Thursday, May 1, 2014

AIRPORT 1970

When I watch a movie like Airport producer Ross “I gave the public what they wanted” Hunter’s arthritically old-fashioned, $10 million, all-star, big screen adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s ubiquitous 1968 bestseller– I’m reminded once again why the late 60s and 70s represent my absolute favorite era in American filmmaking.

The diversity of what was hitting the theaters was astounding!  There were arty films like Puzzle of a Downfall Child and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance; the underground films of Andy Warhol (Trash); big-budget acts of desperation like Myra Breckinridge; mainstream documentaries (Woodstock); the maturation of the blaxploitation genre in Cotton Comes to Harlem; overblown musicals (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever); films with ground-breaking topics like The Boys in the Band; the sexually subversive comedies, Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Something for Everyone; amazing foreign entries like Le Boucher and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis; forgotten oddities of the Dinah East stripe; Disney’s stick-in-a-time-warp family things (The Boatniks); and breakout independents like John Avildsen’s Joe. And in the middle of all this, a big, glossy, old-Hollywood gasbag melodrama in the tradition of Grand Hotel meets The V.I.Ps…all in the same year!
"What a dramatic airport!" - Mel Brooks "High Anxiety" (1977)
Looking over this list (which is merely the tip of the iceberg of what 1970 produced), I can scarcely get over what a broad array of films were released. As Hollywood blindly stumbled about in a struggle to conduct business-as-usual while trying to keep in step with changing public tastes, we movie-lovers reaped the benefit of their creative identity crisis. As I was just a kid at the time, I had no awareness of the severe economic toll Hollywood’s growing pains were taking on the industry; all I knew is that you could look at the entertainment section of a newspaper (back when they could advertise X-rated and G-rated films side by side) and be greeted by what then appeared to be the entire spectrum of human experience. This is why I fell in love with movies.
And I had no reason to believe that this wasn’t how it was always going to be.

Of course, what I'm hoping to achieve in detailing this brief and shining, Camelot-esque moment for film lovers known as the New Hollywood, is the granting of a kind of artistic clemency for myself. A nostalgic leniency, if you will, that begs one to take into account how, by growing up in an atmosphere of democratic tolerance for films of all kinds, I was able to reconcile the glaring inconsistency–not to mention lapse in taste–behind being 12-years-old and having as my absolute top, top, favorite movies: Rosemary’s Baby, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Midnight Cowboy, …and Airport.
Burt Lancaster as Mel Bakersfeld
Jean Seberg as Tanya Livingston
Dean Martin as Vernon Demerest
Jacqueline Bisset as Gwen Meighen
Miss Helen Hays as Ada Quonsett
George Kennedy as Joe Patroni
Maureen Stapleton as Inez Guerrero
Van Heflin as D.O Guerrero
Dana Wynter as Cindy Bakersfeld
Yes, Airport. The movie that piles up clichés higher than the snow drifts disabling a Boeing 707 in the middle of a busy runway, and whose production values, dialog, characters, and soap opera complications are all so cobwebby and old-fashioned, movie critic Judith Crist was inspired to dub it, “The best film of 1944.”
Nevertheless, Airport was THE film to see in 1970, and when I did, I went positively dotty over it. I thought it was one of those most exciting, action-packed, tension-filled movies I'd ever seen. I saw it more times than I can count; read my mom's Reader's Digest "condensed book" version of the novel (convinced the abridged version was depriving me of some much-sought-after smut, I checked out the complete novel from the library and re-read it); and I even went out and purchased the soundtrack album...my first!...and wore it out. (And don't even get me started on how off the geek Richter scale it is for a 12-year-old's first LP purchase to be Alfred Newman's by-turns spectacularly overcaffeinated/easy listening score for Airport.) More frightening still, friends and I played Airport with my toy model of a 747 Delta Airlines passenger jet. And how does one go about playing Airport? You try (unsuccessfully, thank goodness) to cram a lit firecracker into one of the rear windows!
Tanya has a heart-to-heart  talk with her father
A weird hallmark of old movies was the often huge age discrepancy between leading men and their onscreen love interests. The beautiful Jean Seberg was just 31 (although made to look like a well-preserved matron thanks to Ross Hunter's maiden aunt ideas of female beauty) to Lancaster's daddyish 56. Angie Dickinson was Ross Hunter's preferred choice for Tanya Livingston, Airport's head of customer relations and mooning love interest of married airport general manger, Mel Bakersfeld, but Seberg was the one already under contract to Universal. Lancaster (who was a second choice after Gregory Peck) hated working on the film and there was no love lost between him and Seberg. Their lack of chemistry is palpable. 

I'm not going to say Airport isn't still one of my favorite films, for I watch it often. But my enjoyment of it these days is strictly on par with why I repeatedly watch Valley of the Dolls, or The Oscar; which is to say I can never get my fill when it comes to overripe Hollywood cheese. Airport was a huge boxoffice hit and even garnered a whopping 10 Academy Award nominations, but honestly, watching it today, I don't think there are seven five consecutive minutes in Airport that don't reduce me to paroxysms of laughter. And try as I might to access the me who once watched this movie unironically, I swear, it feels as if I'm hijacking someone else's memories
Gwen has a heart-to-heart with her father
Well, technically speaking, chief stewardess Gwen Meighan is merely dropping the bomb (heh-heh) to her much-married lover, pilot captain Vernon Demerest, that she is pregnant. However, what with the 27-year age spread between Bisset and Martin (she was 25 to his 52) the above caption is maybe just psychologically true. Incidentally, for all the coy verbiage, I can't imagine a G-rated film today containing such a level-headed discussion about abortion without an outcry from the "How do I explain this to my kids?" set.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As the first and least cartoonish of the four airport-themed films in Universal’s franchise, and the film that more or less kicked off the 70s “disaster film” craze; Airport looks, by way of comparison to the atrocities that followed, much better than it actually is. It’s plot: seven, count ‘em, seven romantic and dramatic entanglements duke it out over a seven-hour period at a busy Midwestern airport plagued by blizzards, airport noise bellyachers, and bombers.

At this particular airport, dramatic tension and impending disaster is love’s co-pilot (infidelity – both real and the “lusting in my heart” variety – is practically a job requirement), while domestic discord and personal tragedy have to ride coach to the first-class priority given to customer satisfaction and comfort. The latter being the chief element of Airport’s plot to really date it.
Is This Any Way To Run An Airline?
That tower of shrimp and heaping bowl of iced caviar passed without notice in 1970. When I saw Airport at a revival theater in the 80s, this shot got one of the film's biggest laughs. And for you youngsters, the caption is a reference to a series of National Airline commercials from the 60s in which a flight-attendant (Andrea Dromm from 1966s The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming) asked and answered  her own rhetorical question: "Is this any way to run an airline? You bet it is!"
I’ve seen Airport far too many times to be able to ascertain whether or not it still holds up as a viable suspense melodrama, but I can attest to it being a near non-stop parade of ugly, stiff-looking fashions culled from acres of drab polyblend synthetics; static, rigidly blocked scenes (the camera must have been nailed to the floor) with actors giving TV movie-level performances; truly terrible dialog (old-school he-man, Joe Patroni still refers to women as “broads” and “dames.” And while preferable to today’s infatuation with the word, “bitch,” I kinda thought that in the 70s atmosphere of  Diary of a Mad Housewife, terms like broad and dame –the Rat Pack notwithstanding – had gone out with Guys and Dolls); and, in stark contrast to today’s films, Airport displays a rather quaint interest in the lives of the middle-aged.
 Actress Virginia Grey (Ross Hunter's "lucky charm") appears as the mother of wisenheimer teen, Lou Wagner. Her skeptical-looking husband is played by Dick Weston 
But thanks to the assembly-line professionalism of Airport's trained-in-the-studio-system production team (there's scarcely a soul involved in the making of this film younger than 50) things move along at an engagingly peppy clip. Director/screenwriter George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street, Teacher's Pet) genuinely fashions a pretty solid (and silly) entertainment from this faithful adaptation of Hailey's exhaustively researched novel, the laughs arising mostly out of the drop-dead serious manner in which all this nonsense is delivered.
Lloyd Nolan as Head of US Customs, Harry Standish
"First I look in their eyes, then the luggage."  Kill me now.
PERFORMANCES
Not counting her dubbed walk-on as Miss Goodthighs in Casino Royale (1967), Airport was my first Jacqueline Bisset movie. And along with being bowled over by her beauty and "Pip pip, cheerio!" British accent, I remember being quite taken with the strength of her character. Gwen Meighen is no Ellen Ripley (Alien), but she was as close as one got to a liberated heroine in those days. Not only does she decide for herself what to do about her unplanned pregnancy, but she's so fearless and take-charge under pressure. This movie may have been made by a bunch of old men, but they are light years ahead of the curve in giving us a female character who "acts" in the face of danger, rather than shriek and collapse into hysterics. Universal contract player Katherine Ross was the original choice for the role and was subsequently put on suspension for turning it down (this she turns down, and says yes to The Swarm?). Bisset, having earlier stepped into the Mia Farrow role in Frank Sinatra's The Detective at the last minute, was used to being second-string.
I think my favorite scenes are those in which Bisset behaves more like the kind of flight-attendants we've grown accustomed to in modern air travel. She is terrifically authoritative and stern, and I love the reactions of the other passengers...as if rudeness hadn't been invented yet.  Here, Whit Bissell (I Was a Teenage Werewolf) tries to intercede in Bisset's elder-abuse of stowaway Helen Hayes. Meanwhile, hopeful bomb-toter Van Heflin tries to act as if nothing is happening. No matter what you might think of the movie as a whole, this latter segment of Airport is pretty bravura stuff. (The blond pictured between Bisset and Hayes is Pat Priest, the 2nd Marilyn on the hit TV show The Munsters

While Bisset continues to dominate the film for me (she's practically the baby in the cast), over the years I've come to grow ever fonder of the laid-back performance of Dean Martin. His popular variety show was still on the air when Airport came out, but I honestly didn't care for him much as a kid. These days I rank him as my all-time favorite male vocalist (my iPod is overflowing with his mellow crooning) and his screen appearances which I once dismissed as being too casual, have actually aged rather well, coming across as appealingly natural and underplayed compared to the stiff formality of actors like Burt Lancaster.
Irish-descended Maureen Stapleton and Van Heflin perhaps looked like no one's idea of Hailey's Inez and Dominic Guerrero, but they give two of the more compelling performances in the film. Compelling or not, when I was a kid, all I remember about this scene was being preoccupied with Stapleton filling those sugar dispensers.
In a film of questionable performances, it's odd that Helen Hayes' (sorry, Miss Helen Hayes') Oscar-winning turn as Ada Quonsett (described in the movie's trailer as "The mind-boggling, huggable perpetual stowaway!" ) is the one character I can barely abide (Kennedy's Joe Patroni runs a close second). Afflicted with a terminal case of the cutes and employing every little old lady cliche devised since the beginning of time, Hayes' is a hammy, vaudeville turn more in tune with a knee-slapping episode of The Andy Griffith Show than a major motion picture. But it's the kind of performance that wins Oscars (see: Margaret Rutherford in 1963s The V.I.Ps). While I like her very much in her scenes with Bisset (she gets slapped, afterall), I really wouldn't have minded too much had her character been one of the airline's casualties. Oh, and in addition, I have to race for the mute button every time she appears onscreen accompanied by her "adorable" cartoon-appropriate theme music. Both Shirley Booth and Claudette Colbert were originally considered for the role but spared themselves the schtick.
OK, the look she's giving this self-medicating nun (character actress Mary Jackson) is pretty hilarious.
Perhaps this reveals me to be the terrible person I probably am, but next to Bisset's stewardess (I know, I know...flight-attendant) my favorite character in Airport is actually Dana Wynter as Mel's fed-up, socialite wife, Cindy. Even if it's only for the reason that she is so unrelentingly one-note and perpetually pissed-off , I find her character to be an absolute hoot! Not only does she begin every conversation at full-throttle harpy, but here's a woman who braves the city's worst blizzard in 30 years (in mink, yet) just to rip her husband a new asshole. She really should have been running that airport.
Wives don't fare too well in Airport. Perry Mason's Barbara Hale plays Sarah Demerest, the good-natured but long-suffering wife of philandering pilot, Dean Martin, and sister to Burt Lancaster.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The passing of time and post-9/11 changes in airline travel have contributed to Airport acquiring a layer of historical entertainment value it didn't have in 1970. Given that Airport has about the same fantasy-to-reality ratio of any glamorous Ross Hunter production, it's doubtful that the commercial airline experience was ever as stylish as presented here. But seeing as the screenplay follows Arthur Hailey's dedication to airline operation accuracy to an almost Dragnet-level of tedious recitation of just the facts, ma'am; I think it gives a fairly close approximation of flying in the days when one could effortlessly sneak in and off of planes carrying homemade bombs and boarding passes in lieu of tickets.
Airport features many familiar TV faces among its cast of passengers, all of whom (according to the Ross Hunter hype machine) were given full character names and backstories for "realism."
1. Happy Day's Marion Ross, 2. Bewitched's Sandra Gould (Gladys Kravitz), 3. Everybody's favorite obnoxious passenger ("Nuts to the man in 21-D") Michael Stearns, 4. Face-slapping priest Jim Nolan, 5. Familiar face from practically every TV commercial ever made, Fred Holliday

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In all likelihood, my fascination with Airport was at least in part due to my taking my very first plane trip just a year before, in 1969. It was a flight from San Francisco to Maryland to visit my grandmother. I don't recall much about the flight itself other than the inflight movie was Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, the whole experience was heady and thrilling, and that the stewardess gave me a tiny pair of wings to pin to my sweater a booklet of color-and-tear postcards which I've somehow managed to hold onto after all these years.
In trying to figure out what it was about Airport that so captured my imagination back in 1970, I think that maybe among the many scaled-down, low-budget, character-based films rooted in realism that came out in the late 60s and 70s; Airport, in all it's old-fashioned glory, represented something different to me. Too young to be familiar with all the cliches and overworked plot devices, Airport was my first real all-star Hollywood blockbuster, and perhaps, like Ross Hunter himself, I was just hungry for a little taste of old-fashioned, escapist glamour. And while I wouldn't want a steady diet of it, when in the right mood and proper frame of mind, a bit of harmless fluff like Airport can be very, very satisfying.


THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
You Ever Been in a Cockpit Before?
Gary Collins (c.) and Barry Nelson (r.) play second and first officers Cy Jordan and Anson Harris, respectively

I got Barry Nelson's autograph when I went to see him at San Francisco's Orpheum Theater in 1977 where he was appearing with Liza Minnelli in the pre-Broadway tour of the musical, The Act (then titled, Shine It On).

BONUS MATERIAL
An in-depth, lavishly-illustrated article about Edith Head and the costume designs (and hairstyles, aka wigs) in Airport can be found at one my favorite movie blogs, Poseidon's Underworld

"Remind me to send a thank you note to Mr. Boeing"

Copyright © Ken Anderson

38 comments:

  1. You know, Ken, we are so often attuned in our favorite things and this movie is no exception. So great is my love for it that upon clicking on your site and seeing that title cap, I almost got tears in my eyes! (In my defense, I am also sitting here the morning after an opening night that was spectacular beyond all expectation and has my emotions on the edge anyway.) I positively adore "Airport," warts and all.

    "Airport" triggers an emotional response in me (as, let's face it, most vintage movies do to some degree) because of how polished, elegant, clean-looking, and nostalgic it is (and was upon release, apparently!) in an era when air travel has been dressed-down, made stressful and become hamstrung by the result of evil among certain people with various grievances or "causes." It's a bygone world of travel and a bygone style of movie-making, which makes me wistful.

    That's not to say that it isn't, as you point out, unintentionally amusing, campy and at times silly. Those things are just gravy! We definitely do not see eye-to-eye on Helen Hayes, who I adore throughout this, but we both love the music (!) and the sleek, cool beauty of Dana and Jacqueline. For me, Jacqueline is someone for whom it is a pleasure merely to hear her speak. Anything. (Which is why I am confounded that she was, as you noted, dubbed in "Casino Royale!") To see her radiant beauty paired with her cool, authoritative manner as chief stewardess when she goes up against Helen... Well, let's just say I have worn out many a VHS tape looking at those sequences and now enjoy the magic of DVD! LOL I'm SO GLAD you, in your customary way, pointed out the importance and impact in 1970 of a potentially decorative character like this actually showing great heroism.

    What's magic about "Airport" for me, too, is the way these seemingly disconnected story threads somehow converge in a "perfect storm" making the climax of the film (by which time, keen viewers are fully invested in the characters) riveting.

    Thanks for highlighting this and for the shout out to my site. I couldn't get that link to work for whatever reason, so I am putting the address for the page in question here again. Fans of Edith Head, classic airline uniforms and hooty 1970 clothing ought to like it! http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com/2011/01/do-you-have-airport-look.html

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    1. I'm not surprised "Airport" is one of your favorites. It really does have everything fans of vintage movies hold near and dear. “Airport” to me is one of those films whose liabilities are simultaneously their assets, making it possible for one to be fully aware that film is not “great” yet it still is an undeniable favorite.
      It sounds as if we both feel similarly, my impatience with Hayes being the point of departure.
      For all it's corn and cliches, it really is a very well-constructed film that many contemporary action films could learn from (like taking the time to let uscare for the characters before putting them in peril). Also, you can't beat the staging and execution of the big scene in the film's last third. It still holds up!
      Great to hear how much this film means to you, and I've got that link fixed. That is some terrific stuff you were able to get on Edith Head's costumes! Thanks as always, Poseidon!

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  2. So Very Awesome -- let me tell you again how much I love your film selection and your cogent, articulate reviews! Even though I'm a huge fan of 70's disaster films (I even have a special place in my heart for THE SWARM!), I remember watching Airport a few years back and finding it...well, dull. You have opened my eyes, and I plan on watching it again this weekend and appreciating the magic. I especially LUV "...is having a heart-to-heart talk with her father." HEE! What were they thinking, casting the two primary romantic couples with such a huge age difference??!!!

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    1. Hi Percy
      I'm glad you like my loopy selection of films, and a big big thanks for your compliment about the reviews!
      I'm a big disaster film fan too, and in a weird way, I can understand what you feel about "Airport." The genre grew exponentially swifter and more over-the-top as it grew in popularity. "Airport" is really more melodrama than disaster, and that can seem slow to those waiting for the mayhem to start.
      But, I'll bet, in the right mood, enjoying the silly dialog and checking out the small details of plot and character, "Airport" might be a film you pt in a special category...it's a movie that takes a while to get to the '"disaster", but there are myriad catastrophic performances and bits of dialog to entertain you until then. Glad you liked the article, and I hope you maybe find new things to enjoy in re-visiting "Airport" (My apologies in advance if you're bored again!)

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  3. Argyle here. Cracked up many times reading this, especially: "a rather quaint interest in the lives of the middle-aged." And that shrimp tower - can you imagine even getting that onto the plane nowadays or constructing it in the galley? And darn it! If I had posted my un-edited 2000 word comment on “Oliver!” you would have seen my (tangentially related) tribute to the oeuvre of Arthur Hailey and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. They were life’s blood in my household. Anyone else remember “Wheels”?

    Anyway, “Airport” was such a phenomenon my PARENTS went to see it, maybe their first in-theater movie since “The Sound of Music.” So Ross Hunter did know how to get ‘em in the seats. As I recall - weird what your posts bring to the surface - “Airport” was the grand opening feature for our town’s brand new Tower Theater, which never quite attained the glamour of the Astros I and II.

    I, of course, didn’t get to see “Airport” for years (too adult) but eventually saw it and was riveted. Everything you say rings true, even Maureen Stapleton filling those sugar containers! Love how Jean Seberg looks in your screen cap - what a crazy career/life. I always relate “Airport” to that little flowering of made-for-TV movies from around the same time. Stars of varying levels, major plots, and a hard to define slightly glossy aesthetic that was very alluring.

    My father loved airplanes and flying and he flew a lot for business and paved a lot of airports in the 60's and 70's. My biggest treat was to occasionally get to go along on a day trip, usually in a little company prop plane or later a jet. For me, it wasn’t so much the mechanics of it but the spaces and surfaces of the planes and the little airports. Such sophistication in those smaller southern cities - airports with fountains and snack bars! (And real bars!) The confident type-faces. Many of the men that my Dad worked with totally had that laid-back, ring-a-ding, Dean Martin presence. At least to a 12 year old - God knows what was going on at home! And “Airport” (maybe it needed an exclamation point?) for me perfectly evokes that worldly, slightly above my head, coiffed, upholstered, shrimp serving, dog-eared paperback world that was soon to have its own gentle fade out.

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    1. Hey there, Argyle!
      Yes! I remember "Wheels"! We had many Reader's Digest volumes in our home (what was up with that, condensed stuff anyway? We Americans are too busy to read junk novels?) and Arthur Hailey was a mainstay. I never read the book, but around the same time the WHEELS TV movie was coming out, the movie version of Harold Robbins' "The Betsy" was hitting theaters...all that automotive industry porn!

      Your comments reminded me that "Airport" was indeed such a big hit because both teens and their parents turned out for it! In the flood of R-rated film and nudity that was the 70s, once word got around that "Airport" was safe for the Lawrence Welk set, I think the boxoffices overflowed!
      Your description of your childhood memories with your father also remind me that AIRPORT (it DID need an exclamation point..."Airplane!" fixed that oversight, later) was an oddity in 70s film, in that in an atmosphere of young people questioning authority and expressing a distrust in institutions, "Airport" encouraged an old fashioned trust in paternal institutions that were looking after us.
      The entire staff of this airport are the most dedicated people you've ever met! That they were all well past the "Don't trust anyone over 30" age, and that the one youngster is a supercilious brat who gets his comeuppance from an elder...well, that all must have been very reassuring to the Ross hunter set.
      Great comments, Argyle!

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  4. Even the worst movies of that era seem almost preferable to some of the popular,corporate studio crap we have to endure nowadays. As full of cliches and sterotypes as AIRPORT is, at least it sincerely respects its audience. I would gladly watch it again before I have to sit through another comic book-inspired movie!

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    1. Well, have to agree with you there. The ADD crowd of today doesn't have the patience to let a film define it's characters so that you are invested in what happens. You have to get to the flashing lights and explosions fast or the magpies will start texting or tweeting in their agitated need to be stimulated every single moment.
      Pretty soon we won't even need movies with plots, it'll just be a bunch of explosions and battles strung haphazardly together with nary a connecting thread. Oh, wait a minute... I've just described the entire Michael Bay oeuvre and every comic book franchise out now!!

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  5. Hi Ken,

    I enjoyed your thorough dissection of this film and while everything you wrote is absolutely true I unabashedly adore this movie.

    I love all kinds of films but I have a complete weakness for disaster movies. I'll watch anything, theatrical or TV, that looks the least bit promising to either be wonderful or wonderfully awful. This has lead to viewings of such oddities as The Big Bus, the TV movie Disaster of the Coastliner and the absymal Avalanche all of whose wretched excess I've wallowed in.

    However my absolute top three are The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and this film. I love every over the top moment, hideous polyester outfit, arch line of over emphatic dialogue and Barbara Hale running around with her fur coat apparently permanently attached to her body.

    One of the things I love about the classic disaster genre that has been forgotten by present day film makers is that what involves the audience is caring about the people who are imperiled while still keeping the danger imminent. Who can forget Faye on that elevator hanging by a thread, Shelley swimming to the rescue or Jacqueline hanging on for dear life. Now the focus is on the CGI disaster while the cast is interchangeable driftwood. Yawn.

    Like you my favorite character is Jacqueline Bissett's Gwen. I'm so glad Katharine Ross, a pretty but mechanical actress, and Petula Clark, who was offered the part at Dean Martin's request, both turned it down. I can't imagine anyone else as Gwen. Partly because Gwen is a sassy, no nonsense girl who hasn't any problem handling whatever situation she finds herself in with brisk efficiency and partly because of my longtime love of Jackie Bissett. I think this was my first exposure to her although it might have been Murder on the Orient Express, either way her effortless class and plumy accent endeared her to me immediately. She is one of my celebrity close encounters. When I attended the premiere of the film "Latter Days" she along with the rest of the cast and the director were there for a Q & A. She was beautiful, charming and funny, graciously acknowledging her standing ovation and answering questions not just about the present film but a few others. Sadly nothing about Airport nor Orient Express but she did mention a thing or two about The Deep and Bullitt.

    As is seemingly standard with these films there are performers and performances that are so much better than most of the others it's almost as if they are in another film. In this one that would be my other favorite person in the film, Maureen Stapleton. Inez isn't as flashy a part as Helen Hayes' Ada Quonsett but Maureen makes much more out of it. Her wordless reaction as she finds out that Van Heflin is on the plane then watches helplessly as it departs is heartbreaking. Hers is by far the best work in the film with Van Heflin matching her in their scenes together. She is the one who should have won the Oscar that she and Helen competed for.

    That said I find Helen Hayes an elfin delight in the film. It is a vaudeville turn as you say but the part is there both as a plot device and comic relief and to play it another way wouldn't have helped the film any. I'd heard that Shirley Booth had turned the part down. I can see her in it but I can also see why she would turn it down figuring she didn't want to do Hazel on a plane. I hadn't however heard that it had been offered to Claudette Colbert, she was a great star but her cool sophistication would have been completely wrong for the spry, sly but seemingly dotty Mrs. Quonsett.

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    1. Hi Joel,
      Thank you very much! So agree with what you say about the lost art of getting the audience to "care" before embarking on the mayhem. That remake of "The Poseidon Adventure" was ridiculous...people dying left and right, but I barely knew who any of them were, so who cared?
      Anyhow, enjoyed very much reading your thoughts on this film (didn't know about Petulia Clark!) and I of course laughed at the Barbara Hale comment. It's rather nice to hear so many people speak so fondly of this movie. It takes me back to when I was a kid and took it all oh so seriously.
      A nice memory.
      By the way, if you aren't already a fan of the Poseidon's underground blog, I'd recommend it, because that author is huge fan of disaster movies as well, and has many great posts about them. Thanks!

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    2. I'm a big fan of Poseidon's blog already and read it regularly but thanks for pointing it out Ken.

      Yes that wretched remake of Poseidon, a movie I actively HATE, is one of the worst offenders of the lack of care for characters syndrome that has overtaken disaster movies. It was also terribly mean spirited as well. Gene Hackman in the original was doggedly determined that he was going to save everybody that he could, often amusingly over the top about it, but in the new one the interchangeable characters, I couldn't even tell the women apart, were more than willing to leave others behind. It was quite disspiriting and with few exceptions that trend continues now.

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  6. I'm fond of Dana Wynter's character for being as you said pretty much a fabulously chic but coruscating bitch though she softens up in what I think is Burt's best scene. When she shows up suitably mink clad and with the Cruella de Vil streak in her hair for their big showdown and they work their way through the fighting and recriminations and decide to part the two have a lovely little vignette of realization that it's better to come from a broken home rather than live in one. They play it subtly with a sense of resignation and regret making it one of the more real scenes in the picture.

    Based on what I read in Jean Seberg's bio, an incredibly sad tale, she hated everything about her participation in the film, her part, her wardrobe and most especially her wig. Who can blame her, the part is more or less a stick figure and that wig is a horror but I can't see Angie Dickinson doing any more with it than she does. Well perhaps Angie would have injected a bit more warmth something that Jean's screen persona usually lacked. There really isn't a single actor or actress in the film I don't enjoy, though at times George Kennedy comes perilously close. Aside from the others I've mentioned I get a real kick out of Jessie Royce Landis' haughty would be smuggler, she's my favorite kind of character actress-one who can swoop in make an indelible impression exit quickly and yet you still remember her when the film is over.

    Age disparity was (and is) so prevalent in Hollywood films that I've become blind to it excepting when it's too extreme, as in last year's "The Company You Keep" where the actress playing Redford's wife was at least 40 years younger than him! In Airport not only are Burt and Dino a bit long in the tooth but Virginia Grey & Dick Weston could easily be the pretentious little Lou Wagner's grandparents.

    I see Marion Ross every time but I can't believe with all the times I've watched this, too numerous to count, that I've never noticed Sandra Gould! I guess I'll just have to watch again!

    I read the source novel last year and really enjoyed it. The adaptation is a good one too, keeping the points of major interest while trimming plot points that while involving, Mel Bakersfeld's brother being the largest one, pulled the focus off the main story.

    Of course I've seen all the sequels, all sorely lacking the Ross Hunter touch, of which only Airport '77 has anywhere near this one's entertainment value thanks to the professionalism of Jack Lemmon & Brenda Vaccaro and the scenery chewing of Lee Grant, but as big, glossy, empty spectacles go the original simply can't be beat.

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    1. I like that you are able to enjoy the silliness and camp elements of the film, but you don't let it spoil the the things you consider to be well done; like the performances and handling of the multi-story structure. The best of all possible worlds, that.
      I'm glad you singled out Jessie Royce Landis (I always remembered her, too) and took note of how elderly Lou Wagner's parents are. When I was a kid I though he might be a full-grown college boy or something.
      Another excellent series of comments, Joel. Thanks!

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  7. I love all the comments I’ve read, and love knowing that there were other adolescents who bucked the norm and swooned over films like “Airport” like I did, instead of the Clint Eastwood/Chas Bronson movies that my schoolmates went to see during that mythical era known as the 1970s.

    As much as I love Jean Seberg as Tanya, Angie DIckenson seemed to better embody the character of Tanya Livingstone, a saucy, sexy, unflappable redhead, as written by Arthur Hailey in the novel. Seberg was too demure, too girl-next-door pretty; but she held her own against stage legend Helen Hayes (with whom she had a majority of her scenes) so I’m not criticizing her at all. I wish Seberg would have continued acting and accepted some of those roles post-‘Airport' offered her (like the leads in 'Day for Night' and 'The Stepford Wives')- PLATINUM FALLACIES

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    1. Hi Ross
      I think you are right about Angie Dickinson, specifically for the very reasons you list, but Ross Hunter seemed to have such a thing for glacial, embalmed glamour images of women. I think women with genuine earthiness and sex appeal looked vulgar to him. To my eyes, he de-sexed all his leading ladies.
      I had no idea Seberg had been offered roles in the films you mentioned. He somewhat artificial way with a line reading would have been great for The Stepford Wives.
      And indeed, I'm surprised as you are that so many people saw and liked this film as adolescents, as it was clearly aimed at the "older generation'! Thank you for commenting and for proving some interesting factoids!

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  8. Hi Ken - what a delicious post to enjoy with hot black coffee on a lazy Sunday morning! You have totally captured the appeal of one of the greatest all-star soap operas in film history, in a tradition that harkens all the way back to Grand Hotel in 1932.

    Producer Ross Hunter's treatment of this and all his films is unmistakable. The lavish sets and costumes; the use of technicolor and lighting that give a surreal gloss and polish to the proceedings, elevating the viewer from any hint of gritty reality; and of course, the bravura star performances...nary a Method characterization to be seen! This is true of all the Ross movies I have seen, from Pillow Talk and Madame X to Thoroughly Modern Millie and of course, Airport. The mark of a producer rarely has such a visually distinctive thumbprint.

    As a devoted fan of disaster films, I have reverence for this class-A adaptation of the Hailey novel (which I also read and loved); it's the grandaddy of a genre that quickly became a cliche with the silly cookie-cutter, paint-by-number sequels that followed, culminating in that wonderful spoof Airplane at decade's end. But there were also some brilliant epic disaster moments in the 1970s--The Poseidon Adventure is one of my all-time favorite pics, and Airport paved the way for it...

    I was so surprised that you were annoyed by Miss Helen Hayes' Oscar-winning, scene-stealing turn...but you are right, that character is pretty cloying! (I remember at the time, Hayes was considered to be "our greatest living actress" for some reason, very much the way we put Ms. Meryl Streep on a pedestal today.) But I love the fact that we were in an era where older actresses were getting props for what they added to a picture. Rosemary's Baby would not have been as effective without Ruth Gordon's dotty (and evil!) Mrs. Castevet...

    Again, I bow to your artistry and the memories you evoke, Ken. And the photos you curate for your post are the best of any movie blog I've ever seen. You should be the editor-in-chief of a big glossy movie mag for TCM. Reserve my subscription!
    -C

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    1. Hi Chris
      What an awfully nice comment! Once again, I'm stating the obvious in being surprised by all the disaster film enthusiasts out there. I'm happy that "Airport" is one that most everyone places in a separate category from what the genre later became, and (surprisingly) it seems many appreciate its old-school professionalism and solid storytelling over it's low body count (which would certainly disqualify it today).
      The Helen Hayes thing is where I really differ from most, and I know it's merely my personal taste. Most think Hayes is one of the best (if not THE best) thing in the film, but her performance gets my right eye to twitching like Herbert Lom in those Pink Panther movies!
      I'm glad this post brought back good memories for you. Very much appreciate your input and feedback, Chris!

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  9. Hi Ken!! OH BOY, you have hit upon yet ANOTHER of my all-time tip-top favorite film! I saw it for the first time on its premiere TV broadcast on WABC in the fall of '73. Having fallen in love with POSEIDON ADVENTURE, and already utterly fascinated with jet airlines...well, it was a love match waiting to happen. I was 9, but I "got" everything that was going on with the various relationships, infidelities, etc. And that explosion scene!!! Like you, I also "played AIRPORT", using toy airplanes and/or Fisher Price figures. Love the Ross Hunter style of the film, the score (I love how you called it "overcaffienated/easy listening"!!), the performances....just love it. I'm also crazy for the three sequels - AIRPORT '79 was unfortunately poorly made (oh, those special effects ......) but the plot was fascinating and the performances were quite engaging. '75 and '77 both electrified me (And still do!) - thank you for yet again providing an extremely amusing, yet loving and in depth account of one of our mutual favorites!!!

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    1. Hi Michael
      Well, thank you very much! And you're right, there is indeed a great deal of (nostalgic) affection I have for this film, warts and all. Your comment reiterates a fondness for the disaster film genre that allows for one to still enjoy them while being aware of their flaws. You were the perfect age for this type of "action" film, and I'm sure it seemed like an exciting time for movies (They seemed like events!). As weak as they became, I love all those "Airport" sequels too, although The Concorde really seems like no one was minding the store. I have a hard time imaging full grown people involved with that script!
      Happy to hear from another "Airport" fan, and thank you for sharing your own history with the film (thanks for making me feel less weird for "playing AIRPORT")!

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  10. Hi Ken! I much prefer its more explicit and action-packed cousins (The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure), but I do find myself popping this one in my DVD player when I'm puttering around on Saturday afternoons. I find the snow especially comforting, for some reason.
    This film does feel like Hollywood has half-opened the door to a new, bolder era but is too afraid to walk through it. The old-fashioned direction and tech credits symbolic of late 1960s-early 70s movies have always been off-putting to me, and the first Airport has them on full display.

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    1. Hi Chris!
      I can relate to what you said about the snow. One of the things I remember very strongly about watching this on the big screen as a kid, is how the snowstorm really made me feel chilly while watching it.
      And you can well imagine how dated "Airport" looked in the youth-centric era of handheld cameras, scruffy anti-heroes and directors "telling it like it is." I don't know how college kids responded to the film (they likely ignored it), but I sense that "Airport" was made into a hit by kids like myself and their parents. I'm a huge fan of Inferno and Poseidon as well, "Airport" seems like the mild gateway drug to what disaster films later became.
      Thank you so much for commenting!

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  11. MISS Helen Hays? Is this another one of those "Miss Ross" things?

    I don't believe I've seen "Airport". There are several "disaster" films from the 1970s I've not seen (although I have seen a few), and this is one of them.

    Ken, if you've ever been on Virgin Airlines (the one started up by Richard Branson), you'll know that the airline attendants (mostly female) are still rather friendly...a bit TOO friendly. I think the training facility for Virgin airline attendants must be somewhere in Stepford. A game you might like to play is "try to wipe the fake smile off the face of the Virgin air hostess". I did this (inadvertently) once by taking a picture of myself on the tarmac, roughly halfway between the plane and the airport. The airline hostess who castigated me for this minor act of defiance saw me again on the plane and was pissed at me for the rest of the flight.
    So yes, they ARE human, after all!

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    1. Hi Mark
      Ha! That "Miss Helen Hayes" thing is (I think) a Ross Hunter show of respect in billing befitting her status as "The First Lady of the American Stage" rather than an actress-mandated, on set requirement. It makes me smile though...it always reminds me of Gomer Pyle and Tiny Tim.

      The Stepford Stewardesses of Virgin Airlines sound like a bit of heaven to this infrequent flyer. I never care is people are being fake courteous on jobs, courteous is rare enough! Your particular experience sounds more like what I usually see on flights.
      Disaster films are a matter of taste. Seems many have a nostalgic affection for them, or like them as emblems of a genre from the past. If you should check some out in the future, I'd suggest not to apply too sturdy a logic requirement. They're more fun that way. Thanks, Mark!

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  12. Thank you Ken for your very entertaining and funny review! I have to watch this one again. As a teen I loved the Airport films and my very favourite one was ´77. It seems that the first of the series tried to be be a serious adult drama (with lots of middle aged people as you mention) while the others seemed more geared to be exciting disaster movies.

    The first Airport movie is fascinating because it was so lavishly produced. High quality entertainment! It's so long that I remeber feeling it was a little too seroius what with Burt Lancaster on the phone all the time.

    Parts of it are great fun, though. I like that you appreciate Jacqueline Bissets character as strong female, I must look at it again for her sake. It's amazing how much traveling by air has changed over the years, as you say. I get nostalgic for the innonence of the times. It'll never be the same...

    What I remember most from the film is Jean Seberg. I really like her but it is a bit painful to watch how micast she is in the film. She's no fun and comes across as a shrew. I feel SO sorry for her every time I see her in that hair and that horrible outfit. It seems almost as if someone at Universal wanted to ruin her comeback to american films!
    -Wille

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    1. Hello Wille!
      I return the compliment, as I found several of your observations to be very amusing (Lancaster on the phone all the time, and your suggestion that someone might have had it in for Seberg with her costuming and hairstyle).
      I think it's the organic nature of sequels to gradually dispense with the pacing of the successful original and just ratchet up the action. That is certainly true of the "Airport" franchise. It got so they dispensed with the character stuff as quickly as a pre-commercial sequence of "Fantasy Island", and each movie had to top itself in terms of action. Normally I hate that stuff, but when it comes to disaster films, the excesses added to their fun.
      I hope you do enjoy seeing this one again. The slower pace is actually quite seductive here. You trust where it's taking you.
      Thanks, Wille!

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  13. Another wonderful post that summons up my memories of a classic good/bad movie.
    I remember being horrified by the way Jean Seberg looked in this film after being so charmed by her freshness in 'Breathless' - what was up with Ross Hunter turning beautiful young women into stiff matrons? Did he think this would make the older dames in his films feel better?
    Also, am I the only one who thinks Hunter made Seberg look like Tippi Hedren?
    Don't get me started on Dana Wynter. Always loved her in almost anything (did you ever see that great Alfred Hitchcock episode where she played the nurse in the isolated mansion? One of the creepiest TV hours ever!)
    You know a movie is bad when you come out talking about the make-up! lol Keep up the good work, Ken!

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    1. Thanks very much, Joe! That's very kind!
      At the time, had I been aware of the Jean Seberg of "Breathless" and "Bonjour Tristesse" (my favorite) I would have been horrified too. And until you mentioned it, I never notice how much she DOES look like a Hitchcock blond in this!
      I wonder what the average age of the makeup and hair people were working on a film like this...very likely a team of folks at the very least in their 50s, who only knew how to make women up according to 1961 standards of beauty.
      And I love that you brought up that Dana Wynter Hitchcock episode. I reference it none of my other posts as my absolute favorite of the entire series. It traumatized me as a kid, and did Wynter ever look more gorgeous? Those cheekbones!
      Always glad to hear from you...like me, someone who was THERE when these movies came out, and still remembers!

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  14. I think I lost it at the caption "Gwen has a heart to heart talk with her father"; (I'm also going to have to remember your phrase "rip him a new asshole" and use it in conversation some time.) Like you, I saw this film as a kid when it first came out and took it quite seriously. Now looking at your screenshots, I'm shocked by how bad are the clothes styles (the butterscotch-yellow of the uniforms is quite unappealing) and how dowdy Jean Seberg, the film's nominal star, looks. (Why would Ross Hunter, who went out of his way to display aging actresses like Lana Turner or Jane Wyman in stylish and glamorous clothes do that to her?) Still, I remember the film as quite exciting, and even now can recall how impressed I was by Maureen Stapleton's performance. There's something about being a kid and being able to watch such stuff unironically; nowadays, when everything MUST be a putdown, we would be appalled to admit to being so innocent and unhip. Your terrific post makes me want to see this film again, just to see how I would react to it after so long a time - thanks!

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    1. Thank you for your comments.
      I think I still long to return to the occasional unironic enjoyment of a pop entertainment film. It becomes rarer as i get older (I saw the Christopher Reeve "Superman" as an adult, but it so gently poked fun at itself I don't know if my being swept up in it counts as unironic). Can't even recall the last contemporary epic or disaster film that got me feeling the way I did about "Airport." Still, it's great to think back to when there was such a time. Always terrific hearing from you, GOM.

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  15. Hello Ken, I saw "Airport" again and it is very entertaining and enjoyable. I love how it snows all the time until the ending. The dark winter night of the film is adds to the tension.

    I don't really know what to think about Helen Hayes´ performance. I think it is entertaining while at the same time a little cute. This time I think Jean Seberg carried herself well despite the hairdo. She and Burt make a nice couple. I usually like Dean Martins easy going personality but it seems out of place in this film. He belongs in a sunnier climate. I can't picture him maneuvering a huge jet plane.
    Thanks again for the great review, Wille

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    1. Those are some terrific observations to come back with after having had such a lukewarm memory of it!
      I like that the snow still serves as an effective atmosphere, and that Jean Seberg's hair still works to undermine both her performance and beauty.
      And yes, Dino at the helm of an airplane is a sobering proposition.
      Glad you gave the film another, look-see, Wille! Appreciate the follow up.

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  16. You love this one, too ! I was just watching it a couple of days ago in the real Great-Lakes region ( the ' storm ' shown on-screen barely qualifies as an average storm, by the by, but, still, it's great for my businesses ) .

    We HAVE to return to Lincoln Airport, for EVERY aeroport in the Eastern two-thirds of North America, including, even, ( we are informed & told breathlessly, ) Detroit, is closed. AND, it MUST be runway twenty-niner. It MUST be, even though that specific runway is blocked by a stuck aeroplane. It must be twenty-niner, & not that short, awful # 22, for we can't halt & stop in time & will inevitably crash through the perimeter fence into the residential subdivision which some genius planner decided to place there because the land happened to be cheap at the time. The plane will inevitably kill all the children & their babysitters on the land there. But NOT the parents, for that lot of geniuses have chosen to hold a protest rally against plane noise on the evening of the biggest snow-storm in 6 years ! ( If they thought it was loud before, are they really due for & in for a surprise ! )

    Everything in a Ross-Hunter is like some sort of super-caffeinated grand-opera or top-flight Shakespearean production. Every development is accompanied by violins blaring in order to emphasise that this is very IMPORTANT -- pay attention, people ! When the co-pilot is is trying to persuade & convince the Guerrero ( ? correct orthography ? ) chap to turn over the bomb peacefully, I swear that the crew & passengers are on the verge of holding each others' hands & swaying & singing ' We are the world ' & ' Kumbaya, my lord ' . & Jacqueline Bisset slapping Helen Hayes into an Academy Award ! ( Let's go for the Oscar, Helen ! ) I can't stop laughing whilst typing this. Dean Martin SANS cocktail glass as co-pilot ? No young adults, mods, rockers, or hippies in this bizarre parallel universe ? Priceless, must take a break ... ( laughing too hard) -- Pearl

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    1. P S : But I have to emphasise that I've always loved it. Saw the pic back in its original release in 1970. The elderly Cumquot lady ( or whatever her name was ) could probably have hitched a series of free rides via private planes to NYC. Back in the 1960s & very early 70s, you could freely visit the private-planes areas & hitch a ride by asking round. It was considered good form to volunteer to help pay for fuel, but, in my experience, they always refused & were delighted to have company. I'm sure that she would have been welcomed. She could also have volunteered to have become a private courier ; many companies needed to send sealed items quickly & accompanied. ( I never did the latter myself, but I have known some people through the years which have enjoyed impromptu, quick, swift, free trips this way. I don't know if this still exists in this century. The former method is long gone. )

      I recall also having liked Airport 1975. Sid Caesar with dead-pan face says softly ' ... the stewardess is piloting the plane ... we're going to die ... ' You have the Flying Nun, with an uncanny resemblance to Helen Reddy, playing guitar. The stewardess was played by the neglected, wonderful Karen Black, whom I had been a fan of since the appearance of an obscure, truly delightful but neglected gem titled ' You're A Big Boy Now ' , which was directed by Coppola -- yes, that Coppola. The next one, circa ? 1977 ? is a blur : I believe that I thought it was acceptable but was like a shallow-water version of the Poseidon Adventure. The final one, another blur, circa 1979, I simply detested : the world's stupidest investigative reporter can't figure out that her armaments - manufacturer boyfriend is trying to kill her, even though a heat-seeking missile from his company follows her plane, a renegade French jet tries to shoot them down, a man is murdered in her house warning her about said boyfriend, &, on 2d trip ( ! ) on same plane, the sabotaged plane depressurises & the plane is failing. Oh, & she has his signed illegal contracts with her all along. Zero film quality.

      I could tell immediately that Minneapolis aeroport was used for establishing shots from the SA sign, SuperAmerica fuel chain. ciao !
      -- Pearl

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    2. Hi Pearl
      Glad to hear you're a fan of "Airport" as well! In your comments you perfectly capture the level of comic overemphasis that characterized this film. The opening sequence of Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety" is less a satire than a recreation of what goes on in this film.
      Too bad that each successive "Airport" film seemed to go further and further over the top, with the casts growing more Z-list as they went along. That final one (The Concorde) is some of the most inept major filmmaking I've ever seen.

      Oh, and nice to hear you like "you're a Big Boy Now" as well, I write about it on this blog, it being a particular favorite because it was my introduction to Karen Black.
      Seems air travel has changed so much that much of what goes on in "Airport" looks quaintly nostalgic now.
      Loved reading your hilarious recollection of this film and thank you for sharing it and giving us all a chuckle. Thanks, Pearl!

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    3. PS : this may have become my favourite site. Any site which remembers You're A Big Boy Now, let alone reviewing it, is gear !

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    4. Thank you very much, Pearl!
      It's nice to know you like the site enough to visit old posts and share with us all your personal thoughts about my sometimes questionable choice of movies.
      Your summation of "The Concorde" is on the button. It's so hard to believe grown people with functioning brains could come out with a film so careless and sloppy. It should give hope to every screenwriting hack in the nation.
      Looking forward to catching up on some of your comments!

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  17. One of the things that sold "Airport" for me when I first saw it (maybe it's network premiere around 1973?) was the Stench Of Authenticity(tm) for the brief film clips where air traffic controllers speak a few lines of dialogue. I wouldn't be surprised if those were real air traffic controllers, not actors.

    I wonder if the same thing might be true of Michael Ritchie's "Downhill Racer" (1969) where Robert Redford's teammates on the U.S. ski team appear to be real ski bums.

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    1. Hi Mark
      I have a sense you're right about some of the supporting AIRPORT cast being made up of actual airport personnel. Years ago I got a look at the film's pressbook, and the film being as authentic as possible was just such a selling point.
      Something latter entries in the franchise threw out altogether.
      I've never seen DOWNHILL RACER, but Hollywood was on a verisimilitude kick for a while, so I think your hunch is right.

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