We can't wait before we land in Vancouver.



    Treleaven: Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport. But there are some of us here, particularly me, who would like to buy you a drink and shake your hand. We're coming over.

  12. Very, VERY belatedly:
    Just back from rewatching Airport 77.
    Jack Warden isn't in it.
    I think you're mixing him up with Darren McGavin.