Greenbriar Flies Economy
Airport '77 Is Another Universal Crash
Irving Thalberg said once that movies were made for the moment, this a reason few would last as art. Universal's Airport series would bear him out. Each was eager to please an audience for years they came out. What happened after was a matter for televiewers and creaky movie freaks (like us) to worry about. Airport(s) were even dated by their titles, further assure that content would do the same. After classy Ross Hunter start in 1970, there came Airport 1975, Airport '77, then Airport '79. What's a Concorde, you ask? '79's chapter tells it, for those who'd care after 35 years. Airports were like Big Broadcasts or Broadway Melodies of an earlier era, and just as disposable. They celebrated new aircraft like those did pop tunes. It took spoofy Airplane! to bring down the whole franchise in 1980. We'd wait decades to board air-set thrillers after that. But Airplane! would age too, as I found out this week, just as had Blazing Saddles, which everyone for a while called the funniest thing on film. Both lambasted movie tropes, but television more so, the latter from inception lifting clichés from a pic past and pounding same into hamburger. Mel Brooks and the Zucker team timed their mockeries right for youth fine-tuned to irony.
It was with trepidation that I got out Airport '77 to sample what was once "bigger, more exciting than Airport 1975" (posters and trailer). 1970's Airport had been a favorite from seeing it first-run. Guess I liked it because the thing seemed like an oldie weighing into battle with 60/70's counterculture. Producer Ross Hunter gave Airport distinction the sequels would lack. Sufficient reason for Airport being was Alfred Newman's score, whatever one thought of the film. Follow-ups from 1975 at two-year interval got skipped in toto by me. I could smell Universal's cynicism from 3000 miles away. This outfit was first to do sequels for $ sake alone and hang whether they were any good. From Depression era onward came monsters in monstrous recaps, then a talking mule and Ma/Pa Kettle on a loop. What were Airports but more of that? They'd do a same with sharks after Jaws. May we blame Lew Wasserman for much of this? I've read books about this man. He was sort of a shark himself, with gangland teeth. They say Wasserman cared less about quality pictures than extravagant boxoffice. And that made him different from anyone else in the biz?
No way could all the Airports be digested, not within days anyhow. '77 seemed wisest choice for a most interesting cast of the lot: Jim Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Olivia DeHavilland, Christopher Lee (Dracula drowned again!), plus players mostly from TV or worse 70's features (Monte Markham, Brenda Vaccaro, others). None would have come high or demanded percentage. Like all of disaster casts through that decade, this was mix of old-time stars and hopeful young. I looked up credited director Jerry Jameson. He had done television before and would go back to it. Maybe Jerry was just what was needed for Airport '77. Settings don't look expensive, especially once everyone's trapped in tight space to wait out rescue. Our Navy is acknowledged at end credits for haul-up of sunk aircraft, a semi-doc exhibition of can-do on that branch's part. Query then: Has a
I always felt players should get hazard pay for disaster films. Wet and nasty clothes, matted hair, the women stripped entirely of glamour, if not clothing. Most unsettling was old-timers put in harm's way. Did they get closer insurance exams before enlist to these ordeals? James Stewart was a wisest of Airport '77's cast. He never gets on the plane at all. Jim had been done with starring parts since 1971. For what was left of a career, he'd be familiar guest in movies, and actor but occasional on TV. Airport '77 Stewart stands by and shows concern for family members on the stricken plane. Would he have spent breaks talking old times with Wasserman and other Uni vets who remembered him as biggest (free-lance) cheese on the lot? Jim still cashed checks for % he had of Universal pics going back to
Special effects by Albert Whitlock are a best thing about Airport '77. His plane flying against a night sky looks great. Real money spent was for visuals. Universal had to compete with the Irwin Allen cycle of catastrophe. That producer had upped stakes by using major stars Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno, a summit for the sub-genre. Disaster design had resolved to "Who Will Survive" among names imperiled. Airport '77 actually saw less of its cast killed off than we'd expect. The blueprint would migrate to television through the 70's. Irwin Allen increasingly shifted that way, as Universal early-on (1970-71) tried a