Monday, September 5, 2011
A Half-Decade of Disaster
For a while there in the 1970s, it seemed that everyone -- even Richie Rich and his show-biz pal Jackie Jokers -- was trying to capitalize on the disaster-movie craze. For a "craze," however, the disaster fad has produced more than its share of aftershocks; witness such modern films as Titanic, The Day After Tomorrow, and Armageddon. Many of these movies make full use of the wonders of CGI technology. There's something to be said, however, for the old-school, "less is more" approach. Thanks to Netflix, Nicky and I have just recently seen (or reseen) three entirely representative disaster films from the "heroic age." Fittingly, one represents the earliest flowering of the genre, one represents the art form at its arguable peak, and one symbolizes onrushing decadence.
Let's start with the granddad of them all -- apart from those oldsters who hold out for something really ancient like The High and the Mighty (1954), of course. I'm referring to Universal's 1970 mega-hit, Airport. A site called Clyde's Movie Palace does a good (and funny) review of this film from cockpit nose to wingtip, so I'll direct you there for details. You've probably seen this all-star bash at one time or another, anyway; my first exposure to it was on the Philadelphia ABC affiliate's Saturday-night Million Dollar Movie. I hadn't seen it for a bit, however, and found myself stunned by several things while viewing it with fresh eyes... and they weren't the obvious ones, like how could a plainly nervous guy clutching a satchel (Van Heflin in his final great role) finagle his way onto a commercial plane so easily, even in 1970. Consider that this is a G-rated movie with:
1. Implicitly approved-of romantic liaisons and marital breakups. (Burt Lancaster's harried airport manager, abandoned by his social-climbing bitch of a wife, deciding to make his fling with a comely co-worker [Jean Seberg] more of a permanent thing; Dean Martin's playboy pilot clearly throwing over his own wife for the sexy flight attendant, er, stewardess [Jacqueline Bisset] whom he has impregnated.) Yes, those were swingin' times and all, but everyone is presented as a solid enough citizen apart from the sexual dalliances. I assume that these themes were carried over from the original Arthur Hailey novel, but it's one thing to read about them and another thing to actually see them carried out on-screen.
2. Pretty frank discussion of abortion. There's even a pro-life message in the sense that Bisset decides to keep her baby.
3. A cheerfully law-breaking senior citizen. (Helen Hayes in her famous, Oscar-winning turn as the perpetual stowaway Ada Quonsett. What sort of role model is that for the clean-cut youth of 1970, I ask you... uh, wait...)
4. Smoking!! ("Cigs on a plane"!)
You'd think that Airport might have earned at least the equivalent of a PG-rating with the scenes of "intense disaster action," only... there's really only one such scene, which results in the death of one person and serious injury to only one other. The movie plays out more as a melodrama with disaster trappings than a full-blooded disaster film, IMHO. Still, as a lead-in to what was to come, it holds up reasonably well as a piece of entertainment. The use of split screens, though it takes some getting used to, is a clever bit of innovation; perhaps producer Ross Hunter was hearkening back to his use of same in Pillow Talk (1959)?
Next comes Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure (20th-Century Fox, 1972), which I'd never seen until Netflix brought it to me. I know that Allen's run as "The Master of Disaster" ultimately degenerated into farce with such critical and box-office stinkeroos as The Swarm and When Time Ran Out, but he was definitely on top of his game as a producer with this fascinating film. The disaster (a luxury liner capsizing in the Mediterranean) is obviously more "comprehensive" than the bomb blast in Airport, but what really makes Poseidon work is the decision to structure the main portion of the movie as a "quest," with a handful of survivors struggling to reach a goal (the escape hatch to safety) that seems more and more mythical as time goes on. And not all of them make it. The parallels with The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, and similar works of "quest" fiction are remarkable and will stick in the mind long after memories of the dated clothing and hairstyles have faded away. The "quest" even gets a memorable theme song, one of the best movie themes of the 1970s and a deserved Oscar winner.
Allen's The Towering Inferno (1974) made even more money than did The Poseidon Adventure, but it already shows the signs of incipient creakiness. There's far less attention paid to character development, far more to spectacle. By the time of Airport 1975 (1974), the bloom was definitely off the rose. I watched this one (which came packaged with the original Airport on a single DVD) with legitimate trepidation, knowing as I did that the film merited inclusion in the Medved Brothers' original Hall of Shame. It actually wasn't as bad as I expected -- it was more ridiculously inane than incompetent. That's not to say it was within a mile and a furlong of actually being good, mind you. Here is where Airplane! (1980) found the lion's share of its parody fodder: Linda Blair's chipper kidney-transplant patient, Helen Reddy's singing nun, the shockingly garish airplane decor, improbable guest-star cameos (Gloria Swanson playing herself in her first movie role in a quarter-century!), major stars embarrassing themselves (Charlton Heston trying much too hard to be hip), etc. For you WDTVA fans, there's even a bonus as Ken (Rabbit) Sansom makes an appearance as the persnickety passenger Gary. (He's the guy who appears at 2:01 with the blond stewardess.)
For good, clean, mindless fun, give me those old-time disaster movies! (But, in the future, not so many in succession, please.)