I often mention the fact that my goal here at The Underworld is to shine a light on my favorite performers and projects, some of whom don't get what I feel is the appropriate amount of attention anymore (if they ever did in the first place!) Still, another purpose of the site (and part of the inspiration for its very name!), especially in the early days, was to reflect on my great love of 1970s disaster movies. I profiled practically every one of them over the course of several months (though that was at a time when my profiles were shockingly brief compared to the droning, endless blatherings I now seem unable to prevent myself from creating! Where did it all go wrong?! Ha!)
Though I don't dwell on those disaster flicks as much as I once did, I still love them dearly and every cast member of a big screen disaster epic released from 1970 – 1980 is part of an exclusive club in my mind, a revered club I must tell you. The genre petered out when, in 1980, the parody Airplane! was released and pulled the plug on it. All of the conventions of the disaster movie formula were skewered hilariously and there was no way to continue to take the “straight” ones seriously anymore (even if some of the later entries, like The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, are unintentionally funny in their own right!) One of the fascinating things about Airplane! is that, despite all the sight gags and crazy situations, the basic plot line is straight out of a previous film and – amazingly – very much of the dialogue from the prior film was left intact, made funny only because of the delivery of the lines and the fact that time had not been especially kind to the overbaked nature of the dialogue.
The chief inspiration for Airplane! was the 1957 B-movie Zero Hour!, a film that was already in itself a rehash of earlier work, but one that seemingly couldn't or wouldn't die until the later spoof rendered it almost ludicrous. The amazing thing is that, even though Zero Hour! is dated and hokey now, it is still quite an entertaining and nail-biting movie. Thanks to the better known Airplane!, Zero Hour! manages to generate tension as well as giggles as it proceeds along its familiar path, making for quite a fun viewing experience.
The seed for the story was planted when businessman Arthur Hailey was enduring a lengthy plane ride and daydreamed about what would happen if the pilots onboard were felled by food poisoning. He'd been a flyer in the Royal Air Force during WWII and imagined having to come to the rescue of the jet, even though his experience had only been with small, single engine craft. In a rare case of someone acting on their idea rather than letting it slip away, he wrote the treatment for a teleplay based on this hook and it was produced for Canadian television in 1956! The show, titled Flight into Danger, starred James Doohan (later to be Scottie on Star Trek) as the tentative flyer and Zachary Scott as the determined airport contact. Hailey (shown above right) almost has a George Kennedy thing going on, doesn't he?
This was done again for U.S. audiences on an episode of The Alcoa Hour, this time with MacDonald Carey as the flyer, Patricia Barry as the jet's stewardess and, surprisingly enough, young Geoffrey Horne as the on-the-ground contact. Hailey would later adapt the story into a novel, his first, called Runway Zero-Eight, kicking off a highly successful career as a writer, with most of his books examining either an industry or a particular field of employment. 1965 brought Hotel while 1968 brought the mammoth blockbuster Airport. His intensive research for each book meant that there was significant space in between each one, but there was also a staggering attention to detail and sense of reality to them.
In 1957, Paramount Pictures produced a feature film based on Flight into Danger seeing it as a good way to capitalize on the success of Warner Brothers' 1954 hit The High and the Mighty. (As an aside, let me tell you that I waited eons to see the fabled airplane in distress film The High and the Mighty, which had been hidden from view for decades, and when I finally got to see it, thought it was positively dull.) Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell were hired to star in what would eventually be called Zero Hour! and Sterling Hayden joined them.The plot is pretty straightforward. Andrews is a WWII fighter pilot named Ted Stryker who leads his squadron into a deadly pea soup fog, resulting in death for six of the men and severe head injury to himself. During the decade after the war, the dejected, haunted veteran has trouble holding a job and his marriage to Darnell (with whom he has a young son) is fraying badly. She leaves him, ironically just as he has finally landed promising employment, and boards a plane with their son. He tracks her to the airport and manages to get a seat on the same flight in order to convince her that their relationship can be saved. Just as Andrews is making his way up the steps to the plane, Darnell says to her little boy something like, “They're bringing the baggage on now...” Um.... in more ways than one, honey!
Meanwhile, stewardess Peggy King is seeing to all of the passengers, including one Jerry Paris, a comedian (at least as the script dictates anyway!) with whom she is sharing a push-and-pull romance that has its own share of concerns. Up in the cockpit, there is the lantern-jawed captain (played by pro football star Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch) and his copilot, the soft spoken, rather hunky Steve London. Hirsch's cleft chin could make even Kirk Douglas sit up and take notice.
Andrews makes his presence known to Darnell and the two share some of their frustrated feelings. She simply cannot trust that he has gotten himself straightened out at last, heartbreaking as it is for her and for their son (played by Raymond Ferrell.) Ferrell, an airplane enthusiast thanks to his father, is taken up to the cockpit. The scene that ensues was later turned into a hysterically salacious and pedophilic spoof in Airplane! and it's easy to see where the inspiration came from. London, the co-pilot, has bedroom eyes, bedroom lips and a bedroom voice as he looks the little chap over. Hirsch, a far more enthusiastic and gregarious type, gives him a toy model of the airplane and can't seem to stop pawing the young boy, albeit in a purely wholesome way. (I will digress here and concede that while there is nothing funny about child molestation, I have to say that the fact that someone was able to pick up on the unintentional sexual vibe here and give it the perverse spin they did later in Airplane! was nothing short of comic genius. Few things are as audacious as Airplane!'s Peter Graves asking his young visitor such queries as “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” or “Do you like gladiator movies?” Maybe it's because as a tyke I wanted to see grown men naked and did indeed love gladiator movies!)
It's nearly dinner time and King asks the pilots and passengers if they would prefer halibut or lamb chop as their main course. This turns out to be quite a fateful decision as it later unfolds that anyone who partook of the halibut is faced with a violently painful case of food poisoning! London, who had two portions of the fish, keels over pretty quickly while others, in turn, start sweating profusely and grabbing their stomachs. Unfortunately, little Ferrell has also had the fish and Darnell is horrified to see that her son is suffering mightily as a result. In a delicious bit of symbolism, he is so sick that he lurches his little model plane forward into the blanket and it snaps in half, much like one of the WWII planes did under Andrews' guidance years before.
Paris, sadly, had the lamb chop, so he is able to remain alert and in the mix, something that causes a viewer no small amount of annoyance. You see, he has, as part of his act, a tacky, chintzy hand puppet called Patrick, an Irish scamp with a clown face and long hair. The utter dearth of creativity in presenting this aspect of his character is mind-boggling. There is NOTHING funny or entertaining or even the least bit impressive about this sad, sad, puppet. If you thought that the cockpit scenes were icky, wait until Paris stops by little Ferrell's seat and introduces him to his right hand, complete with round, open mouth and tongue! The implications here are just as off-key as the ones with the pilots, but for some reason Airplane! made no attempt to exploit them.
King makes some faint attempts to comfort the sick patients before locating a doctor on board (played by Geoffrey Toone.) Fortunately, he seems to have a bottomless supply of Ipecac in pill form, which he distributes to everyone afflicted. Since this is 1957, we only see sweat and light moaning, no retching or obvious use of air sickness bags, though one old codger does have a line something like, “First, you give me my dinner, then you want it back!” As he's apparently pickled himself with a bottle of booze anyway, it's surprising that he's affected by the poisoning at all. Seated next to him is character actress Hope Summers as a passenger creatively named “Mrs. Summers.” The tipsy old coot at one point offers her a shot from his bottle to which she replies indignantly, “Certainly not!” Fans of Airplane! will get a special kick out of this.
In time, pilot Hirsch, who's been given drugs to this point in order to remain conscious and alert, cannot take any more and swiftly passes out. (Again, the parody hews closely to the original in the plot and staging, as shown here.) Now the plane is on autopilot with no one left to continue flying it, much less LAND it! Toone, in a piece of classic dialogue looks at King and says, “Our survival hinges on one thing - finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner.” King canvasses the passengers until she finds Andrews, the former WWII flyer, who, gratefully, had a lamb chop. He is highly reluctant to take over, petrified, in fact, but there's really little choice if he wants to see his son, who needs hospital-level treatment, live.
On the ground is airport manager Charles Quinlivan (on the left in the picture at right), a ruggedly-nice looking man with thick, wavy hair. He tries to help with the situation, but realizes he needs help himself. In a fit of emergency, he locates one of his senior pilots (who is out dancing with his wife, for some reason in uniform!) and calls him in. This is Sterling Hayden (shown above and to the right), who makes his first real entrance more than halfway through the film. He darts to the airport to take over the ground-to-air coaching only, surprise, it turns out that he was one of the men who served under Andrews during WWII and the two have no great love for one another!
Hayden is forceful and no-nonsense, issuing orders and barking at people right and left. He bums a cigarette off of some poor sap and says, “Looks like I picked a bad week to quit smoking.” With Andrews so nervous to take over the aircraft, which is “sluggish, like a wet sponge,” Darnell is brought up to the cockpit to man the radio and help with various controls. Ever faithful, she takes one look at Andrews and declares, “You can't fly this plane!” Soon, though, she realizes how imperative it is that he does indeed fly and land the plane, so she turns more supportive, even manning the radio for him and occasionally operating some of the controls.
Acknowledging the severity of the situation, Hayden has Hirsch's wife called at home, even though it's late at night. Carole Eden (showing a fair amount of tit for 1957!) is awakened while sleeping and gives a hysterically languid performance in this scene. She acts like she was just disturbed during a really sizzling dream, which may be why the folks who later parodied Zero Hour! had Graves' wife in bed with a post-coital horse!
There are various issues including mini-blackouts of Andrews, who can't forget his fateful mission of a decade before (and neither can we since they endlessly show the planes careening into dense fog and crashing!) His lapses cause the plane to totter and dip, briefly. Then there's a panic-stricken passenger who tries to open the emergency door at the massive altitude. A couple of people take turns shaking and shouting her into submission, yet another aspect that was later made fun of in Airplane!
As time is close to running out, Andrews careens the plane into Vancouver's airspace where he finds that the entire airport is shrouded in, you guessed it, pea soup fog! He has to rely on his instruments and practically do a play-by-play repeat of the mission he flubbed all those years ago. Hayden wants him to wait and circle a while in order to let the fog clear, but with Ferrell and others on the brink of death, he feels he has no choice but to go for it. Hayden barks at and berates Andrews, who is desperately trying to bring the plane down in one piece. A truly scary and vivid landing doesn't shortchange the viewer in terms of special effects, though it would have been nice to see more of the activity within the cabin.
The film's final line couldn't be more apt, “Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport. But there are some of us here, particularly me, who would like to buy you a drink and shake your hand. We're coming over.” Andrews and Darnell (who is misty with respect and love again) look at each other with relief and love. I must confess that despite all the goofiness and the camp, I found the whole ending rather affecting the other night when revisiting it. I don't know if it was just warm and comforting to see how affectionately loyal the parody had been towards its target or if I was nostalgic for the simpler times depicted in the film (when peoples' self-respect meant more to them than it sometimes seems to now) or if I was projecting the rather tragic real lives of some of the actors onto the scenario. In any case, I came away from Zero Hour! feeling somewhat touched and thoroughly entertained.
Producer-director-co-writer Hall Bartlett (shown here at left on the far right) was a man interested in social causes (with this movie taking a rather shallow look at post-traumatic stress disorder) and his movies focused on such issues as the plight of Native Americans, postwar healing, prison reform, military racial integration and mental health reform. Only thirty-four when this movie was shot, he continued to write right up until his death during surgery in 1993 at age seventy, marrying Rhonda Fleming along the way from 1966 to 1972. A second wife lasted less than a year in 1978.
Andrews had been acting in films since 1940 and, thanks to hits like 1943's The Ox-Box Incident, 1944's Laura, 1945's State Fair and particularly 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, among others, became a solid leading man. By the time of Zero Hour!, though he was still a top-billed actor, his star had dimmed from the A-list pictures he had previously enjoyed. Career woes and other issues led to a very serious drinking problem and a couple of highway smash-ups. Still, he managed to serve as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1963 - 1965, speaking out against the increasing demand for actresses to perform nude scenes. In the early-'70s, he was able to quell his alcoholism and even appear in public service announcements regarding the disease. With Zero Hour!, The Crowded Sky and Airport 1975, his place in the echelon of cinematic air disaster stars is secure. In 1967, he played another family man haunted by the past and caught having to reluctantly navigate a vehicle with his panic-stricken wife (Jeanne Crain) beside him. That movie was the camp extravaganza Hot Rods to Hell! Andrews died in 1992 at the age of eighty-three from pneumonia and heart failure.
His by now rather weathered face was heavily featured in the Spanish posters for the film, where he still must have ranked rather high with fans. Why is it that often the foreign release poster artwork is so much better and the overall layout so much more vivid than the domestic versions?! I see it over and over when I am looking up old movies. In fact, it still occurs even now sometimes with new releases.
This was not the first time Andrews and Darnell worked together. They also costarred (along with Alice Faye) in 1945's Fallen Angel. A dozen years and no small amount of career and personal trouble separates the two films, but it's nice that they could be cast together again this way.
Darnell was first seen in films in 1939 when she was only sixteen years-old (but not promoted as such, her age fudged by her studio, 20th Century Fox.) Almost from the start, she was costarring with mega-star Tyrone Power in Day-Time Wife, Brigham Young (shown below) and Blood and Sand and they did make a beautiful screen pairing. Known for her softly-rounded, dewy good looks, she played The Virgin Mary (unbilled) in 1943's The Song of Bernadette. Studio chief Darryl Zanuck had a lot of faith in her promise and when his major feature Forever Amber wasn't coming together as he had hoped, he yanked the lead actress out of it and put Darnell in, in spite of the considerable cost. Reportedly, Darnell would not give in to his sexual overtures, causing him to lose some of his interest in her. She also developed a drinking problem and had to fight hard to keep from gaining too much weight.
There were still hits (including 1949's A Letter to Three Wives), but in 1952, she had her contract adjusted to allow her to make outside pictures, one being Saturday Island – aka Island of Desire - with young and hunky Tab Hunter, who had always adored her as a youth. Soon, though, her contract was cancelled and things were never the same again. By the time of Zero Hour!, her career on the big screen was nearly over (she would, in fact, make only one more movie – Black Spurs in 1965 – and never lived to see that one released.)
Having turned to television and the stage in order to keep acting, she was in Chicago preparing for a role in the theatre and staying with a friend when tragedy struck. She and several others stayed up late to watch one of her earliest movies, Star Dust, on the late show and, not long after the others went to bed, a fire broke out (allegedly started by a cigarette when she drifted to sleep with it still lit.) Everyone else made it out alive, alerted by the smoke, but Darnell remained trapped and when she was rescued, 80 to 90% of her body was burned. (Ironically, she had a lifelong fear of fire and strenuously avoided being around open flames.) She died at the hospital at only age forty-one. It was a grisly end for an actress who had provided many lovely moments for the cinema.
Hayden was a most unusual type of actor in that he seemed most of the time to deplore the idea of performing and did so only to help fund his greater interest of sailing. As a runaway from age fifteen on, he had his master's license by age twenty-one. The strapping 6' 5” blonde was led into the movie business at age twenty-five in 1941. He married the star of his first film Virginia, Miss Madeleine Carroll, but they were through by 1946. Movies like The Star in 1952 were his favorites because boats and water were involved. In 1947, he'd married second wife Betty Ann and they had four children. Divorced in 1953, he remarried her in 1954 only to divorce again in 1955! Then, unbelievably, he married her again in 1956 and the divorced a third time in 1958!! When he married again in 1960, one might have issued a blank divorce decree with the license, but, in fact, he and Catherine remained wed until his death and had two more children together.
He was supposed to have costarred in Jaws (1975), but due to tax evasion issues at the time couldn't return to the U.S. and so Robert Shaw inherited the meaty part. One of his biggest claims of notoriety came when he went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and admitted his own brief ties with Communism and named others as well. It was a decision that haunted him forever after, although allegedly the names he supplied had already been revealed. Always in financial straits and marked by unfinished projects and deals, he nevertheless turned in the occasional memorable role on film and some of his credits are in undisputed classics such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Dr, Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and The Godfather (1972.) Death came in 1986 when he was seventy from prostate cancer.
Hirsch was a renowned football player who played for the (short-lived) Chicago Rockets from 1946 to 1948 and the Los Angeles Rams from 1949 to 1957, the year this movie was released. His strange running pattern had given him the nickname Crazylegs back when he played in college (and was described by a Chicago columnist as looking like “a deranged duck” whose legs “were gyrating in six different directions.”) Zero Hour! was not his big screen debut, however. His life story, Crazylegs, had been brought to the screen in 1953, directed by Hall Bartlett. In fact, Hirsch owed his entire output of feature film roles to Bartlett, who cast him in the lead of 1955's Unchained, a prison drama that costarred Barbara Hale and Chester Morris. This, his third film, was also his last, though he made a couple of TV appearances through the mid-'60s.
He became the director of athletics at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, remaining there, very successfully, until 1987. He'd attended the university briefly and played for them, too, until service for the U.S. Navy (this was during wartime) required him to depart. His legs stopped running for good in 2004 when he died of natural causes at the age of eighty. He was survived by his wife of fifty-eight years and their two children. It's possible that his notoriety as a sports figure portraying a pilot is what led the makers of Airplane! to put Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in the copilot's seat
Toone was an Irish-born actor who proceeded to work with the greats of the London stage in the early 1930s, including John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier. At more than 6' 5”, he made quite an impact physically and was known at the time for his good looks as well. He entered films in 1938 and continued on the big and small screen until 1997, always very busy. He appeared in 1956's The King and I as Sir Edward Ramsay and in Laurence Olivier's 1960 film The Entertainer. In 1963, he even threw down a little burly beefcake in Captain Sindbad (which starred Guy Williams) as shown here at left. He and fellow actor Frank Middlemass co-habitated for forty years. Toone died in 2005 at the age of ninety-four of natural causes.
Paris was another favorite of director Bartlett, having been hired for Unchained in 1955 and used a third time after this for 1963's The Caretakers. He began with bit parts in movies from 1949 on before working as a regular or semi-regular on several TV shows, though his biggest claim to fame as an actor was in playing the star's best friend Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show from 1961 to 1966. He began directing for TV in the mid-'60s and by the early-'70s, he gave up acting, for all intents and purposes, to concentrate on his newfound skill. He directed very many shows (including The Dick Van Dyke Show and even three of the later The Mary Tyler Moore Show), but his most prolific output was in helming 238 installments of Happy Days from 1974 to 1984. He died in 1986 at only sixty years of age from a brain tumor.
King was granted “Introducing” billing for Zero Hour!, though she had been a popular singer for a couple of years, rising to fame on variety programs such as The George Gobel Show. She really didn't do very much acting, most often playing a singer or just herself, though she gave a credible performance here. She did costar with Tab Hunter and Dick Button in the Hallmark Hall of Fame ice and musical special Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates in 1958. After marrying for the second time (to the man who owned the After 6 evening wear company) and having two children, she receded from show business somewhat, though she continued to sing and act onstage. Now eighty-two, she still occasionally entertains fans at small functions such as at retirement villages, etc...
Quinlivan was thirty-three in 1957 yet just getting started in the business. This was his film debut, though he also worked on the TV show Schlitz Playhouse that year. He won the lead in a little western called Seven Guns to Mesa (with Lola Albright) in 1958 then guest-starred on Cheyenne, Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt. However, stardom was not to be. He had a small role in the Alan Ladd film All the Young Men in 1960 and even starred in his own brief TV show, Mr. Garland (1960 to 1961), but within a year he was virtually out of work when it came to on screen gigs. A brief return to acting in the early '70s included an unbilled appearance as an airplane passenger in Airport 1975 (another movie that was parodied within Airplane!), but just after its release, he died of a massive heart attack at only age fifty.
Eden (whose real name was Patricia Tiernan, which was the moniker she typically used) had begun to act in movies in 1952 with a supporting role in Apache War Smoke. In 1956, she played Thomas Gomez' wife in the John Wayne howler The Conqueror. Her only film after Zero Hour! was Walk on the Wild Side, in which she was a prostitute. These three films (Conqueror, Zero and Walk) constitute something of a camp trifecta, though her own contributions to them are minimal. In 1967, she married comedic actor Wally Cox and became his widow in 1973. Still with us now at age eighty-one, she has had a long-term relationship with an author and is long out of show business.
London, making his debut here, was only granted supporting TV roles and an occasional small movie role (such as in 1958's I Married a Monster from Outer Space.) In 1959, he began working on the Robert Stack hit series The Untouchables, which lasted until 1963. A few more parts followed until 1969 when he fell off the radar. What he had done was obtain a law degree and he practiced as an attorney for many years. Recently, as a retiree, he has again accepted a small role here and there and is currently eighty-one.
I strive in most cases to avoid children, though occasionally a cute one will sneak into my realm. Little Ferrell (who was missing a few baby teeth during this time) had only done one prior job on screen before this, a 1954 episode of Four Star Playhouse. Then after Zero Hour!, he never worked on film or in TV again. All things considered, he was quite appealing and a decent little actor, so it's surprising. Sadly, he died in 2006 of a massive stroke at only age fifty-seven.
Every time I watch this movie, I see John Ashley's name in the credits and think, “Oooh! I'm going to get to see that cute little hunk from the Beach Party movies!” maybe as an air traffic controller or a passenger. But, no... Ashley's only appearance is as a hip-shaking teen idol singer on television, shown briefly - and tinily! - while Hayden's clueless, pneumatic babysitter is chatting on the phone! What a shame. I always enjoy getting a good look at him. He's shown here (in the middle) with a few of his sand and sun pals including Jody McCrea, Frankie Avalon and Miss Annette Funicello.
Although I have never been able to successfully confirm it, and am quite possibly wrong, I simply cannot stop telling myself that the man shown here in Zero Hour! (as the husband of a wife who had the tainted halibut) is one and the same with the man shown here in Airplane!, whose wife gets ill from the fish and starts regurgitating whole eggs! Twenty-three years can do a lot to a face, but there's something about the features, expressions and mannerisms that scream to me that it is the same man. (I'm sorry that the picture of him from Zero isn't clearer.) The woman, by the way, was in Airport 1975 as a heavily drinking passenger who is one of the few people unmoved by Helen Reddy's impromptu ditty on the guitar, so having her paired with a man from Zero Hour! would be an unbelievable triad of connection between all three films.
I spoke at the top of this post about how Zero Hour! had evolved through several incarnations. Believe it or not, this was not the last one before Airplane! There was also a 1971 TV-movie called Terror in the Sky. This one starred Doug McClure as the novice, makeshift pilot (in this version, a Vietnam vet with only helicopter experience.) Leif Erickson was the main man on the ground, Roddy McDowall played the doctor and Lois Nettleton played the stewardess. There was no wife in this rendition, which may be why Airplane! also eighty-sixed the wife and made the stewardess the primary female character (with Lorna Patterson on board to take over some of Peggy King's action.) When oh when will these old TV-movies be given the chance to be seen again?!
To watch Zero Hour! is to multiply one's enjoyment of Airplane! trifold. To watch Airplane! is to add heavy doses of fun to Zero Hour! The two films are now locked together in a unique way. Airplane!'s approach to comedy was, at the time, so fresh and audacious, made extra special by the casting of ostensibly “straight,” stalwart actors like Peter Graves, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen, giving deadpan delivery of their hysterical lines. It's been done again and again since, but rarely as well. As I said earlier, though, it is a testament to the devotion of the actors to their material and the judicious direction of Bartlett that Zero Hour!, laughs and all, remains an engrossing film in its own right.