#1 in my Ranking of the Airport Franchise.
We finally come back to it, the movie that started the franchise that ended with George Kennedy rated to fly the Concorde, and I’m shocked to discover that he started the franchise as a maintenance man. Granted, he’s the gosh darned best maintenance man at Lincoln Airport, but still. It’s kind of jarring to watch that tortured character progression backwards. I can’t imagine it’s that much smoother going forwards, though.
Anyway, the first in this franchise is markedly different from the rest. The rest were completely centered around the disasters within the films with little beyond that justifying the films. Airport, though, is more a slice of life drama about the goings on the Chicago area airport on one of the snowiest days of the year. There also happens to be a disaster in the latter half of the picture that provides Burt Lancaster and crew a time to shine, bringing their efforts on another problem to a head. It’s perfectly solid entertainment.
It’s a snowy night outside of Chicago, and the business of the airport needs to keep going. Airplanes still need someplace to land, and Lincoln Airport gets hobbled by a landing pilot missing a turn on taxi and getting his tires buried in the snow, closing one of the two large landing strips. What follows is men trying to find solutions to that problem while other small stories play out that end up paying off later. There’s the little old lady who stowaways on planes but gets caught before sneaking away and getting onto another plane to Italy. There’s the pilot of the Rome flight (Dean Martin) who’s having an affair with his chief stewardess while antagonistic to Burt Luncaster’s Bakersfield, the general manager of the airport. And, of course, there’s the down on his luck demolitions expert who brings a few sticks of TNT onto the Rome flight in order to down the plane and have the travel insurance he bought go to his wife.
The swirl of activity in the airport (accompanied really well by Alfred Newman’s score that feels like a mass of people marching through a terminal) is the main focus, and it’s well managed by both Lancaster and George Seaton, the director. The place always feels busy and on the verge of falling apart. From the snow to the issues with pilots to the stowaway and the bomber, everything moves around at a rapid pace of an airport, giving us a dizzying feeling imagining how hard it must be to manage it all. And Lancaster really is the center of the film around which everything spins. Sometimes he has to inject himself (and away from his wife who’s expecting him at a dinner that night), but he’s always there trying to make things better for the airport.
It’s when the disaster part really starts up, when the demolitions guy gets onto the airplane, that I feel the movie takes a step backwards. Up to that point, it was a very solid ensemble drama with Lancaster dealing with the business of his professional life and how it interfered with his personal life, but the bomb stuff kind of feels out of place, like it’s from another movie. It’s small scale and handled fine (it never gets ridiculous like the sequels), but it just feels like it doesn’t belong with the rest of the film.
Anyway, that’s a small part of it and, again, it’s handled well enough to not really take the movie down any, and once it’s done, the movie wraps up pretty quickly, getting the personal lives of those directly involved in the airport and the disaster wrapped up before the end credits. It’s solid entertainment and a decent way to spend just over two hours.
Now, a note on my backwards viewing. It’s really interesting to watch the ridiculousness toned down with every movie instead of turned up. I kind of wish there was a series of films that went this direction for real, but I kind of want to try this again. Maybe the Fast and Furious movies.