Saturday, December 19, 2015
The only connecting thread between Universal’s four AIRPORT movies — besides an air disaster, of course — is George Kennedy (COOL HAND LUKE) as good ol’ Joe Patroni, who may have been a good luck charm for executive producer Jennings Lang, but not so much for fictional airports. The screenplay by SKYWAY TO DEATH’s Michael Scheff and David Spector from a story by H.A.L. Craig (ANZIO) and Charles Kuenstle (THE ASTRONAUT) manages to combine three hot Seventies trends — disaster flicks, airplane hijackings, and the Bermuda Triangle — but remains all wet to the end, just like the cast.
Still, watching these actors go through these motions has entertainment value, and all are professional enough to give it their best. Top-billed Jack Lemmon (THE ODD COUPLE) is indeed quite good carrying the action as the captain of a private 747 owned by wealthy art collector James Stewart (HARVEY). Lemmon is flying Stewart’s pretty pictures from Washington, D.C. to Palm Beach, but three ne’er-do-wells hijack the jetliner, which crashes in the Caribbean and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Full of passengers in various stages of freakout, the plane remains intact, but for how long? Help from the U.S. Navy is on the way, but can Lemmon and engineer Darren McGavin (KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER) keep everyone calm until then? Most of the fun comes in guessing who will survive the disaster based on their backstory. Black bartender (Robert Hooks) whose wife is expecting twins? Blind singer (Tom Sullivan) falling in love with a winsome passenger (Kathlee Quinlan)? Bitchy alcoholic (Lee Grant) having an affair with her husband’s young assistant (Gil Gerard)? Tune in and see! Also floating about: Brenda Vaccaro, Robert Foxworth, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, Monte Markham, Michael Pataki, James Booth, Pamela Bellwood, Arlene Golonka, and M. Emmet Walsh.
Director Jerry Jameson’s other credits include SUPERDOME, THE DEADLY TOWER, and HURRICANE, making him the go-to guy for destruction and mayhem, but not on too big a scale. AIRPORT ‘77 feels less directed than assembled, though Jameson’s talent for keeping the trains running on time gives the film a watchable sheen. It somehow earned Oscar nominations for its unspectacular costumes and art direction. The special effects, stunts, and Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings are good. NBC added over an hour to the running time for AIRPORT ‘77’s network premiere in 1978.