George Kennedy: The Disaster Movies

The word just came down that character actor George Kennedy has passed away. He was an amazingly busy actor, given that he started out as military advisor to the sit-com Sgt. Bilko. He was a career army man. But he also looked the type, and so he began to act on the show. Then he got cast in a zillion westerns in film and television. And many other sorts of movies. But the ones that will always matter the most to me are the disaster movies he anchored in the 1970s when he was at the peak of his career.

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The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

I think of this quintessential “guy picture” as a bit of foreshadowing for the crop of disaster films that would follow in the ’70s. A sandstorm knocks down a cargo plane in the middle of the Sahara desert. The survivors are compelled to make tough choices in order to escape, and time is running out. Like any good disaster film, it has a familiar gaggle of A and B list stars (James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Dan Duryea, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy) made unrecognizable by the grime on their faces. Much like The Poseidon Adventure which was to follow years later, it depicts a group concentrated on a single task propagated by a very difficult and dubious person which may or may not be the salvation (in this case Hardy Kruger as a suspicious German engineer who devises a plan to rebuild their plane out of salvaged pieces).

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Airport (1970)

The first film in the Airport series, based on Arthur Hailey’s novel, is much different from what followed, although it establishes many elements of the template. Most of the film (over an hour really) is just a soap opera about the trials of running an airport. Really, really boring stuff….politics, administrative hassles….who the hell cares? It’s an HOUR of exposition. Thematic relevance includes marital troubles…airport manager Burt Lancaster has trouble with his wife because he works long hours, not because he’s unfaithful, although he’s beginning to look at his beautiful female colleague and hooks up with her at the end. Pilot Dean Martin is a serial philanderer…he has knocked up a stewardess. He too chooses a younger, prettier, newer woman. There is some degree of a natural disaster here: a blizzard, although it feels quotidian…that aspect could have been amped way up into something far more scary. The actual “disaster” of this film turns out to be a mad bomber (Van Heflin) who is going to blow up the plane so his wife will get insurance money. It takes forever for anyone to discover it. Having found about it, it takes forever for anyone to do anything about it. Finally, the guy blows his bomb up…luckily he’s at the back of the plane so damage is minimal. There are a few scary minutes. Then it becomes about the tension of landing the plane…at the same airport the plane departed from, on the horrible, partially snow-cleared landing strips that Lancaster and Martin had been arguing about in the  beginning of the film, with George Kennedy’s airport trouble-shooterJoe Patroni finally saving the day. Not as many celebrity passengers as in the later films. Helen Hayes as an elderly stowaway (she’s supposed to be comical, but she’s dreadfully unfunny for a so-called “First Lady of the American stage”.) Vaudeville vet Benny Rubin is an extra.

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Earthquake (1974)

This is one of my favorite movies. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. A dozen? I love everything about it. With each passing year it gains more charm as a product of its times. And it has the best, most all-encompassing disaster of the classic disaster film era, assisted by the technical innovation of Sensurround. It’s marred by some serious flaws, which only make me love it more. It’s way over-dependent on coincidence and implausible incident — ridiculously so. In a city of millions, the same ten or so characters keep bumping into each other.  Architect/ football player Charlton Heston cheats on wife Ava Gardner with Genevieve Bujold but is loyal to father-in-law Lorne Greene…meanwhile Blaxploitation/ Evel Knievel hybrid Richard Roundtree is trying to do his motorcycle jumps with his manager Gabe Dell, whose sister Victoria Principal is being harassed by grocery store/ national guard psycho Marjoe Gortner. And running through it all is LA beat cop George Kennedy (who would later play an identical role on tv as The Blue Knight). And Walter Matthau in a hilarious cameo role as a drunk. Then, the earthquake comes and shakes all these people out of these dramas like nuts out of the trees. And they keep encountering each other amidst unimaginable destruction and chaos.  Until Kennedy and Heston rescue a bunch of people trapped in a collapsed parking garage which is about to be engulfed in flood water. There’s more to be said on this film; rest assured I’ll be writing much more about it.

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Airport 1975

This one may be thought of as the archetypal Airport movie, though the 1970 original is considered the best of the series. Clearly the producers of 1975 set out to inject their franchise with a lot of dross borrowed from Earthquake and Towering Inferno. Heston reprises his Earthquake role as the middle aged philanderer. George Kennedy, also from Earthquake, returns in one of many increasingly implausible job promotions for his character Joe Patroni. The opening scenes of this movie are the best, as all the main characters are introduced and there is much hilarity revolving around the twin themes of sex and booze. Erik Estrada! Gloria Swanson! Myrna Loy! Sid Caesar! Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell and Conrad Janis! Helen Reddy as a singing nun! Larry Storch as a tv reporter!  Dana Andrews plays a guy who crashed into the airplane in his Piper Cub. That’s the bulk of the excitement. The balance of the movie is boring and insanely implausible. With the pilot Efrem Zimbalist Jr incapacitated, a stewardess with no flight experience (Karen Black) takes control of the plane. On a 747, with hundreds of passengers aboard, the odds are 100% that there would have been at least one person better qualified to take over: a professional or amateur pilot, a military veteran, a policeman, fireman or other rescue worker or anybody other than a weeping, apparently feeble-minded stewardess. Eventually they dangle Heston down on a rope from another jet and he climbs in a hole in the side of the plane to land it. Don’t laugh, it happens!

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Airport ’77

While every bit as implausible as the other Airport movies, this one at least has the Poseidon-esque virtue of focusing on a very few characters and stranding them. It also borrows from Poseidon the idea of putting them underwater, and entertaining us with a song (though, like the one in Towering Inferno and unlike the one in The Poseidon Adventure it did not become a hit). The song is unbelievably awful — a blind guy singing “Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder”. The premise is that it’s a special luxury plane featuring entire furnished rooms. It’s owned by millionaire Jimmy Stewart and is carrying many art treasures from his collection, along with Captain Jack Lemmon (trying his best to be macho), Darren McGaven, Christopher Lee, Lee Grant, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland etc . Bad guys try to steal the plane by putting everyone to sleep with gas but then they hit an oil derreck and crash into the sea and sink to the bottom…completely intact. They’re pretty much on their own (no radio contact) but George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni still manages to put his two cents in.

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The Concorde…Airport ’79

In this one, Kennedy’s Patroni character is elevated to the Captain of the endangered aircraft, putting him front and center for once instead of the periphery of the disaster. On the other hand…it’s the cheesiest of a very cheesy series. They try to generate interest by setting it on the trendy, relatively new supersonic plane, but that doeesn’t really add anything to the story. And the celebrities in this one are a new low….Charo! John Davidson! Jimmy “J.J.” Walker! Martha Raye! And what happens to them? Evil arms dealer Robert Wagner keeps trying to shoot the plane they’re on out of the sky with missiles, because reporter Susan Blakely is about to do an expose on his illegal arms sales. Ya know, like ya do.

At any rate, soon after this the Airplane! spoof movies made any more Airport movies impossible. But those were followed by the Naked Gun films …in which George Kennedy appeared.  Because there’s always a role for George Kennedy.

 

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