Friday, October 9, 2009

God, Grant Me the Lee to Survive.

Following the success of Airport 1975 (regardless of that film’s quality), Universal dove into the genre again with this follow-up. Speculation regarding The Bermuda Triangle was rampant in the mid-70s as several books were published on the subject and original ads and commercials for this film rode that wave to a point. In fact, the plot concerned a luxury airliner, filled with priceless art and social pillars, which was hijacked for its loot, but accidentally wrecked into the Atlantic Ocean. As you’ll see in the poster, it was yet another “box movie!”

The film was a success at the box office, though many scientific types decried the plot point that a jet could remain intact after crashing into the water and sinking below it. Rescue attempts used in the film were the same as those used for disabled submarines, so this lent a film a sort of Das Boot in high heels and hairspray quality (which, of course, I love!)

In a very surprising casting choice (as if Dean Martin in the first film wasn’t unusual enough), the pilot of the craft here is Jack Lemmon! Sporting a moustache, no less. He’s actually quite effective though he winds up as a bystander for about the third fourth of the film. Other notables in the cast include Brenda Vaccaro as his coworker and lover, Christopher Lee as a philanthropic food developer, Joseph Cotten and Olivia de Havilland as reunited lovers from the art world, Darren McGavin as a wise-cracking engineer and Jimmy Stewart as the wealthy owner of the plane whose daughter and grandson are on board. Pamela Bellwood plays his daughter and if you turn the volume up to 98, you can almost hear her dialogue. The ubiquitous George Kennedy is around, as always, to hold Stewart’s hand.

However, in Poseidon’s Underworld, the star of the film (and, in fact, she is second-billed despite only appearing in about twelve minutes of screen time in total!) is Lee Grant. As Lee’s bored, boozy, cursing, sarcastic wife, she has dialogue in the film so deliciously blunt and nasty that it has provided me with a lifetime of pleasure. She hasn’t even spoken yet when she shoots the blind piano player a sidelong glance of displeasure and wanders back to the cabin where her husband and his assistant Gil Gerard are planning a project.

Entering the cabin, she begins a scene of snotty condescension and baiting, which I have known by heart since the movie aired on television and which I still recite sometimes in the car on long trips by myself to pass the time. It seems she and Gerard have a bit of a past and she tries to blackmail him back into her bed. She also makes a not so veiled reference to her husband Lee’s anatomy. Then she flippantly heads back to the main lounge where she insults young Kathleen Quinlan for having the gall to listen to one of Lee’s pontifications about the world of deep-sea diving. Things don’t get any better after the crash as she continues to berate Lemmon and anyone else handy or otherwise gripe about the situation. She’s fascinatingly shrewy and bitter.

Grant was very frequently clothed by Burton Miller and is again here (despite the fact that Edith Head was in charge of this film.) Her get-up perfectly accents the bitch-goddess qualities she was going for here along with several obnoxious rings on her hands. Her hair is another mesmerizing accomplishment. A bouffant wig of light auburn that wondrously draws attention to her snarling and/or tormented features, it was a look that was almost completely her own until – for unknown reasons – Bridget Fonda used it in Point of No Return (see photo, which could easily be mistaken for Grant!)

Grant suffers a setback about halfway through the film that sends her into apoplectic spasms of agony and distress as the hapless passengers try to calm her with more booze. Eventually, she regains her composure long enough to attempt to leave (!) the plane while it is underwater, forcing Vaccaro to wrestle with her and eventually punch her out! It just doesn’t get any better than this.

After this, her contributions are next to nil, which is a shame because everything the woman does in the film is cinematic magic. If you think I didn’t splice together every one of her scenes into my own personal twelve-minute version of the film around 1991 and watch it constantly for its soaring entertainment value, you are mistaken. Every glance she makes, every twitch she gives and every consonant of dialogue that she utters amount to pure movie gold!

Believe it or not, the basic structure of the story in Airport ’77 is lifted from the wonderful adventure classic Flight of the Phoenix (which also starred Stewart, in a far more pivotal role, of course.) Initially, there was talk of Alfred Hitchcock directing this (!), but it didn’t come to pass. Also, Miss Joan Crawford was offered the role opposite Joseph Cotten. In a “this can only happen in Hollywood” type of scenario, the role was filled with Olivia De Havilland, who was Joan’s replacement in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, ALSO opposite Joseph Cotten! Liv’s dress was up for sale on eBay about 5 years or so ago. I really missed an opportunity to own a piece of disaster movie history, but it wasn’t cheap! Even now, she must lie awake at night asking herself how she could appear with wet permed hair (followed by frizzy, dry permed hair) in this film’s finale.

When the film was aired on TV, well over an hour of deleted footage (along with a tad of newly shot moments) was added in. These scenes consisted mostly of flashbacks from most of the key characters, prolonging the time that the passengers were underwater as each one paused to reflect on their life before the flight. Lee and Grant are shown in a flashback, but there is practically nothing of Grant’s time onboard the plane added in save a moment in which she slides a highball glass down the bar. God, how I prayed that some additional sequences of her lashing out at people would surface, but, no, it was all just a lot of filler concerning other characters.

This Airport sequel is different than the rest. The look of it is far more glamorous than any of the other sequels (though watching Monica Lewis put on that laser disc greeting from Stewart is a crackup and the décor is all late 70s brown.) The tone of it is far more serious than the other sequels as well and the body count in this one is more than all four Airport films combined. Though the original film is the best one, this is my favorite one.


Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for another great review. You know, I've never seen a single one of the Airport films. I was born in '74 so I missed the first two, however I remember them later being shown on TV...I just never watched them.

However I did watch the "Airplane!" movies and loved them to death, even named my dog "Scrapps" after the dog in (I think) "Airplane II."

Now after reading your reviews as well as others online I've realized that the original Airport films were just as campy and goofy as the so-called Airplane! "spoofs." Airport '79 in particular sounds like a total cheesefest.

After falling in love with "The Adventurers" (as long-windedly detailed in the comment I left on your review for that film), I've been seeking out similar big-budget camp movies. I thought Susann's "The Love Thing" might do it, but it was a bit too pedestrian at times, sort of like a TV movie with occasional nudity and cursing (still hilarious, though). I think next though I'm gonna have to pick up the Airport DVD set.

Poseidon3 said...

Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe, JOE! If you have any affinity for Airplane!, then you must at least see Airport 1975. Airplane! was based on an old plane-in-peril flick called Zero Hour, but managed to toss in a lot of references from Airport 1975 as well. You will be amazed when you see it how funny it is by itself and how enhanced your pleasure of Airplane! will be as a result. I have always been obsessed by the Airport movies and love them in spite of their flaws. They are each really different in tone from one another. The first one a very straightforward drama with light comic interludes and only a bit of disaster, the second one a tacky mess, the third one a glizty, overly dramatic piece while the fourth is sheer, goofy garbage. I once wrote a treatment for Airport '90 that involved a crash in the snowcaps of the Rocky Mountains and resultant rescue, but it was just for my eyes and pleasure only. I hope you enjoy these movies when you see them. Report back!

Joe Kenney said...

I've taken your advice and just ordered the Airport Terminal DVD set from Amazon. I'm looking forward to it. I see what you mean about Airport 75...the sick kid (Linda Blair, no less!), the acoustic guitar-wielding nun, etc. All of it exactly as in Airplane!

And to get free shipping and increase the disaster camp quota, I added the 1978 flop "The Swarm" to my order, which also looks to be a total comedy classic -- Michael Caine vs the killer bees.

Flying Spaghetti Monster said...

You nailed it right on the head. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who drives around shrieking "More than enough, Mr. Gallagher!! God-damned MESS we're in!" for my own amusement.

So what about "Logan's Run"? No love for Farrah Fawcett in silver lame?

Poseidon3 said...

Logan's Run is in the pipeline for a tribute at some point. I love that movie, a childhood favorite!

KL said...

Indeed, if it wasn't for Grant's bitch part, the movie would've been a bit ho hum.

I knew her character would not survive the movie, but the film threw a curve ball in killing off her in most disaster movies, usually one half of the couple survive.

And the way they killed her about mean spirited.

Just before the plane broke surface, one of the balloons broke loose. The captain had the air pressure reduced, keeping the plane underwater. The plane then floods, sweeping Grant away.

She drowns just as the captain order more air in the balloons.

Later, as everyone rejoice, they have to do a close up shot of her facedown in the water, as if to emphasized how close she was to getting rescued.

And strangely, there was no follow-up with the Gil Gerard character.