Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset, Van Heflin, George Kennedy, Dean Martin, Helen Hayes, Barry Nelson, Jean Seberg, and Maureen Stapleton in Airport (1970)



(director/writer: George Seaton; screewriter: from the novel by Arthur Hailey; cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo; editor: Stuart Gilmore; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Burt Lancaster (Mel Bakersfeld), Dean Martin (Vernon Demerest), Jean Seberg (Tanya Livingston), Jacqueline Bisset (Gwen Meighen), George Kennedy (Joe Patroni), Helen Hayes (Ada Quonsett), Van Heflin (D.O. Guerrero), Maureen Stapleton (Inez Guerrero), Dana Wynter (Cindy Bakersfeld), Lloyd Nolan (Harry Standish), Barry Nelson (Lieut. Anson Harris), Barbara Hale (Sarah Bakersfeld Demerest), Ilana Dowding (Roberta ‘Robbie’ Bakersfeld), Lisa Gerritson (Libby Bakersfeld); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Ross Hunter; Universal Pictures; 1970)

“If it weren’t for a mad bomber story line, it would be the perfect empty movie for airlines to show on long flights.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The mother of all disaster pictures (it regrettably started the never ending blockbuster diasaster genre movie) is a disaster in every which way except in the box office, where it was made for 10 million dollars and pulled in over a 100 million dollars to become one of the biggest grossing films ever. It was supposedly a throwback to the glory days of films like the 1932 Grand Hotel; crass, slickly made and manipulatively pulling out all stops to be dramatic, it’s similar to a roller coaster ride in an amusement park. It was nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, which speaks volumes for their taste. Also incredible, Helen Hayes won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her inane role as Ada Quonsett, a repeat stowaway who acts real cute when caught and says: “I don’t think it would be very good public relations to prosecute a little lady for visiting her daughter.” That statement made about as much sense as her winning the award. Screenwriter-turned-director George Seaton (“The Big Lift”/”Showdown”) is the writer-director who keeps the film based on Arthur Hailey’s bestseller entertainingly dumb and humming along with cardboard characters (many played by old-time big name actors who were forced to retire) and enough clichés to equal the measurements of a Midwest blizzard. If it weren’t for a mad bomber story line, it would be the perfect empty movie for airlines to show on long flights. Star Burt Lancaster had it right when he would later refer to it as “the biggest piece of junk ever made.”

The story line unfolds with a series of escalating problems at Lincoln International Airport in the Midwest, where there’s the worst snowstorm in six years and a disabled jet is blocking the major runway that has to be moved because the other runway is too short for takeoffs in such terrible weather conditions. The exasperated airport general manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) has his hands full, and it forces him to call ace maintenance chief Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) away from his leave to help in the emergency. On a personal level, Mel’s bitchy wife Cindy (Dana Wynter) laces into him for missing another social dinner event and asks for a divorce; Mel’s girlfriend is the younger and sexier Trans Global Airlines public relations director Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg), who threatens to relocate to San Francisco unless he makes a more definite commitment; Mel’s hotshot pilot brother-in-law Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin) tries to get him fired by filing a negative report on him to the governing board. Vernon also must contend with his pregnant stewardess girlfriend Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset), whom he suddenly realizes that he loves more than his wife Sarah (Barbara Hale). Adding to the problems is that Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes), an eccentric elderly woman who was just caught as a stowaway on an incoming jet, becomes a stowaway on a flight to Rome. The Boeing 707 is piloted by an irate Vernon, who blames Mel for his flight’s delay and need to use the unsafe shorter runway. If this wasn’t enough a crackpot former mental patient named D. O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), whose excavation business went bust, is on board with a bomb in his attache case. It’s learned he has financial problems and hopes to blow up the plane so that his wife Inez (Maureen Stapleton) can collect on the extensive life insurance policy he just purchased. A decision is made to return the plane to the Midwest airport, and have the stowaway, seated next to the suspect, try to get the bomber’s attache case. But Captain Demerest upsets the bomber when he confronts him and he runs into the bathroom and sets the bomb off. It kills him, severely injures Gwen’s eye and does much structural damage to the plane making it a tough return flight to the airport. It winds down with Patroni racing against the clock to clear the main runway with his crew, as the plane returns with co-pilots Demerest and Harris (Barry Nelson) being talked down by the tower.

The superficial film offers some cheap thrills for those who go for such airborne melodramatics and soap opera gloss. I think film critic Judith Crist had it right when she said of this 1970 film that it was “the best film of 1944.”