Written and Directed by George Seaton
Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey
Music by Alfred Newman
"At half-past six on a Friday evening in January, Lincoln International Airport, Illinois, was functioning, though with difficulty" - The Opening line of Arthur Hailey's Airport.
In 1968, Arthur Hailey's best selling novel Airport seemed as if it would be a permanent fixture at the top of the best seller's lists. It was an intricate detailed telling of the inner workings of fictional Lincoln International Airport trying desperately to function during one of the worst snow storms in decades. Hailey had researched the book for five years, and as he weaved his soap opera storyline magic, we gained a fascinating behind the scenes look of airport operations, why airlines function the way they do, and a detailed look at the stressful lives of air-traffic controllers.
It was these details that made the novel such a great read. Hailey wrote his characters with substance, digging deep into their personalities, motivations and psyche, so that we always understood their actions and reactions. The basic story lines may have sometimes seemed like the stuff high class soap-operas are made of, but when placed against the behind the scenes backdrop of a major Metropolitan airport, everything seemed incredibly fresh.
Things have changed quite a bit in the forty years since Hailey's book was written. In those days, airports and Airlines seemed to have been willing to bend over backwards to please the paying customer although I couldn't attest to it personally. I didn't take my first ride in the wild blue yonder until 2000. But I'll take Hailey's word for it. As you know, especially if you've been reading any consumer web pages or magazines at all, the worm has turned and most airline policies seem to be based on one single industry wide proposition: Make the cash and screw the paying customer any way you can with add on fees, cramped planes, and generally shitty service.
Still, I suppose some things are the same. I imagine being an air traffic controller is just as stressful now as it was then if not more so despite the improvements that may have occurred in the system. I mean, aren't there even more aircraft both large and small up there like chess pieces in a daily game of chicken trying to stay out of each other's way?
And it would also seem that in 2008, airlines and airports are just as clueless about dealing with the weather as they were in 1968, and probably even less so since pleasing the customer is no longer put above raking in the profits which may be one of the reasons they have such a tough time making those profits these days. But I can't swear to that, and since Hailey departed for that great big runaway in the sky four years ago he isn't around to update his book for us. So I guess I'll have to remain clueless on that particular subject until the next expose on the Discovery Channel. Half inch of snow coming you say? Close every airport east of the Mississippi.
As Hollywood spectacle it's fun to watch and taken on that level you won't mind it a bit. If you've read Hailey's novel, you'll probably be a bit disappointed in the fact that so much was left out of the screenplay including one of the more intriguing subplots involving a suicidal air traffic controller. Too bad too, because it dramatically portrayed the plight of those who who work constantly under a great deal of stress that some of us could never understand or even think of coping with. Then again, it’s not like anybody’s job is really stress free these days is it? Mine sure isn’t.
In a film such as this with enough plots to make six movies, you are bound by the unwritten law of Hollywood to have a recognizable all star cast. So get your pens and pencils out and get ready to draw a chart or just use the handy pictorial I have included.
Headlining Airport are Burt Lancaster as Mel Bakersfield the airport manager, and Dean Martin as Mel's brother-in-law and philandering pilot, Vern Demerest. Lancaster is easily the better of the two. He has this aura of efficiency about him that makes us believe he could be running a Metropolitan Airport. And that's exactly what he does throughout most of Airport's running time. Mel deals with pickets, an aircraft mired deep into the fallen snow, and a stowaway in between juggling phone calls from his wife and lusting after Tonya Livingston (Jean Seberg).
Dean Martin plays Dean Martin pretending to be the aforementioned philandering playboy pilot. His wife, played by Perry Mason’s Secretary of nine years, Della Street (Barbara Hale), is kept around solely as his insurance policy to guard against any of his playmates becoming too serious. She also happens to be Mel Bakersfield's sister which means she spends a lot of time playing referee since Mel and Vern loathe each other thoroughly and completely.
Still, Martin does the impossible and manages to make the character a likable guy, because Martin always has had this amicable, casual, personna about him which was the one on display when he did his weekly variety show on NBC. Martin always seemed to be the most easy going likable guy in the room, something his one time partner Jerry Lewis was never able to convey and maybe that there was the real problem between the two.
In the novel, Vern Demerest was about as far away from being likable as one could get, even when you take into account his “redemption.” He’s what one would call a real sonofabitch. Even his late epiphany in both the film and the novel comes at the expense of someone getting the shit end of the stick. Guess who that might be?
One major disappointment is the fact that Martin and Lancaster only have two brief scenes together. It would have been nice if Seaton would have added a few more, just so we could watch two legends on screen together even if the material was nothing more than a Twinkie sandwich. In the novel, there is a flashback to why the two in-laws hate each other, but we don’t get that here. In that case, Demerest made a presentation to the airport board on behalf of the pilot’s association as to why they should quit selling flight insurance at the airport. Mel, presented his case as to why it shouldn’t be eliminated, and his biggest ace card was the revenue it brought in. So when you see the film, you can thank me for providing that bit of background.
Lancaster is said to have once called the film "the worst piece of junk ever made" This despite making a fortune from his 10 percent profit participation once the film hit 48 million. Martin did even better, pocketing a cool seven million from his ten percent of the gross which adjusts to about $36 million in today's dollars.
Seberg’s Tonya Livingston is an airline representative who has designs on Mel despite the fact that Mel is still married to Cyndi played by Dana Wynter. We believe Seberg as the airline liaison, but the romantic chemistry between Seberg and Lancaster never really clicks.
And although we know Seberg's character is attracted to Mel through some of her actions, not once do we get any clue from Lancaster's character that he feels any emotional involvement with her other than their “being honest with each other” chat. It is really short changed and there is only a few hints about what their relationship may or may not be or is going to be. The only thing we know for sure is that Tonya gives great omelets.
In the book, Mel's wife Cyndi was played as a horny shrew who had only two things on her mind: Getting laid and moving up in social status, not necessarily in that order. She had one rich boyfriend on the side for social climbing, and in one memorable chapter found another one to take care of her physical needs which pretty much left Mel out in the cold. But alas, all that is missing from the screenplay and Cyndi is only portrayed as a social climbing witch who appears on screen just long enough to annoy the crap out of Mel and us. Except for one scene, She is mostly seen chewing him out in split screen mode over the telephone. (This movie has an abundance of split screens and pictures in pictures but they are well done.)
Next up in our role call is Jacqueline Bisset, who plays British stewardess and Vernon’s Mistress Gwen Meighen. As Gwen, Bisset gives us one of the more believable characters in this film, making us understand her feelings for Vern enough that when she says she loves him at one dramatic junction of the film, we totally believe her. There is also a reason why she has a job as the head stewardess. As we find out, she’s pretty damn cool under fire.
George Kennedy provides comedy relief as Joe Patroni, an ace airline mechanic brought in to remove an airliner mired in the snow and blocking a key runway. It was the also the beginning of a long career for Kennedy in not only three more Airport flicks but Universal hauled his ass into L.A. to play a cop in Earthquake as well. I guess you could say that Kennedy is your quintessential disaster film actor. He is entertaining, and when I first saw Airport, Kennedy was exactly the way I would have pictured Petroni. Certainly the idea of Kennedy as Petroni was formulated partly because of his Academy Award Winning performance in Cool Hand Luke.
Helen Hayes makes a three point landing at Lincoln International as Ada Quonsett, a professional stowaway. Though she may look like a sweet little old lady, don't be fooled. Having won an Oscar in 1932 for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, she would pick up another one thirty eight years later as a supporting actress for her role as Ada Quonsett. Here, she is kind of cute and cuddly in a conniving sort of way. In the book she was anything but that as we were clued into what Ada was actually thinking when she was being the sweet little old lady. Let's just say that her thoughts didn't jive with her outer persona. As to that award she won, well read on.
The very best in this film though are Van Heflin as D.O. Guerrero, a down on his luck, out of work construction worker, who hatches a chilling desperate plan to change the financial fortunes of his family. As his wife Inez, Maureen Stapleton may not have copped the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but probably should have won over sentimental favorite and co-star Hayes. I guess annoyingly cute little old ladies who stowaway on airplanes trump everything else in Hollywood. Stapleton's portrayal of Inez is easily the best performance you'll see in this film, with Heflin's chilling portrayal of a down on his luck construction worker out to become the first suicide bomber a close second.
There are also a few lesser characters. Lloyd Nolan shows up as sharp as a tack customs agent, Harry Standish, Gary Collins shows up as flight engineer Cy Jordan, and Barry Nelson plays Captain and co-pilot Anson Harris. Harris is Demerest’s family oriented co-pilot who dispenses advice to Vern when the opportunity arises. In other words, a bore. Jordan’s job is to keep the airline’s mechanics functioning. Or so I guessed. Again, a role that really doesn’t demand a whole lot. You don’t need to study method acting to turn the heating system up and down. Standish however, does play a crucial role in a major plot development, which he does right after he finishes terrorizing rich old ladies and their dogs coming through customs.
One of the other great stars of Airport is the snow storm itself. In scenes filmed by Ernest Lazlo and directed by Henry Hathaway, the outdoor settings of snow blanketing the airport are so realistic; you'll be going to the closet to grab a coat. Alfred Newman' s terrific score over the opening credits makes the title sequence of this film one of my all time favorites. I mean, who knew that snow could not only be made to look this great, but be exciting as well. As for Newman, he also wrote and conducted another favorite score of mine, that being How The West Was Won. Sadly, Airport would be his last complete work before passing away.
On another note, I was unimpressed with Edith Head's costume design for the film. The stewardess uniforms seem bland to the point where Bisset's outfit seems almost matronly and everybody else walks around as if they are dressed in strait-jackets. It's all a bit too formal for me. So despite having a closet full of Academy Awards for some fine work, here it just leaves me snowbound. No worries, as just three years later she would rake in another statuette for The Sting.
Somehow Director and screenwriter George Seaton manages to keep his myriad of plots from running into each other, and the film really zips along at just a tad over two hours worth of running time. As mentioned before though, removing about half of the novel for the film made that accomplishment a whole lot easier.
Airport will never be confused with great film making. Nonetheless, it is still highly watch-able entertainment and an airplane hanger full of fun. It's also a film of a bygone era, and it's the kind of lavish all star melodrama super technicolorized extravaganza we may never see again. Airport gives us a lot of plots, a lot of stars, a shit pot full of snow and just enough suspense to keep things moving along. It also does it in grand style, and if you do anything in grand style no matter how predictable everything else may be, I have no choice but to give you my grade which lands on runway two-niner as a solid B.
Airport has been available as part of a three pack Airport Terminal Edition on DVD where you get it, and it’s three sequels on dual sided discs. Other than having George Kennedy’s Petroni character in them, none of the film’s are real sequels in the true sense of the word. Recently, a new blu-ray edition of Airport was released which I readily purchased. The transfer is gorgeous, and it is the one I recommend if you have a blu-ray player even if you already have or purchase the Terminal pack for the other films. Use the links located throughout the review.