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Airport (Blu-ray Review)

10 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$14.98 DVD, $19.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘G.’
Stars Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Helen Hayes, Maureen Stapleton, Jacqueline Bisset.

Though perhaps best known today for launching one of filmdom’s cheesiest franchises — and for being one of the most famously undeserving best picture Oscar nominees of the past 40 or so years — writer-director George Seaton’s blockbuster adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s bestseller (a huge hunk of cheese itself) has been underrated in at least one regard. Which is: that if modern-day Universal Pictures got launched into the permanent box office stratosphere by 1975’s Jaws and a forged relationship with Steven Spielberg in general, the studio had earlier taken its first great stride as a modern-era commercial force thanks to Airport, which satisfied some basic need craved by the masses for regressive escapist entertainment amid national turmoil over the Vietnam War. (The Kent State killings occurred just two months after the movie’s opening). This was one incredible box office smash in an era of counterculture — and thus probably deserving of Blu-ray treatment specifically geared to its studio’s 100th anniversary.

Up until the 1970s, Universal probably has a less impressive legacy than any other major studio — though even at this, the company is somehow managing to huzzah its 100th without trumpeting the only two major directors specifically associated with it from 1940-70: Anthony Mann and especially Douglas Sirk. (Celebrating a centennial without releasing any Sirks on Blu-ray is akin to an MGM commemoration that ignores Vincente Minnelli.) After the studio brought out Charade at the end of 1963 (and, OK, overlooking the next Christmas’s Cary Grant follow-up Father Goose), audiences were clamoring to see … just what from its line-up when even Hitchcock’s box office was suffering a dip? Well, we cultists dug the Don Siegel melodramas like The Killers and Madigan and Coogan’s Bluff, but no one else but cultists were looking at the time. You can make a case for the lively coffee-table theatrics of Anne of the Thousand Days, I suppose, or, if you want to stretch it, maybe Thoroughly Modern Millie (from Airport producer Ross Hunter). What else — Shenandoah? Many typical Universal movies of the ’60s were on obvious sets and almost all of them looked like TV shows: Banning or Winning or Tobruk or Rosie!

Of course, the critics were never going to dig Airport, which still suffers from comedy relief that plays to the third balcony (a nun swigging hooch, an obnoxious know-it-all kid passenger, a priest only half-accidentally belting an obnoxious big-mouth across the puss). In fact, I can remember my mother telling me of having seen a “Mike Douglas Show” at the time in which some perverted booker with a sadist’s sense of humor co-scheduled Hunter with the famously acerbic film critic John Simon, who was not exactly sworn to give up Ingmar Bergman by what he saw from the excerpted clip. Instead, Hunter’s shrewdly assembled button-pusher was for moviegoers whose idea of cinema was the equivalent of a beach-read, and Airport juggled seven stories (this is per the coming attraction; I frankly lost count) that included blizzard-ish flying conditions, busting-up marriages for both of its male protagonists (Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin) and a financially desperate passenger trying to blow up the plane so his wife can collect the insurance. All this plus Alfred Newman’s last big-screen score (though it’s very atypical and not one of his most distinguished).

Like its predecessor/template The High and the Mighty, the result is better when the personal stories get momentarily jettisoned so that the movie can concentrate on the mechanics of getting a crippled plane to land (though the John Wayne staple did a much better job all the way around despite its own hokey dimensions). Ernest Laszlo’s Airport cinematography was always on the hazy side while de-emphasizing the brightest colors — so whereas the Blu-ray gives an exact representation of how I recall it looking in theaters, it isn’t of “demonstration” caliber. We have, however, come a long way from the early days of laserdiscs, when Universal couldn’t decide whether that once-progressive new format should be geared to the progressive or rube demographic. Apparently stymied by the decision of whether to letterbox (or not) a movie shot in TODD-AO (not the toughest of choices), it panned-and-scanned the soap opera aspects of Airport’s story but gave the more panoramic cockpit scenes (which also employed a lot of split-screen) widescreen renderings. It still ranks among my most bizarre home-viewing experiences.

The performances praised at the time are the ones that still make the biggest impressions today: by Van Heflin and Oscar-nominated Maureen Stapleton (as the bomb perpetrator and his wife) and Oscar-winning Helen Hayes (funny as a stowaway — but Lordy, how did she beat Sally Kellerman for MASH and Karen Black for Five Easy Pieces?). It’s also worth noting that Jean Seberg (as an airport semi-honcho) is a long way from Godard’s Breathless here, or even Robert Rossen’s Lilith — though, on balance, I admire the picture’s crowd-pleasing professionalism, which didn’t extend to the three sequels that followed. This said, my delight has never abated over the scene in series capper The Concord … Airport ’79 where the plane turns upside down and singer/actor John Davidson’s sprayed hair remains in place.

Somehow appropriately, Hailey had helped launch his career by writing the screenplay for 1957’s Zero Hour! — a teleplay-turned-movie that subsequently became an almost scene-for-scene template for 1980’s Airplane! — a sleeper smash released just a year after the final “Airport” movie and one that absolutely turned the genre on its ear, making it a little more difficult to watch all but the best examples without a smile. In fact, most notable to me this time around was the perspective-revelation that ‘G’-rated Airport contains one of the movies’ franker pro-con discussions of whether or not to have an abortion. Though in this pre-Roe vs. Wade era, the procedure likely would have had to take place in another country, it is far franker than anything you’d ever see today in a Hollywood blockbuster geared toward grandparents of all ages. Sometimes you can learn as much or more about prevailing attitudes of the time in a movie that wasn’t cutting-edge or trying to make a point.

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