So, last time, we examined Airport, which I see as something of a proto-disaster film. While it is in many ways the fountainhead of the 70s cycle, the disaster itself is a third act development. The same is not true of its follow-up: Airport 1975 (1974). This flick emerged at the height of the disaster movie craze (the same year as Earthquake and The Towering Inferno). There’s no ambiguity here. It’s all about its disaster. It’s also quite rightly featured in a little tome entitled The 50 Worst Movies of All Time.
There are two forms of mangled wreckage here. One is relatively minor, and that’s the damage the film’s 747 suffers when Dana Andrews suffers a heart attack and slams his private plane into the cockpit of the jet. The other is decidedly major, and that’s to the careers and dignity of the cast. Showing up for the violation are Charlton Heston, Karen Black, Linda Blair, Myrna Loy, Sid Caesar, Erik Estrada, Gloria Swanson (her last film), Helen Reddy and, it goes without saying, George Kennedy.
You learn many surprising things in this film. For instance, did you know that, even when a 747 enters into a head-on collision with another plane (a small one, mind you, but still…) that it can continue to fly with nary a jolt? True fact. Furthermore, travelling a few hundred miles an hour only generates a mild breeze in an exposed cockpit. Who knew?
So boom go the planes, and every member of the flight crew is either incapacitated or dead. What to do? Flight attendant Karen Black must step in. One of the film’s most “charming” aspects is that it makes things perfectly clear that a major part of the disaster is the fact that a woman is at the controls of the plane. In point of fact, the entire film appears to be mounting a doomed rearguard action against the feminist movement. Fortunately, the enormous incompetence on display fatally undermines any such attempt.
But on we go. Black is barely holding back hysteria, and has to be talked through the controls by Heston, who not only is a crack instructor, but happens to be Black’s commitment-shy boyfriend. Incidentally, that business about commitment is pretty close to being the sum total of characterization on offer. Not just for Heston, but for the entire cast. For in the passenger compartment, we do not find people. We find famous faces debasing themselves. Gloria Swanson, for instance, doesn’t even play a character. She plays herself. And Linda Blair suggests strongly that she cannot act without the voice of Mercedes McCambridge, and we sorely wish for demonic possession as she exclaims, “But Mother, it’s so exciting! People are so interesting!” Helen Reddy, having given the world “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” apparently felt the next logical step was to play a nun and serenade kidney-transplant-patient Blair with “My Best Friend is Myself.” Egad. And yes, that’s the scene that Airplane! so thoroughly demolished. It’s not the only one.
Thing is, Airport 1975 is so far sunk in unintentional camp that it’s almost beyond parody. There is even a moment that not even Airplane felt it could mock. This occurs late in the film, when a helicopter (yes) is lowering Heston by tether (yes) through the hole in the plane. Black reaches out to pull him, and sticks her tongue way out. In close up. I remember Pauline Kael going on about this in her review of the film, and I couldn’t help but wonder how noticeable the gesture really was. Believe me, it’s noticeable.
Limp and stupidly funny as Aiport 1975 is, there was, arguably, worse to come. Fortunately, not right away, as the next film in the franchise, though plenty ludicrous, at least worked better as entertainment.