The 1970s are known for lots of things like disco, polyester, stagflation, Watergate, and disaster movies. The movie that started the disaster movie craze was Airport in 1970 and it’s part of a four film series that also helped end the interest in disaster movies with its final offering: The Concorde: Airport ‘79.
Disaster movies in 1970s like disco, started out really well and then ended quite suddenly. The original Airport inspired the production of such classic disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. The film series’ continuing inferior sequels was part of the second and third wave of lower quality disaster movies like Earthquake, The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and the killer of the 1970’s disaster genre, 1980’s When Time Ran Out.
The first Airport movie was actually a well-reviewed film and was actually nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture and winning Broadway legend Helen Hayes a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as an elderly stowaway. If you watch the movie it’s decent, but you’re just amazed that it actually got 10 nominations including Best Picture.
The first Airport movie cost $10 million and it should be noted that its first sequel Airport: 1975 only cost $3 million to make. A private plane hits a 747 in the cockpit, killing two members of the flight crew and blinding the pilot, yet the rest of the plane and a good chunk of the flight controls remain intact. So they devise an air-to-air rescue attempt by lowering Captain Alan Murdock played by Charlton Heston into the cockpit by the use of a helicopter before the plan crashed into the mountain. The legacy of Airport: 1975 can be seen by watching Airplane! since it had a singing nun played by Helen Reddy, an alcoholic played by Myrna Loy, a child in need of an organ transplant played by Linda Blair, and a chatterbox played by Sid Caesar.
Airport: 1977 features a water landing/crash that even Sully would think is impossible. A hijacking to steal artwork involving knocking out the passengers with sleeping gas goes awry when hijacking pilot Robert Foxworth doesn’t pay attention to flying and crashes the plane into the Bermuda Triangle. The plane hits the ocean floor and the fuselage miraculously remains intact so the Navy attaches balloons to the plan so it can float. Yes, it was the theater of the absurd and it’s just an example of how the movies were becoming unintentional comedies and camp.
The movie that ended the franchise was The Concorde: Airport ’79. The movie has a nice mountain landing after the Concorde makes death defying stunts that defy the law of physics including George Kennedy shooting a flare gun out of the Concorde’s window during flight. It also gave us Martha Raye as the poor woman who decides to put on makeup in the lavatory when the plane does some death defying stunts, which is later parodied in Airplane! by the Zucker brothers’ mother, Charlotte.
Why won’t we see Airport movies again? You can thank Airplane! The 1980 parody killed the Airport franchise once and for all(Airport ’79 lost money). Airplane! is actually a send up of the 1957 movie Zero Hour! which features a character named Ted Stryker who saves a plane after the crew ate some bad fish (sound familiar?). The co-pilot is played by Los Angeles Rams halfback Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (parodied by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!). It’s an absolute must see if you love Airplane! like I do.
What made Airplane! work as a parody and kill off the Airport franchise was the fact that they casted serious actors like Peter Graves, Robert Stack, Leslie Nielson, and Lloyd Bridges and played the movie as if it was a serious drama so it becomes a deadpan comedy classic. That’s the thing that most spoof movies no longer understand and why almost all don’t come close to rivaling Airplane!
One last thing about the Airport movies that gets to me that is never explained is the character of Joe Petroni played by George Kennedy who appears in all 4 Airport! movies playing the same character with completely different jobs. Patroni’s character evolves from a chief mechanic in Airport to a vice president of operations in Airport 1975, a consultant in Airport ’77, and an airline pilot in The Concorde: Airport ’79. How does that happen, when did he have the time to get the promotions and demotions in only a 9 year period?