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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

AIRPORT (1970)

Big, square & corny, George Seaton’s last credit as writer/director has the clunky across-the-board commercial appeal of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, but in contemporary mode. With much the same out-of-fashion mix of stolid acting, stiff staging and step-by-step plot mechanics to move things along and tie up loose ends. On its own terms, it still pays off and is undoubtedly more fun to watch now than it must have been at the time. (With neat-o visual pop-up panels for that extra-dated look.) It’s the last stand of the old Hollywood machine, revved up one last time and earning a prestige bonus in 10 Oscar® noms as well as the year’s top grosses. (Double what second-place M*A*S*H made.) The star turns are fun to watch, even in Edith Head’s weirdly unbecoming outfits, and if the comic bits are groaners (Helen Hayes twinkles alarmingly), it all makes for a fascinating comparison with Maureen Stapleton who plays on a different level than everyone else. Here’s a précis: Pilot Dean Martin & airport manager Burt Lancaster wade thru marriage crises while end-of-his-rope passenger Van Heflin threatens to blow a bomb in flight and George Kennedy races to clear a blizzard-stuck jet off Runway 29 so the stricken plane can attempt a landing. And there’s more, more, more! Something of a last hurrah, not only for Seaton & tarnished Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking, but also for Heflin, character actress Jessie Royce Landis, composer Alfred Newman and 50 yr-old producer Ross Hunter.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Producer Hunter had spent all his twenty year career @ Universal, juggling shlockly projects with smooth Doris Day pics and classic Douglas Sirk mellers. But he fell afoul of Universal mogul Lew Wasserman going far over budget on a film the studio figured to tank. Instead, it was the hit of the year and Wasserman couldn't let the shmuck get away with being right; that’s Hollywood’s greatest sin. (Moguls forgive, but never forget.) Hunter moved over to Columbia, produced what is arguably the worst big budget film in Hollywood history (his musicalized LOST HORIZON/’74) and never made another feature film. Wasserman continued to drag Universal down, down, down, until an unlikely kid director (Steven Spielberg) saved his tuchus with JAWS/’75, another cost overrun pic. At least, that’s the usual Wasserman/Hunter rift explanation. But check out the sexless marriage between Burt Lancaster & Dana Wynter in this film. He’s disinterested; she’s having affairs; they’re a couple only in name & on charity committees. Wasserman & his wife might have served as role models for this fictional pair.

DOUBLE-BILL: Compared to its three sequels (AIRPORT(s) 1975; ‘77; ‘79) this looks like Visconti’s THE LEOPARD/’63. And note those crap sequels (largely hack work via Wasserman pet producer Jennings Lang) started right after Hunter self-sabotaged on LOST HORIZON.

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