The disaster spectacle has been a mainstay since the silent film era, but it wasn’t until the ’70s that Hollywood really honed the art of turning cinematic disasters into surefire hits.
Airport (1970), showing June 19 and 22 in a new print with its DTS as part of the Music Box Theatre’s 70mm film festival, introduced many of the tropes so closely associated with the 70s disaster genre: respect for – and the subsequent destabilization of – then – new technologies, in this case the Boeing 707; a miasma of soap-operaish subplots; and huge star casts collapsing for easy paychecks.
But AirportThe air disaster of only occurs a little more than 103 minutes after the start of its walking time. Based on Arthur Hailey’s 1968 novel, Airport centers on Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster), the general manager of a fictional Chicago airport struggling to stay open during a raging blizzard. While trying to orchestrate the movement of a plane stuck on a vital runway, Bakersfeld and his colleagues discover that a mental patient (Van Heflin) may be planning to blow up a flight to Rome, a flight that has already taken off.
Joining Lancaster in the field is Jean Seberg as the airline’s public relations officer carrying a torch for him, and George Kennedy as cocky mechanic Joe Patroni, the only character who returned for all three Airportsuites. Dean Martin is Lancaster’s brother-in-law, a married pilot having an affair with flight attendant Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset). A heartfelt moment between Martin and Bisset halfway through Airport would be a decade later the basis of feud terminal announcements at the opening of Plane! (1980).
Helen Hayes won an Oscar in her supporting role as Ada Quonsett, an elderly stowaway who plays both the airline schedule and airport security for free flights with a liability minimum. After the Airport appearance, Hayes – dubbed “the first lady of American theatre” – kicked off her career with multiple appearances on television and in Disney films throughout the 1970s. Later disaster images featured many film artists veterans in flamboyant roles who, if they didn’t get Oscar wins or nominations like Hayes or Shelley Winters in Poseidon’s Adventure (1972), at least got a chance to show off (Ava Gardner in Earthquake , Gloria Swanson in Airport 1975 ).
Disaster films were very much a producer’s genre, depending more on an executive’s ability to pack stars and special effects than on a director’s expert mastery of direction and actor performances. Director-screenwriter George Seaton does a masterful job here of intertwining Hailey’s multiple subplots, but if one person leaves an author’s mark on Airport the movie is producer Ross Hunter.
A former actor, Hunter had at the time of AirportThe production of was one of Universal’s main in-house producers for decades, best known for its so-called female imagery such as Douglas Sirk’s subtext-laden melodramas like Gorgeous Obsession (1954) and All that heaven allows (1955) and romantic comedies starring Doris Day, including Pillow talk (1959) and The thrill of it all! (1963). Hunter also produced Flower Drum Song (1961) and Resolutely modern Millie (1967).
G, 137 mins. Screening on June 19 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. as part of The Music Box 70mm Film Festival 2022; Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport; full festival pass $80 general admission, $60 Music Box members; individual screening $14 general admission, $12 seniors and children 12 and under, $11 Music Box members; musicboxtheatre.com/films/aeroport
No one would characterize Airport like a picture of a woman, but the film returns to old-school melodrama many times, especially in the scenes between Lancaster’s Mel – who is in a failed marriage to socialite Cindy (Dana Wynter) – and Seberg, as well than Martin and Bisset. Wynter is usually dressed to perfection in Edith Head robes, and the home she shares with Lancaster and their children when briefly onscreen is dripping with chandeliers and other decorative mid-century vulgarities.
Indeed, like much of Hunter’s repertoire, Airport is about conspicuous consumption – in this case, jet age consumption. This was a time before fare deregulation, when only the wealthiest could afford to fly and travelers dressed before boarding the plane. At the end of capturing the excitement and magnetism of the times, the film was one of the last to be exposed to Todd-AO, a process using not only widescreen film gauge but also six-channel stereo tracks and a 30 frames per -second projection ratio, allowing the image to retain its sharpness and clarity even when projected on large screens.
Seaton deftly uses these technical tools to establish the airport setting – a very brief prelude playing on a dark screen features airport gate announcements, for example – and the widescreen setting is perfect for shots. side views on the ground representing the 707 as an imposing building. The montage also evokes the adrenaline that airport staff need to get through the night: split-screen effects add dynamism to flashbacks and procedural calls between the pilots and the control tower. Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and Universal backlot replaced the fictional Lincoln International Airport.
Although he left his mark on Airport, the film was to be Hunter’s final production for Universal. He then produced the musical megaflop horizon lost, perhaps now best known for inspiring Bette Midler’s famous quip, “I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical.” Longtime agent Jennings Lang produced the Airport sequels and other universal disaster images, while sci-fi producer Irwin Allen wore the mantle of disaster at 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. Both men had previously performed the disaster genre in the ground at the time Plane! came to dance on his grave.
But the audience ate Airport at the time of its release; it grossed over $100,000,000 and was the second highest-grossing film of 1970 (Love story was the highest). It also earned nine Oscar nominations, but Hayes was the only win. Veteran composer Alfred Newman received a posthumous nomination for his often grandiose score.