Friday, February 3, 2012

The Comic Book Kid

I feel like I’m rediscovering all kinds of hidden gems as I go through my immediate family’s old photos. And now there’s this. I swear if I had remembered this picture existed three years ago, it would be somewhere on the cover of my book Deus ex Comica: The Rebirth of a Comic Book Fan! I had completely forgotten that my mom had made this for me. And, embarrassingly, I have no idea where it might be today. (Sorry, Mom.) But, man, how awesome is this?!

Christmas morning, 1984. I’m 14 years old and deep into comic reading and collecting. I didn’t ask for this, but I remember my mom doing a lot of this kind of chicken scratch embroidery. (We had a table runner made of the same brown gingham at the time.) Mom had left a loop at the top, and Dad got me a dowel rod to slip through to hang it in my room, where it resided for quite a few years after this.

When Tracy and I cleaned and purged in our basement last summer, this was not among my stuff. Think this might call for an excursion into my parents’ basement and my childhood closet to see if it can be located, and then I can properly pass the mantle of “The Comic Book Kid” on to my kiddo.

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.

Monday, January 30, 2012

“Hold On, We’re Goin’ for Broke!”

I watched the 1970 classic Airport for the first time this weekend. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the granddaddy of all disaster movies, but think I got my money’s worth. The movie is over 40 years old, so reader beware... spoiler-iffic details to follow.

Taking place over a single night, Burt Lancaster’s Mel Bakersfeld is the manager of Lincoln International Airport outside of Chicago, trying to keep the airport open and functioning during a paralyzing snowstorm. He’s also in a loveless marriage and clearly taken with Trans Global Airlines’ PR agent, Jean Seberg’s Tanya Livingston.

Bakersfeld’s brother-in-law is Dean Martin’s TGA pilot Vern Demerest. Demerest is cheating on his wife (Bakersfeld’s sister) with head stewardess Gwen, played by a luminous Jacqueline Bisset. We find out Gwen is pregnant with Demerest’s child, and there is talk of how to deal with the situation, including adoption versus abortion – a pretty dicey topic in the pre-Roe v. Wade years.

So not only are the two main characters cheating on their wives – one in his heart and one literally – both end up with their mistresses in the final moments of the film’s happy ending.
The portrayal of Bakersfeld's wife justifies his ending up with Tanya, but you can’t help but feel bad for his sister. Demerest is cheating on her and leaves her for his pregnant girlfriend. That's just cold.

My ten-year-old son watched the movie with me. The abortion talk was subtle enough that it went over his head, but he was astounded that the two men ended up with different women at the end of the movie. Mel’s wife complains throughout that he’s married to his job and doesn’t make time for her (but it was pretty ridiculous for her to bitch about it on this particular night when there was an obvious environmental calamity and a terrorist threat on one of the flights that, as airport manager, he has to deal with). At the end of the movie, however, when Mel declines to deal with a new problem that’s come up at the airport and literally drives off into the sunrise with Tanya, the kiddo turned to me and said, “Why didn’t he do that with his wife? They’d probably still be together!”

There are a couple of passengers on the flight with Demerest and Gwen, originating at Lincoln International and heading to Rome, Italy, that play key roles in the film. Helen Hayes won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of elderly stowaway Ada Quonsett, and Van Heflin played bomber D.O. Guerrero. There was some nice comic relief with Hayes’ character, and a melodramatic-but-story-propelling turn by Heflin.

The all-star cast was awesome, and extended to the ever-reliable George Kennedy (the only actor to reprise his role through all four of the Airport
movies), Maureen Stapleton as Guerrero’s wife (whose performance is actually more deserving of the Supporting Actress Oscar nod than Hayes’ turn), Barbara Hale as Mel’s sister and Vern’s wife, a young Gary Collins as the second officer on the disaster plagued flight, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them uncredited appearances by Marion Ross and Christopher Lloyd.

Not only does the flick overflow with recognizable actors, it has an overabundance of story crammed in there! Along with the snowstorm, bomb threat, and romantic plot points, there are subplots involving picketers, airport noise pollution (while it may have provided some social commentary on the times, it falls flat), and a plane stuck in the snow on the airfield's longest runway.

Crazy to think that Airport started the disaster film craze of the ’70s. It was two hours and 16 minutes of slow burn story evolution that can easily veer into camp, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it... so much so that I've already moved on to the first sequel!