AIRPORT was the beginning and the end. The beginning of a successful franchise and the disaster movie genre of the 1970’s. And the end of one of the most influential film composers of all time–Alfred Newman.
While tame by today’s standards of disasters, both in film and real life, AIRPORT entertains in spite of itself. Based on Arthur Hailey’s multi-character bestseller, the film boasts an all-star cast. The lives and loves of an airport manager (Burt Lancaster) and his girlfriend (Jean Seberg), an egotistical pilot (Dean Martin) and his stewardess girlfriend (Jacqueline Bissett), a crazed bomber (Van Heflin) and his wife (Maureen Stapleton), a mechanic (George Kennedy), and a stowaway (Helen Hayes) all intertwine one snowy night at a Chicago airport.
The film was written and directed by Oscar-winner George Seaton (MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, THE COUNTRY GIRL) and slickly produced by Ross Hunter, who first showcased his slickness with the Doris Day-Rock Hudson films of the 1950s (which AIRPORT resembles in look and feel).
AIRPORT was #2 at the box office for the year, just behind LOVE STORY, and the film racked up an astounding 10 Oscar nominations. Hayes’ supporting win seems to be more a stroke of sentiment for the legendary actress than the performance itself (though she does seem to having a helluva time onscreen). The film is pure fluff, but with this cast, there’s always something or someone to watch even when the situations don’t really warrant much attention. Newman’s score, the last by one of the greats of the Golden Age, does warrant attention.
It all begins with one of the most exciting main titles ever written, perfectly capturing the hustle and bustle of a busy metropolitan airport. The timpani, layered brass, and swirling strings give way to syncopated low brass, tambourine, bongos, and other percussion before the trumpets ascend on the wings of melody.
Separate love themes accompany the philandering couples. Martin and Bissett’s affair is represented by lush strings and a bluesy trombone. A poignant piano melody sings of the love between Lancaster and Seberg. As Lancaster and his wife discuss divorce, Newman neatly dovetails Lancaster’s love theme with an innocent oboe melody reminding us of the children whose lives will be most affected by the disruption.
Inez’s (Stapleton) theme begins as source music on her coffee shop jukebox on electric guitar. The seesawing two-note figure that makes up the bulk of the melody is mirrored in the darker music for her mentally unstable husband. One of the most poignant cues occurs as Inez, out of her mind with grief, stumbles around the airport terminal apologizing to the passengers for her husband’s deed. This cue gives us one last moment of the lush string writing that no one could write like Newman.
Throw into the loop a loping melody for strings and winds for Hayes’s overly cute stowaway and some crackerjack action cues and you have a score that not only excites, but plumbs the depths hidden beneath the cardboard characters.
AIRPORT was to be Newman’s last score. He died shortly after completing the music. Each theme contains a singular voice that could only have been composed by the master. Yet the score shows Newman exploring new directions that makes us yearn for the unexplored paths he might have taken had he lived longer. As Tony Thomas put it, “When Newman died…it was–for many of us–the official parting knell of Hollywood’s Golden Age.”
Hugo Friedhofer was called in to help Newman, whose health was failing. “It’s a source of great joy to me, in a way,” Friedhofer said, “that I did wind up doing however little it might have been on Al’s last picture. And had I had a voice in the Academy, which I didn’t because I had kind of given up on the Academy, I would have strongly suggested to the Music Branch that Al should be awarded an Oscar posthumously for this, his last score, and also a sort of musical Thalberg for his great contribution in the years from 1929 up to and through 1971. I think that considering all that he had done for the promotion of film music, and the betterment of it, that honor should have really been paid him.