Can't get off the ground

The stewardess is flying the plane!

Published: May 24 2020, 01:01:am

Saturday, October 19, 1974.

AIRPORT 1975. Written by Don Ingalls. Music by John Cacavas. Directed by Jack Smight. Running time: 107 minutes. General entertainment.
STEWS SHOULD SUE. IN the past year [1974], no professional group has been more ill-treated nor more grossly maligned than airline stewardesses. The movie Airport 1975 could be the last straw.
    Federal regulations in both this country and the United States, as well as airline self-interest, require that highly-trained safety attendants be part of every passenger flight crew. Naturally, such flight attendants are hired for their ability to keep calm under pressure, and in control during an emergency.
    Most people know them as stewardesses, a title that is less likely to induce visions of burning engines or in-flight births in skittish first-time flyers. A large part of their job is to lend an air of normality to the decidedly unnatural experience of being airborne.
    Airlines, naturally enough, play down the risks involved in air travel. In the meantime, the popular press, magazines and novels, have played up an image of the stewardess as good-time girl. She is presented as a luxury item with one primary function: to provide pleasure for her pilot and some of her more sophisticated passengers.
    It’s that image that sold paperbacks — Coffee, Tea or Me? was a 1967 bestseller — and skin flicks, such as 1968’s The Stewardesses. Last year, some smartass adman thought that it would also sell plane tickets. Currently, two U.S. airlines are running pictures of their prettiest stews along with lines like “Fly me!,” and “We really move our tail for you.”
    It hardly seemed possible to land a much lower blow than that. Incredibly, Airport 1975 manages it, in the process proving that a disaster film can be a disaster all on its own.
    The current flight was, according to the picture’s own credits, "inspired by the film Airport based on the novel by Arthur Hailey.”
    Arthur Hailey should sue. The only part of the previous film that could possibly have inspired the makers of Airport 1975 was its $45 million in boxoffice receipts. The onscreen result is the worst possible kind of schlock.
    Now, let’s be clear about one thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with schlock. Handled effectively, schlock plots and shlock characters can be solidly entertaining. In the hands of a masterful director like Richard Lester, a schlock plot can approach art.  His Juggernaut, still on view locally [in 1974], is an example of superior schlock.
    In most cases, filmgoers have to settle for mere competence. Even competent schlock — films such as the original Airport, 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and Skyjacked [also 1972] — can deliver the goods.
    Occasionally, a full-blow stinker slips past,  and unsuspecting audiences are left to cringe at the likes of Airport 1975. Director Jack Smight has exercised virtually no control over an unwieldy, all-star cast and, even if he had tried, he would have had difficulty making a drama out of the inconsequential collection of incidents Don Ingalls offered in place of a script.
    The film opens with airline executive Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston) stopping over at Washington’s Dulles Airport on his way to Los Angeles. On his last film flight, actor Heston piloted a plane that was Skyjacked to the Soviet Union, and the natural reaction is to think that he has been undergoing governmental debriefing.
    But no. Hank O’Hara of Global Airlines was the name of the man who went to Moscow. Murdock works for a compay called Columbia, and he trains crewmen to fly the Big One, the Boeing 747. He’s just stopping by to set up a date with his mistress, senior stewardess Nancy Pryor (Karen Black).
    Things are not going well between them. Apparently, Ms Pryor is getting a little tired of their layover romance and is bucking for a promotion. Their relationship is the closest Ingalls’s script comes to developing a human conflict.
    The rest of the film consists of cardboard characters, an extraordinary crisis and cross references to other air-disaster thrillers. Enter the all-stars.
    Sauntering across the tarmac are the pilot, Captain Stacey (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), one of the most subdued, and therefore one of the most effective players in the cast. With him is Urias (Roy Thinnes), his co-pilot.
     Sitting patiently in the waiting room are a pair of nuns, Sister Beatrice (Martha Scott) and Sister Ruth (singer Helen Reddy). They are watching, along with everyone else, the sweeping entrance of former screen star Gloria Swanson (as herself). In the crowd are Barney (Sid Caesar), a would-be actor, and an airline executive’s wife, Helen Patroni (Susan Clark), who is with her son Joseph (Brian Morrison).
    Waiting in the bar are Mrs. Devaney (Myrna Loy), a housewife belting back boilermakers, along with a trio of travelling salesmen that includes Sam (Jerry Stiller), Bill (Norman Fell) and Arnie (Conrad Janis). Arriving by ambulance is Janice Abbott (Linda Blair), a little girl in need of a kidney transplant, and her mother (Nancy Olson).
    Waiting in the wings for entrances later in the picture are Scott Freeman (Dana Andrews), whose private plane will collide with the giant commercial aircraft,  his distraught wife (Beverly Garland), air force Major John Alexander (Ed Nelson) and Glenn Purcell (Larry Storch), a TV newsman who capitalizes on the disaster.
    Has anyone been left out? Only Joe Patroni (George Kennedy, who reprises his role from the original Airport), now Columbia Airlines vice-president in charge of operations. As befits a veteran of the runways, he gets to deliver the film’s most iconic line.
    But first, time out for the plot.
    The plane takes off. Unable to land in Los Angeles, it diverts to Salt Lake City. A freak mid-air collision with a twin-engined Beechcraft Baron rips a hole in the 747’s flight deck and no one remains who can fly the plane.
    Distraught, terrified and quite visibly cross-eyed, stewardess Pryor ventures unsteadily into the cockpit. It is as if she’s crossed some invisible, mind-numbing line that suddenly renders her an incoherent incompetent.
    Nor is it just her. During the course of the film, two other strong and otherwise self-reliant women will cross the same line. In each case, stepping into the cockpit lobotomizes them. They're left glassy-eyed, and highly susceptible to what look like spastic fits.
    So much for plot.
    From the moment of impact until the end of the picture, Karen Black plays her role as if she were suffering the after-effects of that fatal fall she took in 1973’s The Pyx. A total zombie, she absorbs simple flying instructions from ground control — “There now, honey, you've got to fly the airplane now" — and guides the crippled bird through some particularly scenic parts of the Rocky Mountains.
    On the ground, heroes Murdock and Patroni decide to try the daring mid-air transfer of a real pilot from a jet helicopter to the 747.  While they're busy talking tight-lipped tough guy talk to one another,  obnoxious TV newsman Purcell breaks in on them, and Kennedy gets to deliver his knock-out line.
    "You know,” he growls around his cigar, “sometimes the public's right to know gives me a huge pain in the ass.” At some point, he should try sitting through Airport 1975.
    He could then see Storch overacting outrageously, bellowing into his microphone lines like “tension is thick here at Salt Lake City . . .
    It's a lot thicker than it ever gets in the theatre.  At about this point in the picture, my mind started to wander, and I found myself asking the kind of questions that Ingalls’s script never answers.
    Five years ago, in Airport, Joe Patroni was ground crew chief at Lincoln International. In other words, he worked for the airport. How did he get to be vice-president of an airline?
    Airline employees are unionized. Now, inasmuch as most union contracts stipulate that an employee has to be paid at the higher grade rate when he or she does the higher grade's job. can stewardess Pryor expect to have an air captain's salary turn up on her next paycheque?
    If the plane actually crashes, will Linda Blair, last seen as the possessed child in 1973’s The Exorcist, levitate her character to safety?
    But no, it’s not the squeaky-clean Miss Blair, but a movie stuntman (doubling for stars Nelson and Heston) who is seen floating between the two aircraft. In what has to be his most incredible feat of deus ex machina ever, Charlton Heston is lowered into the 747 flight deck.
    We can all breathe more easily now. There’s a man at the controls. That child-like, semi-retarded female can be dismissed. Isn’t it time for her to pass out pillows to the passengers?
    “Go do your thing, baby,” the pilot tells the stewardess.  And, like the housewives in all those iron supplement commercials, she simpers appreciatively before assuming her natural place in his scheme of things.
    Stews should sue.
    The movie’s not over, though. There are still a few more problems to face, more danger and more attempts at tension. But it’s all for naught. It’s impossible to empathize with anything so patently phony.
    Despite some effective aerial photography by Roy Metz, and some impressive stunt flying, Airport 1975 is a film that never manages to get off the ground. Perhaps audiences should sue.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Just to be clear, in 1974 I was in favour of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and equal pay for equal work. Over the years, I saw it as part of my job to pay attention to the attitudes being promoted in the popular culture, and make my readers aware of just what it was we were being sold. Occasionally, a dumpster fire such as Airport 1975 tipped me over into full rant mode. On those occasions, I was grateful for a managing editor like Mervyn Moore. The man always had my back. And, yes, more recently I’ve enjoyed  considerable schadenfreude in the fall of such creatures as Harvey Weinstein in the wake of the #metoo movement. The work continues.
    Among the best known lines from Airport 1975 is “The stewardess is flying the plane!” It’s spoken loudly (and repeatedly) by Barney, the passenger played by Sid Caesar. In 2005, New York-based editor and popular culture critic Ron Hogan used the line in the title of his The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane!: American Films of the 1970s. Lavishly illustrated, his  272-page coffee-table book celebrates what he considers “the second golden era of Hollywood.” Hogan begins his study with an eight-page “conversation” with Peter Bogdanovich, the film critic-turned-director who was a vital part of the cinematic shift taking place in that decade. Although I disagree with some of his opinions — I did cover that decade on a day-to-day basis — I remain delighted that his book exists. For me, it’s a memory palace offering a once-over-lightly trip back to my own salad days in the business.

Boarding pass: The three features in the Airport franchise now contained in the Reeling Back archive are 1970’s Airport, directed by George Seaton, Airport 1975 (1974; Jack Smight) and Airport ’77 (1977; Jerry Jameson).