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Airport ’77 : the spirit is willing, but the script is weak

Like watching 3-D without the glasses

Airport 1977: Jack Lemmon's days of brine and grosses.
Airport 1977: Jack Lemmon's days of brine and grosses.

What’s bigger, more exciting, and two years older than Airport 1975? Airport ‘77!

Airport ’77 (1977)

In Airport, the Arthur Hailey original, disaster struck in the form of mad bomber Van Heflin, while the 747 in Airport 1975 had its cockpit cracked apart due to a mid-air collision with a suddenly impaired Dana Andrews’ lightweight puddle-hopper. This third installment of the high-flying franchise took us someplace the first two couldn’t dream possible: to the depths of the sea. Dean Martin and Chuck Heston flew audiences to safety, but of the franchise’s four pilots (Alain Delon would next navigate The Concorde: Airport ‘79) the only veritable actor to take the stick was Jack Lemmon. It had been four years since Save the Tiger gave new impetus to his career. His previous film, Alex and the Gypsy, previewed so badly that Lemmon, fearing it might be some time between gigs, instructed his agent to hitch the actor’s star to the next high-paying offer. He later went on to express regret over the decision, but the check cashed. The look of revulsion Lemmon shoots at Lee Grant’s alcoholic harpie when she tries to pin the disaster on him is evidence that his spirit is willing, but the script is weak. Fortunately, the screenwriters saw to it that the inevitable retributive sock to Grant’s jaw was thrown by Brenda Vaccaro, not Lemmon.

James Stewart was the biggest name that producer Jennings Lang ever persuaded to fly the deadly skies of Universal. (If memory serves, good provider Stewart accepted the part much to the delight of his grandchildren and the trust fund he established in their names.) Stewart stars as Philip Stevens, a benevolent bazillionaire who calls Miami’s Vizcaya Museum & Gardens home. The philanthropic patron of the arts is days away from turning the palatial grounds into a private museum in which to share his collection with the tourist trade. Stevens stocks his private airliner (described in the trailer as the “luxurious plaything of one of the world’s wealthiest men”) with Rembrandts, Renoirs, and another star-studded assemblage of Hollywood’s pre-Love Boat answer to the Elephant’s Graveyard, with a few fresh faces you’re gonna like!

Before calling roll, a few questions of continuity. Why has it been two years since Stevens last saw his daughter Lisa (Pamela Bellwood) and grandson Benjy (Anthony Battaglia), and why is there no mention of the boy’s father? When tragedy strikes, blind pianist Tom Sullivan takes a good shearing, but not before expressing undying love for Julie (Kathleen Quinlan), a passenger with whom he couldn’t have shared more than four minutes of screen time. Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) is now in Stevens’ employ, and damn if the only actor to appear in all four installments has more than two minutes of screen time. A television cut that purportedly contained an additional 70 minutes never made it to home video. That missing footage probably accounts for 70 minutes of precious exposition needed to patch the structural holes in the fuselage.

James Stewart and George Kennedy going through the motions.

Jerry Jameson was a logical choice for director; in 1974 alone, he helmed three disaster pictures for Universal Television: ​​Heat Wave!, Hurricane and Terror on the 40th Floor. And Monte Markham had a decade’s worth of small screen performances to his credit by the time he signed on to play Banker, the first of the three hijackers looking to subdue the crew and passengers with knockout gas long enough to disappear in the Bermuda Triangle before landing on St. George Island and absconding with the priceless paintings. The staging reveals both director and actor giving it their made-for-TV best, beginning with the old “switching of the attaché cases.” Once inside the men’s room, Banker affixes a portable mirror to the wall of his stall and proceeds to swap out his pilot’s outfit for that of a maintenance worker. There’s even a gun waiting for him in the towel dispenser! With the aid of a false mustache, Banker exits, looking remarkably like Monte Markam wearing a false mustache. And once inside the hangar, is it wise to remove the rare works of art from their archival crates and risk exposure to air and diesel fumes?

Romance between pilot and flight attendant is as essential to the fabric of these films as the presence of Joe Patroni. Dino was swinging with Jackie Bisset, Chuck had a mid-flight fling with Karen Black, and for a refreshing change of pace, this time it’s pilot Don Gallagher (Lemmon) pressuring stewardess Eve Clayton (Vaccaro) into making it legal. There is another romance worth noting, the one between lead stewardess Anne (Monica Lewis) and her real-life flying companion, Jennings Lang. Google the producer’s name along with Walter Wanger’s. Will you have a ball!

Rounding out the cinematic royalty are Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten. A Rolls Royce deposits Emily Livingston (de Havilland) and her traveling companion Dorothy (Maidie Norman) on the runway. It was love at second sight for Liv and Joe, the Hush... Hush... Sweet Charlotte couple who had a fling back in ‘56. (The plot unravels slower than one of Cotton’s marcelled curls.) I misspoke in last week’s assessment of Airport 1975 when I mentioned a cast of all races and colors. Other disaster films featured actors of color — O.J. in The Towering Inferno, Rosie Greer in Skyjacked, Richard Roundtree in Earthquake — but a second scan of the cabin revealed only one African-American couple flying coach. This time, a few black faces appear in subservient roles. Robert Hooks plays a bartender and Janet Brady is a flight attendant who screams well in closeup. Venerable character actress Madie Norman is afforded the most amount of screen time as de Havilland’s servant. Almost 40 years after Gone With the Wind finds Melanie still traveling with a Mammy.

"Chicago Tribune," April 22, 1977.

When Stevens said, “We brought these guests down in style,” he wasn’t kidding. Credit must be paid to special effects supervisor and the best damn matte painter in the business, Albert J. Whitlock. The gravitas of Whitlock’s work is bound to be lost on even the best home screen. Believe it or don’t. I saw this three times on its initial release, primarily to admire the artistry of Whitlock and cinematographer Phil Lathrop. Nighttime shots of plane wafting through the midnight green clouds suspended above the ocean is like watching 3-D without the glasses. The underwater sequences, filmed at Wakulla Springs in Florida, withstand the test of time. A closing crawl informs viewers, “The incident portrayed in this film is fictional; the rescue capabilities utilized by the Navy are real.” Once the cavalry arrives, all that’s seen inside the plane are cutaways of leaking stairs and waterlogged stars. The spectacular sub salvage operation that buoys the ship to the surface owes everything to Whitlock’s wizardry and the work of the U.S. Navy.

I toyed with The Concorde: Airport ‘79, but enough is too much, even with Charo. Next week, seven James Bonds came to save the world and win a gal at Casino Royale!

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Airport 1977: Jack Lemmon's days of brine and grosses.
Airport 1977: Jack Lemmon's days of brine and grosses.

What’s bigger, more exciting, and two years older than Airport 1975? Airport ‘77!

Airport ’77 (1977)

In Airport, the Arthur Hailey original, disaster struck in the form of mad bomber Van Heflin, while the 747 in Airport 1975 had its cockpit cracked apart due to a mid-air collision with a suddenly impaired Dana Andrews’ lightweight puddle-hopper. This third installment of the high-flying franchise took us someplace the first two couldn’t dream possible: to the depths of the sea. Dean Martin and Chuck Heston flew audiences to safety, but of the franchise’s four pilots (Alain Delon would next navigate The Concorde: Airport ‘79) the only veritable actor to take the stick was Jack Lemmon. It had been four years since Save the Tiger gave new impetus to his career. His previous film, Alex and the Gypsy, previewed so badly that Lemmon, fearing it might be some time between gigs, instructed his agent to hitch the actor’s star to the next high-paying offer. He later went on to express regret over the decision, but the check cashed. The look of revulsion Lemmon shoots at Lee Grant’s alcoholic harpie when she tries to pin the disaster on him is evidence that his spirit is willing, but the script is weak. Fortunately, the screenwriters saw to it that the inevitable retributive sock to Grant’s jaw was thrown by Brenda Vaccaro, not Lemmon.

James Stewart was the biggest name that producer Jennings Lang ever persuaded to fly the deadly skies of Universal. (If memory serves, good provider Stewart accepted the part much to the delight of his grandchildren and the trust fund he established in their names.) Stewart stars as Philip Stevens, a benevolent bazillionaire who calls Miami’s Vizcaya Museum & Gardens home. The philanthropic patron of the arts is days away from turning the palatial grounds into a private museum in which to share his collection with the tourist trade. Stevens stocks his private airliner (described in the trailer as the “luxurious plaything of one of the world’s wealthiest men”) with Rembrandts, Renoirs, and another star-studded assemblage of Hollywood’s pre-Love Boat answer to the Elephant’s Graveyard, with a few fresh faces you’re gonna like!

Before calling roll, a few questions of continuity. Why has it been two years since Stevens last saw his daughter Lisa (Pamela Bellwood) and grandson Benjy (Anthony Battaglia), and why is there no mention of the boy’s father? When tragedy strikes, blind pianist Tom Sullivan takes a good shearing, but not before expressing undying love for Julie (Kathleen Quinlan), a passenger with whom he couldn’t have shared more than four minutes of screen time. Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) is now in Stevens’ employ, and damn if the only actor to appear in all four installments has more than two minutes of screen time. A television cut that purportedly contained an additional 70 minutes never made it to home video. That missing footage probably accounts for 70 minutes of precious exposition needed to patch the structural holes in the fuselage.

James Stewart and George Kennedy going through the motions.

Jerry Jameson was a logical choice for director; in 1974 alone, he helmed three disaster pictures for Universal Television: ​​Heat Wave!, Hurricane and Terror on the 40th Floor. And Monte Markham had a decade’s worth of small screen performances to his credit by the time he signed on to play Banker, the first of the three hijackers looking to subdue the crew and passengers with knockout gas long enough to disappear in the Bermuda Triangle before landing on St. George Island and absconding with the priceless paintings. The staging reveals both director and actor giving it their made-for-TV best, beginning with the old “switching of the attaché cases.” Once inside the men’s room, Banker affixes a portable mirror to the wall of his stall and proceeds to swap out his pilot’s outfit for that of a maintenance worker. There’s even a gun waiting for him in the towel dispenser! With the aid of a false mustache, Banker exits, looking remarkably like Monte Markam wearing a false mustache. And once inside the hangar, is it wise to remove the rare works of art from their archival crates and risk exposure to air and diesel fumes?

Romance between pilot and flight attendant is as essential to the fabric of these films as the presence of Joe Patroni. Dino was swinging with Jackie Bisset, Chuck had a mid-flight fling with Karen Black, and for a refreshing change of pace, this time it’s pilot Don Gallagher (Lemmon) pressuring stewardess Eve Clayton (Vaccaro) into making it legal. There is another romance worth noting, the one between lead stewardess Anne (Monica Lewis) and her real-life flying companion, Jennings Lang. Google the producer’s name along with Walter Wanger’s. Will you have a ball!

Rounding out the cinematic royalty are Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten. A Rolls Royce deposits Emily Livingston (de Havilland) and her traveling companion Dorothy (Maidie Norman) on the runway. It was love at second sight for Liv and Joe, the Hush... Hush... Sweet Charlotte couple who had a fling back in ‘56. (The plot unravels slower than one of Cotton’s marcelled curls.) I misspoke in last week’s assessment of Airport 1975 when I mentioned a cast of all races and colors. Other disaster films featured actors of color — O.J. in The Towering Inferno, Rosie Greer in Skyjacked, Richard Roundtree in Earthquake — but a second scan of the cabin revealed only one African-American couple flying coach. This time, a few black faces appear in subservient roles. Robert Hooks plays a bartender and Janet Brady is a flight attendant who screams well in closeup. Venerable character actress Madie Norman is afforded the most amount of screen time as de Havilland’s servant. Almost 40 years after Gone With the Wind finds Melanie still traveling with a Mammy.

"Chicago Tribune," April 22, 1977.

When Stevens said, “We brought these guests down in style,” he wasn’t kidding. Credit must be paid to special effects supervisor and the best damn matte painter in the business, Albert J. Whitlock. The gravitas of Whitlock’s work is bound to be lost on even the best home screen. Believe it or don’t. I saw this three times on its initial release, primarily to admire the artistry of Whitlock and cinematographer Phil Lathrop. Nighttime shots of plane wafting through the midnight green clouds suspended above the ocean is like watching 3-D without the glasses. The underwater sequences, filmed at Wakulla Springs in Florida, withstand the test of time. A closing crawl informs viewers, “The incident portrayed in this film is fictional; the rescue capabilities utilized by the Navy are real.” Once the cavalry arrives, all that’s seen inside the plane are cutaways of leaking stairs and waterlogged stars. The spectacular sub salvage operation that buoys the ship to the surface owes everything to Whitlock’s wizardry and the work of the U.S. Navy.

I toyed with The Concorde: Airport ‘79, but enough is too much, even with Charo. Next week, seven James Bonds came to save the world and win a gal at Casino Royale!

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Comments
6

Actual quote from Walter Wanger to a gaggle of studio executives: "You chaps just talk about agents. I’m the only one who ever did anything about them."

And how, how, howwwww can you talk about this movie and NOT mention Christopher Lee? He's married to Lee Grant's boozy, bitchy character and he masterfully channels his inner George Sanders multiple times:

GRANT: If it isn't, just tell me. I'll stop acting like an idiot. LEE: Why should I when you're so efficient at it?

SPOILER ALERT: Lee's death scene where he floats his way out of the film is one of the most unintentionally funny moments in the movie.

Aug. 28, 2021

You're right about Lee's death scene, but I didn't single out his performance because it didn't contribute to the awfulness. I read somewhere that this was the longest amount of screen time he was afforded in an American feature.

Aug. 29, 2021

Perhaps Hollywood can dust off the tired Airport" series with today's flights, and do "AIRPORT '21." In this case there are no hijackings, no crashes, no bomb scares, etc. This time around it's really scary, as out-of-control anti-maskers attack flight attendants with a fury not seen since "Mommy Dearest." I can see Michael Douglas or Warren Beatty as the Captain. And Renée Zellweger as a flight attendant on her final flight before retirement. With ominous music by Danny Elfman.

Sept. 15, 2021

James Woods as the pilot, Scott Baio as the co-pilot, with Kirstie Alley & Rose McGowan as flying waitresses, The passenger list would include Ted Nugent, Jon Voight, Roseanne, Antonio Sabato, Gary Busey, Kristy Swanson, and making their acting debuts Eric Trump, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Rudy Giuliani as "Joe Patroni." The problem is, when the crash was reported, no one cared.

Sept. 15, 2021

Somehow we both forgot about Kelsey Grammer. He could play the old Vaudeville actor, and ham it up per usual.

Sept. 15, 2021

No Red Buttons had-me-downs for Kelsey! He'll play the cokehead sitcom star who rolls his car en route to the airport. Just before takeoff, the network rewards him with a new one. Allegedly.

Sept. 15, 2021

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