Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Help! There's no one here to write the screenplay!"

With Airport having been a smashing success for Universal Pictures, it’s surprising that a sequel or other type of follow-up didn’t occur more readily, but once The Poseidon Adventure bowled over audiences, the disaster genre was in high gear and films of that ilk were popping out everywhere.

This one concerned a passenger airliner that is struck in midair by a small private craft, killing or severely injuring all of the flight crew, requiring the chief stewardess to take over the controls. Originally conceived as a television movie, producer Jennings Lang decided to dress it up with lots of stars and improve the budget in the hopes that it would make a successful feature instead. His instincts paid off when the $4 million film made $47 million at the box office! Think about that return. Early 70s audiences lapped up these types of films until they caught on to the routine, cookie-cutter nature of them by the end of the decade.

Unfortunately, the pedestrian and, at times, ludicrous script never made it past its TV-level roots and despite a roster of familiar faces (in boxes on the poster, something that always delights me!), no one in the film was able to truly distinguish his or her self. In fact, participation in this left blights on several careers! The film wound up on All Time 50 Worst Films lists.

Charlton Heston was, by now, an indestructible box office name who headlined many all-star action and disaster films of this era. George Kennedy (the only man to appear in all four Airport movies) was, despite an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke, never one whose name suggested high art anyway, so he also escaped unharmed (at least this time!) For most of the others, however, it meant either a final takeoff on the big screen or a direct flight into television and telefilms. Linda Blair’s career (regardless of the fact that she spent a mere three days filming her role in this) would never really rebound, especially after the debacles that were Exorcist II: The Heretic and Roller Boogie. Helen Reddy managed a featured role in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, but that was basically it for her film career, too. Both these ladies, along with other folks from this film and the 1957 howler Zero Hour! were mercilessly parodied later in Airplane!, a 1980 send-up of the air disaster genre.

Someone who continued in films (some prestigious, most not) for a while, but who was never allowed to live down her role here is Karen Black as chief stewardess Nancy Pryor. Sporting heavy false eyelashes which draw attention to a crossed eye, she spastically and fretfully portrays a woman in over her head when asked to pilot a 747 jet while being coached by a passel of sexist men on the ground. Her infamous line, of course, bleated into a radio receiver is, “There’s no one left to fly the PLANE!!” Her entire parade of scenes in the cockpit are a scream as well as she concocts ways in which to react to falling electronics, oncoming mountains, in-flight mishaps and the like. Occasionally, she comes up with such creative actions such as tugging at her hose or sticking out her tongue! Three or four decades before, a leading lady with a catch in her eye (like, say, Norma Shearer, Queen of the MGM lot) would be photographed and lit as carefully as possible to downplay it. Miss Black, however, is granted so such favors and is splayed across the screen in whichever contortion she presents.

Producer Lang had (pipe) dreams of coercing Greta Garbo out of her 30+ year retirement to play an aged actress. When she swiftly said no, Gloria Swanson stepped up and played herself(!), or some reasonable facsimile of, and wrote all her own (often hooty) dialogue. Keen-eyed viewers will recognize her assistant Augusta Summerland as Chuck Heston’s bikini-clad sidekick from The Planet of the Apes. She briefly changed her name from Linda Harrison as a bid to change her career trajectory, but it didn’t quite work. He and Harrison share no scenes, nor does he share any with nun Martha Scott who twice played his mother in Biblical epics of his. (Despite this, he misidentified Ms. Scott as Ms. Swanson in a caption within his book "Charlton Heston’s Hollywood!") Likewise, Swanson shares no scenes with Nancy Olson, who was the ingenue in Sunset Boulevard, though they shared no scenes in that film either.

For the role of an amiable drunken old lady, Joan Crawford was first approached, but turned it down. Myrna Loy accepted the part and offers a warm and occasionally amusing presence, though the role is far beneath her. One of the film’s rare touching scenes involves a radio conversation between Susan Clark and her husband George Kennedy. Otherwise, there is a healthy amount of awkward comedy, clichéd drama and brazen sexism. On that last count, Erik Estrada is one of the chief offenders, but once he’s gone, Heston takes up the slack himself.

In 1960, in The Crowded Sky, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. played a military pilot who flew his jet into Dana Andrews’ passenger jet. Here, in a fun casting coup, Andrews is the small jet flyer who runs his plane into Zimbalist’s jumbo jet. It is these types of casting tidbits and the connections between the actors from previous projects that make classic movie watching more fun for me. There’s even a female passenger on the plane in this movie who winds up in a featured bit in Airplane! The nervous lady who’s drinking a bit too much when Linda Blair is brought on portrays the passenger who first gets ill and has eggs coming out her mouth in the later film!

Incidentally, Karen Black was not the first actress to portray a stewardess behind the wheel of a passenger plane. Miss Doris Day of all people completed the same task, even landing it, with no small amount of angst, in the 1956 flick Julie.


Post a Comment