March 24, 2018

AIRPORT '77 and a Eulogy for the Queen

Starring Jack Lemmon, Lee Grant, Brenda Vaccaro, George Kennedy, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, James Stewart, Darren McGavin, Christopher Lee, Robert Foxworth, Robert Hooks, Kathleen Quinlan, Gil Gerard, Monte Markham, M. Emmet Walsh. Directed by Jerry Jameson. (1977/113 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

Friends, we're gathered here today to honor a Hollywood icon...one that thrilled us with her exploits on the the silver screen for nearly 50 years. While we mourn her passing, let us also celebrate an illustrious career, both on and off the screen.

Portland International Airport (PDX) is only three or four miles from where I teach. Looking out my classroom window a few years ago, I saw a Boeing 747 coming in for a landing, her 18 wheels emerging from her belly like extended talons. Massive against the backdrop of the blue afternoon sky, she hardly seemed to be moving, as if telling the world, "I'm Queen of the Skies...I'll get there when I'm damn well ready."

Air traffic comes and goes with such regularity that I seldom give it more than an passing glance. This time, I halted my lesson on sentence combining, strolled to the window and watched this gleaming diva's graceful approach until distant trees blocked the rest of her landing.

She was beautiful.

747s are a rare sight these days. Some of my students even stopped to gawk along with me, the way one might do when spotting a freakishly large garden slug in the yard. The few 747s that bother to arrive & depart at PDX are always cargo planes (as this one was). In fact, I don't recall the last time I saw one arrive carrying anything other than Fedex packages.

Not long afterwards, I learned the sad news that the few remaining 747 passenger planes in-service were being grounded (in this country, anyway), having outlived their usefulness among newer, sleeker, more technologically-advanced planes. The last one - Delta Air Lines Flight 9771 - touched-down for good on January 3, 2018, its final resting place an airplane graveyard in Arizona. It was the end of an era that began five decades earlier, when Pan-American Airlines started carrying jet-setters around the world in space-age luxury. Affectionately dubbed the Queen of the Skies, the 747's unique shape and sheer size made her instantly iconic.

With such a striking appearance, it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling. She was a natural, of course, appearing in a wide variety of movies. Even in the smallest roles, she displayed epic grace on the big screen and became the go-to aircraft whenever a film's story required international travel. It was obvious the 747 was destined to be a big star.

A true Hollywood diva.
She found a niche in grand-scale action movies. One of her first starring roles was that of a crippled airliner in Airport 1975, sharing top billing with another icon once renowned for larger-than-life performances, Charlton Heston. The film itself was no great shakes and the rest of the all-star cast obviously showed up to collect paychecks, but the 747 was magnificent, stealing every scene. Even today, the tension-filled scenes where she's flying at dangerously-low altitudes through the Rocky Mountains are impressive. Not only did she do her own stunts, these sequences just wouldn't have had the same visual impact with a puny old 707.

Dozens of similar roles followed over the years: Executive Decision, Turbulence, Die Hard 2, Final Destination, Drop Zone, Megashark vs. Giant Octopus, Air Force One, Snakes on a Plane, just to name a few. A lot of them were variations of the disaster movie genre and she died on-screen more often than Sean Bean, but being a consummate pro, she never complained about typecasting.

Of all the films in her career, perhaps Airport '77 most-effectively showcased her talents. Not that it's her best film, but she gets plenty of screen time to strut her stuff. Airport '77 is her second appearance in the franchise that began in 1970 with the original Airport. That sappy, sudsy film - starring her less-sexy older sister, the Boeing 707 - kicked the disaster movie genre into high gear (which The Concorde - Airport '79 ironically brought to a screeching halt a decade later). Of all four films in the series, Airport '77 is arguably the best one, meaning it's the least goofy. Though still pretty silly, at least it boasts a stronger cast, better performances and a more engaging story than the other Airport movies.

"Truth-be-told, George, it's not such a wonderful life."
Billionaire Philip Stevens (James Stewart) is the proud owner of an all-new, state-of-the-art 747. Touted as a technological miracle, the plane boasts a piano bar, bedrooms, sofas, office space, poker tables and a full kitchen. There's also a table-top version of Pong - a huge deal at the time - and one of the very first laserdisc players. In real life, the latter was so new and pricey that the producers actually borrowed Universal exec Lew Wasserman's player for a single scene.

Stevens invites all his rich friends on the plane's inaugural flight, flown by Capt. Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon), to transport his art collection to a new museum. His friends include the usual batch of past-their-prime stars, character actors, young up 'n' comers, a couple of annoying children and, of course, George Kennedy as Joe Patroni. Unfortunately, the plane is hijacked by a crew of art thieves led by Gallagher's co-pilot, Chambers (Robert Foxworth...and no, he's not the guy who played Mike Brady). After gassing the passengers and crew, they descend below the radar and disappear into the Bermuda Triangle.

"You're Mike Brady and you know it."
Back in the 70s, the Bermuda Triangle was one of those mysterious places that terrified people who believed everything they read. Supposedly a paranormal region of the Atlantic Ocean, many planes and ships "disappeared" there over the years, never to be seen again. It even inspired a bestselling book by Charles Berlitz, who made a career out of convincing the more intellectually-challenged of our species that Atlantis was real, the Navy had invisible ships and the world would end in 1999. If Berlitz were alive today, he'd probably find gainful employment as Fox News' scientific advisor. But like Area 51, the Amityville House and Sasquatch, the Bermuda Triangle was mostly great tabloid and movie fodder. Indeed, this angle was hyped-to-the-hilt in Airport '77's ad campaign, though the region's supernatural reputation never figures into the plot.

Instead, the plane's wing clips an oil derrick and splashes into the ocean, trapping the passengers 100 feet underwater. Their importance to the plot now served, most of the bad guys are conveniently killed in the crash, save for Chambers, who ruefully informs Gallagher he changed course to avoid detection. This means nobody tracking the plane on radar knows where they went down. One would think a few oil workers might have noticed a massive jumbo jet striking their platform and consider phoning it in, but never mind.

Before the water pressure crushes the plane "like an empty beer can," Gallagher hatches a plan to open one of the cargo doors and swim to the surface with an emergency signal buoy. The remainder of the film is a race against time as the Navy rushes to the scene to try and raise the plane before it floods and everyone drowns.

Airport '77 is the most FX-driven film in the franchise, making ample use of miniatures to depict the crash, sinking and most of the flight scenes. Though Star Wars would come along just a few months later to render the whole thing absolutely archaic, the effects are more-or-less convincing enough to serve the story. The crash scene itself - a combination of miniatures and some dubious rear projection - is rendered more ominous due to the performance of our dear lady, the Boeing 747, who dominates the screen. Airline disaster films simply look and feel more epic when the Queen of the Skies is in distress.

The stealthy 747 sneaks up on unsuspecting swimmers.
Of course, no disaster movie is complete without its sillier elements. Those in Airport '77 are mostly regulated to pre-catastrophe festivities, such as Monte Markham as one of the baddies who inexplicably changes disguises three times before he even steps on the plane, or Olivia de Havilland hamming it up as a southern belle who "humorously" turns out to be a card shark. And just who's idea was it to cast the magnificently menacing Christopher Lee as the biggest pussy in the entire movie (playing Lee Grant's henpecked husband)? Why the hell isn't he masterminding the damn heist???

My favorite moment, however, features blind singer/songwriter Tom Sullivan, who passionately mewls "Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder," the sappiest Oscar-baiting song interlude in disaster movie history, making Helen Reddy's goofy musical moment in Airport 1975 sound like she's belting-out "Balls to the Wall." Sullivan warbles with such high-pitched sincerity that young Kathleen Quinlan can't help but fall instantly in-love with him.

Airport '77 would be the 747's last appearance in the series. She wisely passed on The Concorde - Airport '79, but still found plenty of employment with choice roles in many other action epics. Eventually, though, like so many other fading stars throughout Hollywood history, her popularity began to wane and the offers dried up. She still retained her sleek beauty, though, hardly aging at all in 50 years.

When the last of the great Boeing passenger jets was permanently grounded, it was the end of an era. The 747 is now just another relic of the past, no longer relevant in Hollywood or anywhere else. We won't see the likes of her on the big screen again. Sure, she still finds work as a freighter, but that's like seeing Meryl Streep appearing in a Life-Alert commercial.

So let's not forget to appreciate the grand old bird's contributions to cinema and pop culture. Whether splashing into the Atlantic, exploding in mid-air or being attacked by a megalodon, the 747 will always be the Queen of the Skies.

Rest in peace, old girl. I only wish I'd had the opportunity to ride you just one time.

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