Thursday Editor’s Pick: “Airport 1975” (1974)

by on July 27, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thu July 28 at 7:00, 9:30 at Chelsea Clearview [Program & Tix]
*7:00 hosted by Hedda Lettuce


The second of four Airport films spanning the decade, Airport 1975 was released at the apex of the disaster film phenomenon, refining the high-stakes, straight-faced absurdity that is predecessor unleashed on the world four years prior.


Said Vincent Canby for the New York Times, at the time of the film’s release:

Like its predecessor, “Airport 1975” is carefully designed not to bring up any subject as touchy as air safety and traffic control, even though it’s about a midair collision. A great deal is made of the fact that the collision is a result of what might be called a private failing, and that, anyway, the 747 is “the best aircraft ever made.”


The crisis in “Airport 1975” occurs when the pilot of a private plane has a heart attack and plunges his small craft into the cockpit of a 747 en route from Washington to Los Angeles, either killing or maiming the members of the jetliner’s flight crew.


Who is left aboard the big plane to handle the controls until some sort of help can arrive?


Who will be able to steer it, more or less, through mountain passes, receiving her instructions through the headphones of the damaged radio, looking distraught from time to time, but game and pretty throughout?


By golly, you’ve guessed it, but I shouldn’t give away any more of the plot. He who gives away the plot of a movie like this gives away its soul.


Karen Black plays the spunky stewardess, and Charlton Heston plays her boyfriend, the man who saves the day in a daring plane-to-plane pilot transfer that prompts someone to say in all seriousness: “This is plain suicide, sir!”


Time has lifted a burden in discussing Airport 1975, and current reviews tend to approach their subject with a more manic appreciation. Writes Cinema de Merde:

So Nancy comes up front and sees what the situation is. She has a good little speech on the radio to the control tower in which she describes the situation, going from calm to totally freaking and shrieking by the end. Of course who would be on the radio but Charleton [sic] Heston, and he tells her to “sit in the pilot seat and do exactly what I tell you.” I wrote that line down carefully, because I thought this whole situation was going to transform their relationship by the end, but surprisingly, it really doesn’t. It does, however, lead to the line that seared itself into my memory since I was a child, which was Sid Ceasar saying “The stewardess is flying the plane? THE STEWARDESS IS FLYING THE PLANE!” Luckily, having a huge open gash in the front of a 747 doesn’t create any serious, hair-ruining wind throughout the cockpit.


[…] From then on, most of the excitement is over. There’s one amusing moment, when Nancy gets on the intercom and announces that they’re going to shut one engine down, and we hear a passenger voice matter-of-factly say “We’re gonna die.” Then they land, and have minor trouble stopping the plane, and then, when they’re completely safe, some sudden and senseless panic ensues where everybody HAS to get off the plane NOW, and they deploy the inflatable slides and everybody jumps down them—for what? The danger is over. They’re fine. I don’t get it. Heston and Nancy emerge at their leisure—no relationship closure, nothing—and that’s it, the end.


Matt Cale puts it succinctly for Ruthless Reviews:
Outside of treating his cross-eyed lover Karen Black as a ragged piece of meat, [Heston] rescues a plane full of half-baked celebrities by sheer force of will. That, and he pulls alongside a pilot-less plane and jumps through a hole in its side. Even I was hard as a fucking rock during all this. Did I mention that this was done while wearing a turtleneck?



The fullest appreciation of Airport 1975, however, comes from AltScreen’s own Dan Callahan, writing for

Dedicated filmgoers collect so many varied pleasures as the years go by. Who can forget the first time they saw Welles’ Citizen Kane? Ozu’s Tokyo Story? Antonioni’s The Eclipse? What gems of insight and emotion have been mined from the works of Jean Renoir, of Max Ophuls and Fritz Lang, of Hitchcock and Mizoguchi? Yet, if I had to choose between saving all of their films or preserving Airport 75, I must admit that I would hesitate.


When it comes to a film as rich as Airport 75, where does one begin? Perhaps a drum roll of the cast that adorns this archetypal 1970’s disaster epic is as good a way as any to get started: we have Charlton Heston and Karen Black as the leads, and, in a display of has-beens and never-was’s that would make any Hollywood Squares devotee salivate, there’s Susan Clark, Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell, Martha Scott, Beverly Garland, Sharon Gless, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Erik Estrada all on board.


And that’s just for starters! Myrna Loy plays an elderly tippler, Helen Reddy is a singing nun, Linda Blair is a cheerful girl in need of a kidney transplant, and, in the pièce de résistance, Gloria Swanson is…Gloria Swanson. If you loved Airplane!, which lampooned Airport 75 in particular, you should go straight back to the horse’s mouth and rent this seminal entry in bad cinema.


In a lengthy opening tracking shot that invites comparison with Orson Welles’ similar feat in Touch of Evil, we follow cross-eyed stewardess Black into an airport as the names of the guilty keep coming and coming via the credits, a veritable orgy of cut-rate players. When the names finally stop, Heston quickly propositions our heroine. “I can do wonders in thirty minutes,” he promises, but Black’s having none of it. “Maybe I’m tired of one-night stands,” she whines, as we imagine, quite against our will, the alarming image of the two of them in the sack. After she leaves him, the credits begin again and inform us that Edith Head designed the clothing (only senility can possibly excuse the neckerchiefs she gave to the stewardesses.)


When asked the secret of her ageless appearance by adulatory reporters, Swanson explains, “I won’t take poisoned food, I don’t like it.” Nuns Martha Scott and Helen Reddy observe her impromptu press conference intently. “It’s one of those Hollywood persons,” says Scott with disdain. “You mean an actress?” asks Reddy. “Or worse,” Scott replies, rolling her eyes to heaven. Black tries to shield a new blond stewardess from the lustful advances of Erik Estrada, but this novice can take care of herself. “I’m emancipated, liberated and highly skilled in Kung Fu,” she boasts. “Whatever happened to womanhood?” wonders a pilot in response.


As the cast from Hell shuttle over to their flight, Swanson just won’t shut up. When Norman Fell doubts if the plane will fly, Gloria says, “In 1917 I was flying in something wilder than this. You know who the pilot was? Cecil B. DeMille!” Just about everybody in Airport 75 proves to be as ready for their close-up as Swanson, especially little Linda Blair; when she is wheeled onto the plane, bad film-going delight turns into purple junk food ecstasy. She smiles satanically at everyone and says, “It’s so exciting! The people are so interesting!” to her mother Nancy Olsen, who once played the ingenue in Sunset Boulevard, making this her second film with Swanson in which she doesn’t share a scene with the silent diva.


[…]As for Black, who really carries the whole movie, this is an immortal performance. With her dueling lazy eyes, she is able to keep watch over all the buttons and switches at once; she flares her nostrils, bugs her freaky orbs, and even sticks out her tongue when trying to get a pilot into the plane. When Heston, in an atrocious yellow turtleneck, manages to get aboard, Black tells the passengers that they’ll have to shut down one engine. I adore the voice of one of the extras who pipes in, “We’re gonna die!” in a dry, matter-of-fact voice.


They do land the plane without a hitch, and the ending, appropriately, belongs to Swanson. When she slides down the emergency landing shute, La Swanson’s body double flashes us a glimpse of white panties (definitely the funniest image in the movie.) When her assistant murmurs that it’s a good morning, Gloria says rather touchingly, “Every morning is beautiful, you’re just too young to know.” This demonstrates that Airport 75 is, finally, a contemplative film about life and its finish—or at least the finish of many show biz careers.

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