In 1995, I was an 11-year-old aviation enthusiast, stemming from my parents taking me to watch planes take off and land at Orlando International Airport when I was a toddler.
I spent hours on a 14.4kbps dial-up Internet connection (if you accidentally banged your knee against the desk hard enough, the modem would disconnect; and if it thundered outside, the modem would disconnect and you’d have to shut down the computer anyway), looking at photos of crashed jetliners, wondering what had happened; whether it was pilot error, mechanical error, weather or a combination of factors, and thinking about if that was the career for me, investigating plane crashes for the National Transportation Safety Board or the Federal Aviation Administration. One image sticks in my mind of a DC-9 or 727-type aircraft crashed through a few trees in a forest. I don’t remember what caused that crash, but that was the moment the NTSB and FAA loomed as possible careers.
The career choices fluctuated as I became more passionate about aviation, adding on airline pilot, aircraft mechanic, and even a mechanic for Air Force One. But one constant from then until 1999, when I began writing movie reviews, was the Airport series, released by Universal from 1970 to 1979, comprised of Airport, based on the hugely best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey; Airport 1975, which was its own movie; Airport ’77, my favorite of the series for getting deep into the bowels of a 747; and The Concorde: Airport ’79, which is entertainingly bad, and has its interesting moments, including many beautiful shots of the now-retired supersonic aircraft.
My obsession with these movies began one winter evening at a Blockbuster Video in Coral Springs, Florida. Dad took me, because I had read about Airport online and wanted to see it for myself. It had airplanes, 707s in fact, and that was enough for me. Never mind that it also had Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Helen Hayes, Maureen Stapleton, Van Heflin, and Lloyd Nolan. I didn’t know who they were. My passion for movies began developing in middle school in 1996, so they remained unfamiliar for a while longer.
That rental did it. I saw a 707 getting stuck in the snow, causing a runway shutdown at the fictional Lincoln International somewhere in Illinois (near Chicago, I’m sure), and giving airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) a night-long headache, not least of which is his wife (Dana Wynter) ticked off yet again that he can’t attend the social function at which she expected him. But fortunately, he has the company of Trans Global Airlines customer representative Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg), with whom he’s having an understated affair.
I saw a 707 taking off on another runway after the closure, flying over houses situated right next to the airport, causing dishes to shake in one household, triggering a mild protest at Lincoln, with signs and chanting that’s too orderly and polite. The residents don’t want planes to fly over their houses at night, no matter the situation the airport might be facing, and they’re going to make sure the higher-ups at the airport know it, but very, very quietly. Maybe they were tired. Airport does go on well into the night.
I saw a 707 being slowly towed out of a hangar for a flight to Rome, Trans Global’s Flight 2, dubbed “The Golden Argosy,” the airline’s flagship flight out of Lincoln. The soapy bulk of Airport revolves around that one flight. Captain Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) is in what’s normally the first officer’s seat, the right side, serving as a check pilot to see how Captain Anson Harris (Barry Nelson) is doing in his job, to make sure he’s still a good, solid pilot, as is industry procedure across all airlines. Just like Mel, who happens to be his brother-in-law, since he’s married to Mel’s sister (Barbara Hale, known best as Della Street on the Perry Mason TV series and in the subsequent TV movies), Vernon’s also having an affair, with Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), the chief flight attendant aboard the Golden Argosy. They’ve got emotional turbulence coming when Gwen reveals a shock to Vernon.
More emotional turbulence builds with the unemployable, mentally disturbed D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin in a haunting performance), who lives deeper in town, and prepares for the flight to Rome by building a briefcase bomb, which looks so quaint compared to what we unfortunately know today. He leaves his wife, Inez (Maureen Stapleton in an equally haunting performance, and the only pairing that gets a few substantial, sad moments together, making a connection that Martin and Bisset can’t reach) in the dark about the flight, saying that he’s traveling to another city to take on another demolition job for a construction company, the same job he was fired from at another company.
There’s also elderly-but-forever young Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes), who’s caught stowing away on another Trans Global flight and is sent back out to the terminal by Tanya to await another Trans Global flight to take her back where she came from. Her escort, Trans Global employee Peter Coakley (John Findlater), who’s supposed to make sure she gets on that flight, doesn’t have a chance against her. She wants to go to Rome, and she’ll find a way.
But the character that means the most to me is Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), maintenance chief at TWA who’s called over to help out with the stuck Trans Global 707. Patroni is what made me think of more careers than just the NTSB and the FAA. I wanted to be Patroni. Not with the ever-present cigar clamped between his teeth, but with that confidence in knowledge, with that pure love for aviation, with that drive to do what’s right and necessary, even if he steps on a few egos in the process. He was exactly the kind of career man I wanted to be. I’ve mellowed since then, believing more in diplomacy in order to keep the paychecks coming, but I wanted to feel that passionate about what I do. And I do, just not in aviation anymore.
Only the 707s and the 727, seen taking off during the opening credits, mattered to me. I loved watching the original Trans Global pilots trying to get the plane out of the snow by revving the four engines before giving up, as well as the harrowing climax. A few years later, in the throes of a new passion for movies that found me watching movie after movie that I checked out from the Pembroke Pines library during my summers (including all the Bond movies up to Tomorrow Never Dies, which made the James Bond series my Star Wars), I started to notice the actors, and the script, and George Seaton’s direction. By this time, I had all four movies together in a VHS box set, and gradually wore them out.
I watched Dana Wynter melodramatically arguing with Burt Lancaster, wondering exactly how much makeup they put on her. She looked like a mime’s wife.
I rewound Patroni’s scenes over and over, watching him closely, curling my hands into fists in fascination, trying to physically feel that power he projected. When necessary, he didn’t take any crap from anyone, but was otherwise jovial. I put that in the back of my mind.
Barry Nelson became a new favorite of mine, as I noticed that Anson Harris was a family-man pilot, talking of his wife and many children, and smoking a pipe all the while. He looked comfortable with his life. He could never overtake Patroni, but I liked what he represented in his soft-spoken, easygoing manner. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the Airport series, but I think it was my 10th or 11th time watching Airport that I really studied Van Heflin’s performance, his use of the cigarette in that dingy, dirty apartment, how he clipped his words in brief conversation with Ada Quonsett on the fateful flight in order to show a mind on the fritz. That primal emotion at the start of the climax, the wide-eyed look; he really got deep inside a man with no hope, no salvation to set his life right again. This was it. He was done.
In 2003, my family got me Universal’s “Airport Terminal Pack” for my birthday, which has two DVDs with Airport on side A of the first disc, Airport 1975 on side B of the first disc, and so on. They were intimately familiar with my love of these movies because not only did I hog the TV as often as I could to watch them on videotape all those years before, but after watching Airport the first time, I harangued my parents to get me that VHS box set when we were at BJ’s, which is just like Sam’s Club and Costco, but exclusive to the East Coast and Florida.
Now it’s 2012. Universal has released Airport on Blu-ray as part of its 100th Anniversary. And times have changed. I still love aviation, but not enough to make it a career. All I want out of my life is a decent job that pays the bills and to read and write, especially more books. My obsession with the Airport movies exploded into something brand new upon reading Trust Me: A Memoir by George Kennedy in November 2011. His memories of the Airport movies take up barely a page, but he does say that for The Concorde: Airport ’79, Universal rented the Concorde for $40,000 an hour, and he was even permitted to taxi it at Le Bourget Airport in Paris. I reread those sentences a few times and in the excitement over reading that revelation, I decided that I wanted to write a book about the making of the Airport movies. I was intimidated before beginning research on What If They Lived?, worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle what felt like a garangtuan, intimidating task, but with that book finished and published by BearManor Media in March 2011, I was ready for this. I didn’t know if I would have to read as much as I did for What If They Lived?, including three biographies about Judy Garland, or if most of my information would come from interviews, newspapers and other sources, but if I did have to read so much, so be it. I did it the first time and lived, and I’d do it again.
So far, I’ve conducted a few interviews, such as with the son of one of the directors of the series. Back in January, I spent an entire day at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, poring over various documents, including Charlton Heston’s copy of the Airport 1975 script (coffee mug ring stains on page 13), and learned that the 707 set in Airport was so tight, with only enough room for the camera to roll down the aisle, that George Seaton had to direct outside the set, on the soundstage, via megaphone. There’s more, including such treasure I found about the making of Airport ’77, including Jack Lemmon’s training for his role as Captain Don Gallagher. But I’m not going to give it all away. I don’t think my co-author would like that, who I found while researching the executive producer of the sequels, looking for family members. He’s connected with that family by way of a memoir he co-wrote with its matriarch and suffice it to say that without him, I might as well have moved on to my next book projects. What still amazes me even after knowing him for a few months now, and meeting him for the first time last June, is that he has the same love I do for these movies, the same enthusiasm in conversation about them. I thought I was the only one. Unlike some movies such as Unstrung Heroes, which I like to hold tightly to, claiming them as my own and believing that they belong to me and no one else, I was overjoyed to find the same love for these movies in someone else. These are the kind of movies you either watch with friends to confirm that you indeed saw what you saw, or that you get together to talk about later to laugh about some honestly ridiculous scenes, but also acknowledge how effective most of them are.
Airport is more important than you can imagine. First, it single-handedly pulled Universal from the brink of bankruptcy in 1970. And you might immediately think of The Poseidon Adventure when you think of a disaster movie, but without Airport, The Poseidon Adventure would not exist. Irwin Allen would not have made his name synonymous with the disaster movie. From Airport comes every disaster movie you know. From Airport comes a new purpose in my life. I’ve gotten so much out of the stories in these four movies that to uncover even more stories about the making of this series is remarkable to me. I’ve watched them more times than I think I’ve watched any other movie, even my favorite, Mary Poppins. It’s time to give something back for what they have given me.
So if you’re watching Airport for the first time on Blu-ray, or if you’ve seen it years ago and want to see how it looks now on this most unexpected format for it, chances are I’m watching it again. I’m still watching Joe Patroni closely, silently thanking him for infinitely increasing my love of aviation, and George Kennedy for inspiring my next book, but when The Golden Argosy finally takes off after a slight delay, that gleam is in my eye again, deep again in my love of aviation. To me, there is no greater sight than the majesty of a four-engine airliner taking off (except for the ungainly Airbus A380, which looks like an overstuffed pig). And to have this major cast as part of it is quite a bonus. It will last forever because of what it started.
Presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Universal has done a fine job bringing this Todd-AO shot production (lensed by Oscar nominated Ernest Laszlo) to Blu-ray. An appropriate level of grain is present throughout. The image is nicely defined, with nicely saturated colors. A few moments are a tad washed, but for a film that’s more than forty years old, it looks great. Fine object detail is superb throughout, with sold contrast and black levels. Universal has done a fine job with this classic.
Airport features a solid lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. It’s worth noting that Airport was the final score the legendary Alfred Newman worked on and thankfully it comes through nicely, with appropriate blooms for effect. Discrete sound effects are well spread throughout the soundfield—particularly when jets take off. Dialogue is clearly presented throughout and devoid of tininess. Modern audiences may find this mix a bit conservative, but the folks at Universal have done a fine job of presenting a fairly typical 1970 audio track.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
The included special features are a bit of a disappointment. There is nothing here specifically centered on Airport itself. I would have loved an audio commentary—George Kennedy would have been nice, as he is the only actor to have appeared in all four Airport films—but alas, no dice.
- 100 Years of Universal: The ‘70s: (HD, 11:01) This short featurette takes a look back at what would become one of the studio’s most pivotal decades, with hits such as The Sting, American Graffiti and Jaws. It just so happens that the last two films were directed by two young lads named George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
- 100 Years of Universal: The Lot: (HD, 9:25) The same short featurette included on many of Universal’s centenary celebration releases, this gives viewers a look at Universal’s famous backlot.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3:27)
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