oxygen masks drop on a 70s airplane
Courtesy Music Box Theatre

Catastrophic spectacle has been a mainstay since the silent film era, but it wasn’t until the 70s that Hollywood really finessed the art of packaging cinematic disasters into surefire hits.

Airport (1970), showing June 19 and 22 in a new print with DTS sound as part of the Music Box Theatre’s 70mm Film Festival, introduced many tropes so closely associated with the 70s disaster genre: the reverence for—and subsequent destabilization of—then-new technologies, in this case the Boeing 707; a miasma of soap-operaish subplots; and huge all-star casts slumming for easy paychecks.

But Airport’s airborne disaster doesn’t occur until just over 103 minutes into its running time. Based on Arthur Hailey’s 1968 novel, Airport is centered around Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster), the general manager of a fictional Chicago airport struggling to remain open during a raging blizzard. As he tries to orchestrate moving a stranded plane on a vital runway, Bakersfeld and his colleagues become aware of a mentally ill man (Van Heflin) who may be planning on blowing up a flight to Rome—a flight that has already gotten airborne.

Joining Lancaster on the ground is Jean Seberg as an airline PR executive carrying a torch for him, and George Kennedy as cocky mechanic Joe Patroni, the only character who returned for all three of Airport’s sequels. Dean Martin is Lancaster’s brother-in-law, a married pilot carrying on an affair with stewardess Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset). A sincere moment between Martin and Bisset about halfway through Airport would a decade later be the basis for the bickering terminal announcements at the opening of Airplane! (1980). 

Helen Hayes won an Oscar in her supporting role as Ada Quonsett, an elderly stowaway who games both the airline schedule and airport security for free flights with minimal accountability. After the Airport appearance, Hayes—nicknamed “the first lady of American theater”—jump-started her career with multiple appearances on television and in Disney films throughout the 70s. Subsequent disaster pictures featured numerous veteran film performers in flamboyant roles who, if they did not get Oscar wins or nominations like Hayes or Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), at least had the chance to showboat (Ava Gardner in Earthquake [1974], Gloria Swanson in Airport 1975 [1974]).      

Disaster films were very much a producer’s genre, dependent more on an executive’s ability to package stars and special effects than a director’s expert command of mise-en-scène and actors’ performances. Director-writer George Seaton here does a masterful job interweaving Hailey’s multiple subplots, but if any one person leaves an authorial imprint on Airport the film, it is producer Ross Hunter.  

A former actor, Hunter had by the time of Airport’s production been a principal in-house producer at Universal for decades, best known for so-called women’s pictures such as subtext-laden melodramas from Douglas Sirk like Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955), and romantic comedies starring Doris Day, including Pillow Talk (1959) and The Thrill of It All! (1963). Hunter also produced Flower Drum Song (1961) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

G, 137 min. Screening June 19 and 22 at 7:30 PM as part of The Music Box 70mm Film Festival 2022; Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport; full festival pass $80 general admission, $60 Music Box members; individual screening $14 general admission, $12 seniors and kids 12 and under, $11 Music Box members; musicboxtheatre.com/films/airport

Nobody would characterize Airport as a women’s picture, but the film does on numerous occasions revert to old-fashioned melodrama, particularly in the scenes between Lancaster’s Mel—who is in a failing marriage with socialite Cindy (Dana Wynter)—and Seberg, as well as Martin and Bisset. Wynter appropriately enough is usually dressed to the nines in Edith Head frocks, and the home she shares with Lancaster and their children when briefly onscreen drips with chandeliers and other midcentury decorative vulgarities. 

Indeed, like much of Hunter’s repertoire, Airport is about conspicuous consumption—in this case, the consumption of the jet age. This was an era before fare deregulation, when only the well-to-do could afford to fly and travelers dressed up before they got on the plane. To the end of capturing the era’s excitement and magnetism, the film was one of the last to be exhibited in Todd-AO. That process employed not just a wide-screen film gauge, but six-track stereo as well. Todd-AO originally utilized a 30-frames-per-second projection rate, allowing the image to retain sharpness and clarity even when projected on large-size screens, but had long been using a standard 24-fps rate by the time of Airport’s release.

Seaton expertly uses those technical tools to establish the airport setting—a very brief prelude played out over a dark screen features the airport’s gate announcements, for example—and the wide-screen frame is perfect for side-angle shots on the ground depicting the 707 as an imposing edifice. The editing similarly evokes the adrenaline the airport staff needs to make it through the night: Split-screen effects add a dynamism to both flashbacks and procedural calls between pilots and the control tower. The Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and the Universal backlot stood in for the fictitious Lincoln International Airport. 

Despite leaving his imprint on Airport, the film was to be Hunter’s final production for Universal. He next produced the musical megaflop Lost Horizon, perhaps now best known for inspiring Bette Midler’s famous quip, “I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical.” Longtime agent Jennings Lang produced the Airport sequels and other Universal disaster pictures, while science-fiction producer Irwin Allen carried the catastrophe mantle at 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. Both men had already run the disaster genre into the ground by the time Airplane! came along to dance on its grave.

But audiences ate up Airport at the time of its release; it made over $100,000,000 and was the second-highest grossing film of 1970 (Love Story was the highest). It also garnered nine Academy Award nominations, but Hayes was the only win. Veteran composer Alfred Newman received a posthumous nomination for his frequently grandiose score.