Wednesday, February 1, 2012

“There’s Just a Hole Where the Pilots Usually Sit!”

So, after Airport, the kiddo and I decided it was worthwhile to continue on through the franchise. Airport 1975, released in the fall of 1974, stars Charlton Heston (and his eyebrows), with George Kennedy reprising his role as Joe Patroni. Where Patroni was the chief mechanic in the original, he’s now been promoted to Vice President of Operations for Columbia Airlines. Naturally, Heston’s Alan Murdock, Columbia’s Chief Flight Instructor, is involved with Karen Black’s Nancy Pryor, the head stewardess on the imperilled flight.

There was some groovy dialog, but no knocked up stewardesses or cheating husbands in this one. In fact, whereas in the first movie the people in danger didn’t necessarily have strong connections with the folks on the ground trying to save them, in this installment not only is Murdock’s lover on the flight, but so is Patroni’s wife (played by Webster’s mom – Susan Clark!) and son (not played by Emmanuel Lewis, I’m sorry to report).

Amping up the tension is Linda Blair in her first post-Exorcist role, on board as a child in need of a kidney transplant. Thankfully, she is soothed by Helen Reddy’s singing nun character, Sister Ruth.

The pop culture cavalcade continues with Erik Estrada as the doomed flight engineer, Myrna Loy as an alcoholic passenger continually hit on by Sid Caesar’s nervous chatterbox. Norman Fell, Jerry Stiller, and Conrad Janis play three buddies on the transcontinental flight. In an excellent meta role, Gloria Swanson plays herself, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who my generation knows as Remington Steel leading lady Stephanie Zimbalist’s real-life dad and lead character Remington Steel’s on-screen dad, plays the one surviving flight crew member.

Columbia Airlines flight 409 takes off from Washington Dulles International Airport, headed for Los Angeles. The west coast is “socked in” so the flight is rerouted to Salt Lake City International Airport. Simultaneously, a businessman takes off in a private Beechcraft from New Mexico headed for Boise, Idaho, but is also routed to Salt Lake. After both planes are stacked into their approach patters over Utah, the businessman suffers a heart attack and crashes into the cockpit of the Bowing 747. Tragedy ensues.

There are problems with the autopilot, and the obvious dearth of qualified pilots on board the commercial flight leads Murdock and Patroni to take the company jet to Salt Lake, where they hope to somehow find a way to help the crippled craft safely to the ground. After enduring plenty of sexist banter from the flight crew before the disaster, Pryor capably assumes control of the plane with very few woman-in-peril moments, and those clearly serve to ratchet up the tension.

At one point, a TV news crew shows up at the Salt Lake airfield with the widow of the businessman. Similar to the social commentary of the noise pollution subplot in the first movie, this brief aside clearly takes aim at the sensationalization of news but isn’t long enough to gain any traction.

Ultimately, Murdock and Patroni enlist the help of a nearby air base and attempt an in-flight transfer of a pilot from an Air Force helicopter into the flight deck through the gaping hole. Like the “oh, shit” moment when the passenger detonates his bomb in the lavatory of the plane in the first movie, the kiddo and I had the same reaction during the Air Force pilot’s attempt to board flight 409 in this movie.

Ultimately, the plane is safely landed, the inflatable emergency exit slides are deployed, everyone makes it off the plane, and an ambulance is waiting to rush Linda Blair to the hospital for her kidney (apparently they found a replacement kidney in Utah, since the one she was scheduled to receive was in Los Angeles). On the other side of the plane, Pryor and her pilot hero are able walk off the plane and onto a waiting mobile ramp stairs, preserving their dignity.

Although I’d never seen Airport or Airport 1975 prior to this past weekend, I love the movie Airplane. I haven’t seen it in years, but I can quote it ad nauseam. And now, having seen these two disaster classics, the parody’s reference points are all the more amusing.

After watching the second installment in the Airport franchise, the kiddo declared he knows what the calamity will be in Airport ’77: “Since the first movie had a hole blown in the rear of the plane, and this one had a hole blown in the cockpit, I bet in the next movie there’s a hole blown in the middle of the plane!” We’ll see. I’m just happy that when he finally gets around to watching Airplane, he’s going to get so much more out of it than I did for the first 30 years.

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