Appellate Judge Tom Becker likes his airports plane and simple—and with a touch of stowaway.
The Number 1 Novel of the Year—Now a Motion Picture!
The "all-star blockbuster" movie is almost as old as movies themselves—well, as talking movies, at any rate, with one of the earliest examples, Grand Hotel, winning the fifth-ever Best Picture Oscar.
The whole business of luring moviegoers with the promise of "all-star casts" picked up considerably in the '50s and '60s, as the studio system collapsed and Hollywood needed more ways to lure moviegoers from their TVs. "Blockbusters" like The Longest Day, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Casino Royale, Ship of Fools, and Hotel, among others, were bolstered by bold names; the trade-off was that in accommodating all the bold names, these films were often heavy with melodrama and soap operatics.
Ross Hunter was no stranger to melodrama, soap opera, or getting audiences to turn off their TVs and shell out for a movie. Hunter produced several lavish-looking films in the '50s and '60s, including three of Douglas Sirk's best—Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life. After spending the '60s making trifling comedies (The Art of Love, I'd Rather Be Rich), soapy melodramas (Back Street, Madame X), and a couple of big musicals (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Flower Drum Song), Hunter produced Airport, a big, "all-star" movie based on Arthur Hailey's best-selling novel.
With Airport, Hunter was able to do grand-style soap, but with an action-movie upgrade. The film spawned that great '70s tchotchke, the Disaster Epic, a sub-subgenre that lit up local theaters like a thousand bright flares and then burned out precisely at the end of the decade. The recipe was simple: take a bunch of famous—or formerly famous—faces, have them square off in some low-level personal histrionics, and then blow something up—an airplane, a boat, a sky scraper, Los Angeles, whatever was handy.
Airport was the second highest-grossing film of 1970, behind Love Story. It pulled in 10 Academy Award nominations and spawned three direct sequels, plus, of course, Airplane!. Whether or not it's a "great film" is debatable, but it's a pop-culturally important one. It had a stand-alone DVD release in 2000, and was later part of the Airport Terminal Pack, in which it was teamed up with its sequels.
Now, Universal is giving us Airport (Blu-ray) as part of the studio's 100th anniversary series.
Facts of the Case
It's a terrible night at Lincoln International Airport. A blizzard is causing chaos, grounding some planes, causing delays in others, and closing down the main runway due to a plane being snowed in.
Airport manager Mel Bakersfield (Burt Lancaster, Conversation Piece) is doing all he can to hold it together. Fortunately, he's got master mechanic Joe Patroni (George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke) helping dig out the stranded plane, and the airport's PR agent, the beautiful Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg, Breathless), running interference with a variety of smaller crises. Among the smaller crises: elderly stowaway Ada Quonset (Helen Hayes, Herbie Rides Again), who charms her way onto flights without benefit of a ticket. Not helping: Mel's frustrated society wife Cindy (Dana Wynter, Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956), who's feeling neglected by her workaholic husband; and Mel's abrasive brother-in-law, Captain Vernon Demerast (Dean Martin, The Wrecking Crew), a pilot who cheats on Mel's sister with a variety of stewardesses—currently, Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset, Day for Night), who has an unpleasant surprise for Captain D.
Of course, all these little problems don't amount to a proverbial hill o' beans when broke, mentally unstable D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin, Johnny Eager) boards the late-leaving flight to Rome carrying a $250,000 life insurance policy—and a bomb!
"It's the biggest piece of junk ever."—Burt Lancaster
I don't know if Burt Lancaster's assessment really holds up, but Airport is a pretty dreadful movie. It's wildly contrived, contains some howlingly bad dialogue, and for the most part, the acting by the all-stars rarely rises above sitcom level.
Since the film is trying to condense a several-hundred page novel into a just-over two-hour run-time, story shortcuts abound. Everybody offers up expository speeches, and character traits are worn on the actors' sleeves; if for some reason, you somehow miss a point—for instance, that the elderly stowaway is cute or that Bakersfield is a workaholic—fear not, it'll be rammed home in the dialogue. ("She's a stowaway!" "Yes, but she's so cute!") There's no nuance here, no complexity. It's entertainment junk food.
And, like most junk food, it's hard to put down. Just as you probably won't cop to the empty guacamole container and the chip crumbs all over your mouth, you might not cop to sitting through Airport.
But you probably should, at least once. It's a startlingly shallow experience, but it's also obstinately compelling.
1. It's a testament to the enduring appeal of old-time star power. Only two of the actors seem to take this seriously at all: Lancaster, who's always great, and Maureen Stapleton as the bomber's wife ("Inez Guerrero"). Everyone else is just having a good, old-fashioned field day, including Martin, who's playing a version of his womanizing cad persona; Kennedy as a heroic, blue-collar tough guy; and especially Hayes, whose role here earned her a sentimental Oscar, making her the first person to win the award for lead and supporting roles.
2. It looks great. I'm not just talking about the overall-very-good 1080p transfer. The film itself is glossy, busy (in a good way), and just plain looks like it was carefully crafted. And it was. Directed by veteran George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street), virtually everyone on the technical side was an accomplished, award-winning (or nominated) artist, including costume designer Edith Head (Roman Holiday), editor Stuart Gilmore (The Alamo), cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (Ship of Fools), composer Alfred Newman (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing), along with the art directors, effects editors, and sound editors. It's a classy production. It looks nothing like a '70s movie and every inch a '50s movie, and all these years later, that just adds to its retro charm.
3. There are crowd scenes with real crowds, not CGI crowds. Crowds of extras all doing things, bits of business, not just standing around. These are serious extras, people who hope that someone will notice their bits of business and maybe they'll build a career. In some cases, it might have worked. According to IMDb, among the background players were Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) and Marion Ross (Happy Days).
4. It's TV hip; many scenes are split screen, and they do all sorts of funny wipes and pop ups. It's cheesy, and hardly original (I think Hunter employed this same technique in Pillow Talk), but adds to the cool retro feel.
5. It's family-friendly—sorta. Somehow, despite the slightly dicey nature of some of the subplots—unwanted pregnancy, talk of an abortion (available in Sweden!), infidelity, suicide, and of course, mass murder—Airport was awarded a G rating. While I can't imagine kids who were raised on contemporary action films getting too excited about this, they might have fun with the second half, when the bomber plot takes over.
The tech on this disc is very good. Airport was a "big" movie meant to be viewed on a "big" screen and for Airport (Blu-ray), Universal offers a 2.35:1/1080p high definition transfer that would almost be right at home on the screen at Radio City Music Hall (where Airport was shown in 70mm). This is a very impressive transfer, with solid blacks, great colors, and excellent detail. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is also strong, doing an excellent job of mixing ambient sounds, effects, music, and dialogue. On a technical level, this is a fine release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What the hell is up with the supplemental package here—or, rather, the lack of a supplemental package? No, Airport is not a "great" movie. It was dated and clunky in 1970, and it didn't exactly age out of that.
But like it or not, Airport is an important movie. It made enough money to help keep Universal's film (as opposed to television) division afloat for many years to come, years when they were investing in "riskier" projects like Two-Lane Blacktop, Minnie and Moskowitz, and American Graffiti. As noted above (and often), it jumpstarted a subgenre that became one of the defining points of the popular culture of a decade.
So how come the only Airport-specific supplement we get is a trailer? Otherwise—beyond the now-requisite DVD and digital download—we get a couple of featurettes celebrating "100 Years of Universal," which, without the revenue from this film, might have been re-titled "60 Years of Universal." Surely, there's some archival promo piece floating around. Surely, there are people connected with the film (like George Kennedy) who might have offered a few words. Surely, there's some critic or commentator or current filmmaker who could have contributed something. Sony's release of Lost Horizon (1973) is like a Criterion special edition compared to this—and not only was Lost Horizon a bomb, the disc was MOD (Made on Demand), for cryin' out loud.
It's just ironic that while celebrating their centennial, Universal would give such short shrift to a film that helped them last as long as they have.
Maybe Lancaster was right. Maybe Airport is junk. But even junk can be landmark, and like it or not, Airport was a landmark film.
While it's easy to sneer at the overheated histrionics, melodramatic subplots, and spot-the-star antics, it's just as easy to sit through this uncomplicated, and occasionally and unintentionally funny behemoth. Universal's Blu-ray sports good tech, but the lack of meaningful supplements is a let-down.
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