“AIRPORT” (1970) Review

“AIRPORT” (1970) Review

According to many film critics and fans, the 1970 movie, “AIRPORT”, generated what is known in Hollywood as the first in the “disaster film” genre. Is this true? From a certain point of view. “AIRPORT” was not the first Hollywood disaster movie ever made. But it did kick start a whole slew of them that Hollywood churned out during the 1970s.

Based upon Arthur Hailey’s 1968 novel, “AIRPORT” told the story of the manager of a fictional airport near Chicago named Mel Bakersfield, who is trying to keep the airport open during a snowstorm. Bakerfield not only has to deal with the bad weather’s effect upon the airport; but also local suburban residents, who want to permanently shut down one of the runways; an elderly lady who also happens to be a habitual stowaway; a failing marriage; a hostile brother-in-law, who is an airline pilot; and a suicidal bomber who plots to blow up a Rome-bound Boeing 707 airliner in flight. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only is Bakersfield’s brother-in-law, Vernon Demarest, is a tool, he is having an affair with a beautiful young English-born stewardess named Gwen Meighen. And both had been assigned to the Rome-bound flight about Trans Global Airline (TGA)’s flagship, the Golden Argosy. Bakersfield’s own marriage is in trouble, due to his long working habits. Even worse, he is attracted to TGA’s customer relations agent, Tanya Livingston. Meanwhile, former demolitions expert D.O. Guerrero has hit hard times due to unemployment and a history of mental illness. In a desperate bid to provide for his long-suffering wife, Inez, he buys life insurance with the intent of committing suicide by blowing up the Golden Argosy over the Atlantic Ocean, so that his wife, Inez will collect the $225,000 insurance money.

I would not be surprised if many movie fans and film critics have dismissed “AIRPORT” after forty-six years. Superficially, it is the type of film that many would either dismiss today as “dated” or simply melodramatic trash. Yes, “AIRPORT” is filled with melodrama. But if I must be honest, I would regard it as classy melodrama. Mature. Yes, the movie is filled with infidelity, strained marriages and unrequited love. But all topics are treated with both class and a brutal honesty by writer-director George Seaton that I found rather surprising.

This especially seemed to be the case in the story line regarding Vernon Demarest and his mistress, Gwen Meighen. Their discussion of her pregnancy and and a possible abortion struck me as very mature . . . and honest. I could also say the same about the story line regarding Mel and Cindy Bakersfield’s failing marriage. What I liked about this story line is that despite Cindy’s bitching about Mel’s working habits, I realized that she had a very good reason to feel bitter. I also felt a good deal of sympathy toward Mel’s attraction to customer relations agent, Tanya Livingston. More importantly, both husband and wife managed to come to the conclusion that divorce was their only option without any overblown angst. Seaton also managed to portray D.O. and Inez Guerrero with an honest eye and show how their money troubles and his emotional instability has been a strain on their marriage. Within all of this melodrama, “AIRPORT” provided some laughs in the story arc about Tanya’s dealings with a charming old widow named Mrs. Ada Quonsett, and her penchant for stowing aboard many of the airline’s flights. But even her story arc takes a serious turn when she decides to sneak about the Golden Argosy’s flight to Rome and finds herself in a seat next to Guerrero.

The movie also benefited from attention paid to the detail of day-to-day airport and airline operations, the response to a paralyzing snowstorm, a runway blocked by a disabled airplane, environmental concerns over noise pollution, and an attempt to blow up an airliner. What I find really interesting is how the film’s plot allowed the main characters’ personal stories to intertwine with scenes that featured decisions being made minute-by-minute by the airport and airline staffs, operations and maintenance crews, flight crews, and Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers. This balancing act seemed to be at its supreme in the story arc featuring D.O. Guerrero’s attempt to bomb the Rome flight. I was amazed at how the other arcs featuring Mrs. Ada Quonsett, Vern Demerest and Gwen Meighen’s affair, and the disabled plane blocking the runway managed to seamlessly intertwine with Guerrero’s story. Not only does one have author Arthur Hailey to thank, but also George Seaton, who made this happen on screen due to his Oscar nominated screenplay and excellent direction.

Was there anything about “AIRPORT” that I disliked? Or found wanting? I had nothing against Edith Head’s costumes for the film. Quite frankly, I found them very attractive. But for the likes of me, I cannot understand why her work for this film was nominated in the first place. Her designs were not that mind boggling. But my real complaint about this movie were some of the performances. I have nothing against the performances by the movie’s stars and major supporting cast members. But I found those performances by many of the minor supporting cast either wooden or hammy. Their performances reminded me of those I had encountered among the minor cast members in the 1982 miniseries, “THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with those performances of the movie’s stars and major supporting cast members. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Gary Collins, Barry Nelson, Lloyd Nolan, and Barbara Hale. Jean Seberg gave an excellent performance as customers relations agent Tanya Livingston, especially in her major scene with Helen Haynes. The latter received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as the charming, yet cunning Ada Quonsett. Star Burt Lancaster held the movie together with a commanding performance and at the same time, was perfectly emotional in his scenes with Dana Wynter, who portrayed his wife. Speaking of Ms. Wynter, she did an excellent job of conveying Cindy Bakersfield’s emotional turmoil as an estranged wife. Jacqueline Bisset was spot on as stewardess Gwen Meighen, who not only found herself pregnant, but also in love with her unborn baby’s married father. Maureen Stapleton received several nominations and a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe Award as Guerrero’s long-suffering wife. Although I admired her performance very much, I found her last scene a bit on the hammy side.

However, my favorite performances came from three cast members – Van Heflin, George Kennedy and especially Dean Martin. I am amazed that Heflin did not receive an acting award or nomination as the emotionally damaged D.O. Guerrero, who had decided to solve his problems with an act of violence. Heflin did an excellent job of portraying a man barely able to keep his emotions in check, yet beaten down by the bad luck in his life. George Kennedy received several acting nominations as the gregarious, yet very intelligent airline mechanic, Joe Patroni. In fact, I believe he gave the most entertaining performance in the movie. But if there is one performance I believe deserved an acting nomination or award, it came from Dean Martin. His portrayal of pilot Vern Demerest struck me as the most complex character in the movie. He conveyed the different aspects of Demerest’s personality – arrogance, temperamental, competency, compassionate and loving – with such great skill that it seemed a crime that he was never acknowledged for his work.

After my recent viewing of “AIRPORT”, I found myself wondering why I had ignored it for so long. It really is a first-rate movie, thanks to George Seaton’s adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s novel and skillful direction. The movie was also blessed with a first-rate cast that included Burt Lancaster, Helen Haynes, George Kennedy and Dean Martin. “AIRPORT” might have a few flaws, but after forty years or so, I still believe it is one of the best disaster films I have ever seen . . . period. And at the moment, I cannot even think of any other film that might be its equal or superior.