In the 1930s I looked at the original disaster films which were often made at the same time by competing studios. However, the Golden Age of the disaster film was definitely the 1970s where all-star casts were forced to deal with all manner of calamities such as fires and floods. The next two posts will look at two examples of classic disaster movies both of which were nominated for Best Picture.
The first of these two films is Airport, which arguably started the whole disaster movie craze. Though not focusing on a particular disaster, Airport was definitely influential due to its all-star cast being put in peril as well as its focus on special effects. The plot of the film is all based around a Chicago airport which is managed by Burt Lancaster’s Mel Bakersfield, a man who spends more time at work than he does at home. Mel is besieged by issues such as snow grounding several of his planes, complaints from local residents that planes are flying too low over their houses and the fact that his staff have recently apprehended a stowaway. Mel doesn’t take the stowaway case too easily when he discovers that the culprit in his a little old lady in the form of Helen Hayes’ Ada Quonsett. Though Mel’s loyal assistant/love interest Tanya doesn’t share his views and wants Ada watched at all times, though this doesn’t happen and the stowaway soon escapes and boards a plane to Rome. The plane to Rome is also where D.O. Guerrero plans to end his life after a string of financial failures and onset depression. Guerrero feels the best way to help his wife his to blow up a plane, with his death meaning that his wife will be able to cash in on his life insurance. Mel and Tanya soon learn of Guerrero’s plan and inform Dean Martin’s Captain who devices a plan to try and stop Guerrero. From there its a race against time to try to prevent an explosion and get all of the passengers to safety.
Having some obvious knowledge of the disaster genre I would definitely say that Airport wouldn’t classify in the same league as some of them. Despite this, I feel that writer/director George Seaton set up enough peril in the form of Guerrero’s bomb to have me on the edge of my seat. I also felt like Seaton had introduced just enough characters for me to know who everybody was and who was in secretly in a relationship with who. Burt Lancaster was the perfect person to play Mel as he was an assured lead who attempted to keep everything at the airport running smoothly while dealing with one problem after another. He was perfectly supported by the much more suave Dean Martin as the captain who was having an affair with one of his stewardesses played by the equally glamorous Jacqueline Bisset. However, the two Oscar-nominated performances came from the supporting actresses who played very different roles. The brilliant Helen Hayes was perfect as comic criminal Mrs Quonsett who was quite matter-of-fact about her stowaway exploits. The fact that Ada later gets to play heroine adds another layer to a character who could’ve easily been a one-note supporting player without Hayes’ performance. Meanwhile Maureen Stapleton adds an air of humanity to the film as Guerrero’s wife who attempts to stop his plan before it’s too late. Despite its over-the-top nature I still really enjoyed Airport as a film in its own right though I wouldn’t particularly class it as a disaster film in the traditional sense of the genre.