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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

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 cranky movie freaks to sort out. 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 US passenger plane ever gone to sea bottom, then pulled back to surface? If so, my hat's off to rescuers.

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 Winchester '73. He'd keep lines open with the company and help out with reissues of The Glenn Miller Story and the Hitchcock group, ongoing receipts from which Stewart shared. There's an interesting part in Airport '77 where his tycoon character addresses the planeload via Disc-O-Vision, MCA's coming format for home entertainment. To 1977 audiences, not fully introduced to video cassettes, this must have seemed futuristic.

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 San Francisco International Airport series with Lloyd Bridges replacing Pernell Roberts, who'd done the pilot TV-movie. Six episodes got made before flights were cancelled. The Airport features might have gone on but for Airplane! reducing the series to farce (Universal's final one released in 1979). As to legacy, the "franchise" foursome made DVD landing some years back on flipper discs, 1970's first and best an only one of the lot to be offered since on Blu-Ray. If Airports 1975, 1977, or 1979 are thought of at all, it's likely in terms of hopeless kitsch, or source of satire for Airplane!, subject of tomorrow's GPS post. 


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I really hate all of these Airport movies and the disaster films as well. Seeing that they appear almost constantly in cable channels under Universal control, once was more than enough. I remember going on a road to a hotel while being on vacation, then I moved my face to a side and I saw that the 1979 film was being shown in a drive in. However, I vividly remember watching the 1977 later on television in a very popular movie show hosted by two prestigious journalists, one of them my friend in Facebook. It was really annoying to see it. I eventually saw all of them, but I can't fully remember them in detail. They are a collection of clichés, veteran actors making an easy paycheck based on their pasts, phony stories, phony situations, etc. It is much better to see authentic disaster situations, even though when they do happen television is never prepared despite their abused "breaking news" signs... I hope that somebody will ever find the Malaysian aircraft one of these days.

11:30 AM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

The two disaster pics to watch, at least in my book, are "Earthquake" and "Towering Inferno".

At least in both of those you get glimpses of actual Los Angeles streets and buildings for a bit of a nostalgia trip. And with both, you get to see some stunts using real pros that are still impressive today.

I think I appreciate these two movies more today, knowing that real stunts and practical effects went into making them, rather than some geek with a mouse and 3d modeling software.

6:36 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

"Query then: Has a US passenger plane ever gone to sea bottom, then pulled back to surface?"

My question has always been: COULD a 747 sink like a stone? We're talking about an airtight container made of the lightest possible material. I'm no engineer but my guess is that unless it sprung a leak it would bob around like a cork.

7:40 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts recalls some "Airport" flights from the 70's, and reveals call sheet data from "Airport '77":


Oddly enough, of recent whilst digging through old files around here at Casa
Roberts, I came across a small stack of Universal Studio daily call sheets for
AIRPORT 77, and I have no idea how the heck I ended up with them. I remember one
showing early 6:00 AM call for Darren McGavin, and I noticed that all the ones I
have show no earlier than a 10:00 AM call for Jimmy Stewart (respect for elder
statesmen of Hollywood I guess, or contractual obligation perhaps). I know I saw
most of these Universal and/or Irwin Allen films mostly because they did have
old stars in them, and by then it was either those or Disney movies if you
wanted to see any of the old surviving pros working on the big screen (I figure
Aaron Spelling became the next rescuer of Hollywood elderly hirement with LOVE
BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND once the disaster flicks dried up?)

AIRPORT 75 was a particular favorite of mine, mostly because of Gloria Swanson
being in it, though the Carol Burnett Show did the best spoof on the film by
having Burnett do Swanson as Norma Desmond being on the plane. The best gag was
when they told Norma that the plane was going to crash, she waited a beat, then
yelled, "STAND-IN!".


4:55 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

After college, I started working for a movie theatre chain in Boston. That was when I got my hands on an "Airport 79" promo t-shirt. I wore it 'til it fell apart, which didn't take very long. It was the most cheaply-made item of clothing I ever owned.

9:04 AM  
Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

TOWEING INFERNO still works the best, I think. I remember the screams in the theater during a few tight action scenes. It was an honest effort, that movie. However, Irwin Allen pretty much lost it with THE SWARM, which was the opposite kind of experience. It was also shown in a shoebox theater by then, and it played pretty much as a pre-AIRPLANE! comedy. Unintentionally, of course.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I'm still a big fan of AIRPORT and THE TOWERING INFERNO.

10:14 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon offers some thoughts re "Airport '77":

"Airport '77" was made during a year I spent some months working at Universal. I well remember being hauled to the backlot on many occasions for semi-'location' shooting there (only half kidding, as the original Universal backlot was humongous, and you DID have to be driven back up there from the soundstage-dominated northern end of the lot, unless the company could afford the time for you to hike up there, which would and still could take the better part of an hour!) And, on at least a couple of those occasions I remember seeing the doors open to a soundstage that contained what appeared to be a semi-permanent mockup of a jet airplane, which I'd certainly bet was used for "Airport '77" and quite possibly its earlier brethren. I CERTAINLY endorse your mention of Alfred Newman's crucial role in animating the original Oliver Hailey "Airport", which Burt Lancaster aptly referred to as a piece of garbage (or something comparably dismissive), and that it certainly is. However, it moves along, and looks handsome-enough, and it has that finely-made Newman music (written as he was dying of emphysema, no less) to inject personality and feeling into a cardboard soap opera--that, and some players who are a hell of a lot better than their material. BUT, the other element equally strong in its first run (and I saw the thing in Hollywood) was its fantastic photography, more a matter of the format than the lighting and all, as it was one of those features shot in Todd-AO. The early Universal DVD of "Airport" did absolutely no justice to its original appearance, and must have been mastered from some reduction print or other. I hope, as I've never seen it, that the 100th Anniversary (of Universal, not "Airport"!) Blu-ray went back to the Todd-AO records. Fox's knockout Blu-ray of "Cleopatra" looks to have done as much, and Todd-AO and Blu-ray are a marriage made in heaven. MAN, do I wish WB would (if they could, either at all, or in terms of be willing to risk the money) remaster "Around the World in 80 Days" from the original Todd-AO negs! And that's a wonderful movie, in my book, versus either "Cleopatra" or "Airport".

2:09 PM  

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