Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Airport 1975
As we’ve mentioned previously, Universal Pictures began its life as the home of cheap westerns shot quickly and inexpensively. And though it eventually ascended to a major studio within a titanic conglomerate, it never completely shook off its original spirit. This is definitely true of the Jaws and Psycho sequels it brought to market. But the impulse to sequelize a well-received picture proved successful for the studio during the disaster era. Well, it proved successful sometime after 1970’s Airport. Based on a novel by Arthur Hailey, the film starred Burt Lancaster, Jean Seberg, George Kennedy and some other recognizable faces. Helen Hayes offered some classic Hollywood star power as an old lady who enjoys the challenge of stowing away on airplanes while Dean Martin served as your captain. Lew Wasserman, boss of MCA (Universal’s parent company at the time) predicted the film would flop, but it turned out to be a rousing success, floating all the ships in Universal’s harbor for several years. Executive producer Ross Hunter was pleased as punch to say this around town, so Wasserman declined the option to renew his contract at the studio.
And then the studio chose to make another Airport flick, Airport 1975 — this weekend’s cheesy movie.
The plot concerns a routine flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, which gets diverted because of fog to Salt Lake City. Nearing the SLC airspace, the plane is stuck head-on by a private aircraft when its pilot (Dana Andrews in a brief cameo) suffers a heart attack. The collision blows the co-pilot (Roy Thinnes) out of the cockpit, kills the engineer (Erik Estrada) and blinds the captain (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). Chief stewardess Nancy Pryor (Karen Black) is forced to fly the plane while flight trainer Alan Murdoch (Charlton Heston) and Columbia Airlines chief of operations Joe Patroni (a returning George Kennedy) plan a rescue from the ground.
But since this is a disaster movie, the main plot is only half the story as by 1975, disaster flicks meant subplots! Nancy and Murdoch are having some sort of relationship, but its ambiguous nature inspires Nancy to ask if they should solidify it. Unlike the first Airport, in which every major male character except Joe Patroni was married and screwing around, Murdoch appears to be a bachelor. No good reason is ever given for their strange status other than Murdoch being old, leathery and reluctant to commit. Joe Patroni’s wife Helen (Susan Clark) and son are flying back from an excursion to D.C. Their boy is something of a genius and requires tons of stimulation for reasons which are never defined. Sharon (Sharon Gless) is a green stewardess enamored by the flyboys. Sam (Jerry Stiller), Bill (Norman Fell) and Arnie (Conrad Janis) are a trio of drunks trying to score a few extra drinks while on the flight, but aged alcoholic movie star Mrs. Devaney (Myrna Loy) can drink them all under the table with her love of boilermakers. She’ll need those drinks as she keeps getting accosted by Barney (Sid Ceasar), a sometimes actor who claims to have been in American Graffiti. And if there were not enough Hollywood types on the flight, Gloria Swanson (as herself) is rushing back to the coast with her autobiography under her arm. Or, rather, her assistant’s arm (a striking Linda Harrison under the stage name Augusta Summerland) Meanwhile, the flight is also carrying Janice Abbot (Linda Blair), a young girl in dire need of a kidney transplant.
And if the whole thing sounds a lot like Airplane!, that’s part of the charm. While consistently funny in its own right, Airplane!‘s send-up of films like Airport 1975 forever cast their self-seriousness into a world of cheese. But even before you consider the parody, Airport 1975 does a lot to keep you laughing thanks to both its self-serious — more on that in a moment — and its lackluster attempts at humor. With Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell, Conrad Janis and Sid Caesar on the plane, there are more than a few tries at funny business. They all fall flat, but the itsuggests Ingalls, Lang and director Jack Smight were watching the disaster movies being made after Airport‘s 1970 release and thought a little levity would shake things up.
But they also learned the lesson from the other films to stuff the screen with recognizable faces and older stars. The original Airport is fairly contained on this respect, but Airport 1975 bursts with name actors both washed up and coming up. Airport ’77, which we’ll talk about another day, dives even deeper into crazy amounts of older Hollywood stars trying to reclaim some lost glory.
In lieu of Airport ’77, let’s go back to Swanson for a moment. The once Norma Desmond allegedly wrote all her own lines. Considering she’s just playing herself, it is easy to imagine the director simply asked her to tell some old stories and rolled camera. But unlike her Sunset Boulevard role, she plays Gloria Swanson with a strange lethargy. The flight dramatized in the film is supposed to be a red-eye, so maybe she figured playing tired was right for the character, which is her, you see.
The effort to secure Swanson, such as it was, reflects another strange and cheesy element of the film: it never tries too hard. Despite all those characters and named talent playing them, no one’s plot really gets advanced. Sure, Murdoch tells Nancy he loves her, but that’s about it. Devaney’s alcoholism never matters, the three drunks never get their drinks and Barney never convinces anyone he’s an actor. As in Meteor, characters are more suggested than developed, leaving the viewer adrift without a someone to anchor them in the story. At least here, familiar faces keep you more engaged.
Also, it should be said, Black isn’t horrible here; although her presence in a film generally indicates a certain level of cheese.
Beyond that, there is the overall self-seriousness. As in the first Airport, the seemingly doomed flight is treated with a lot of grimacing and Joe Patroni shouting. It is a by-product of the subgenre’s roots, the melodrama. The characters are meant to be very grounded and real despite their lack of development, which leaves the performers crying into radio microphones without earning the tears. This literally happens during a scene in which Helen comes to the cockpit to talk to her husband Joe Patroni. It’s meant to be a “this is goodbye” moment, but since we didn’t know Joe Patroni was her husband until four or five minutes before this scene, it ends up more humorous than heart-wrenching. Just about every attempt at serious emotional stakes lands with similar (and cheesy) effect.
Nonetheless, Airport 1975 is definitely worth watching. It has Heston’s brand of ham, Kennedy’s brand of shouting and some surprisingly well-executed aerial footage. It’s also a rather riff-worthy film if you and your friends are so inclined. But make no mistake, this is the sort of cheesy film Universal would make all the time if their marketing teams didn’t lead them toward failed experiments like the Dark Universe.
Airport 1975 is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms.