Friday, November 23, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Mayday at 40,000 Feet! (1976)

MAYDAY AT 40,000 FEET! is pure '70s kitsch, entertaining both despite and because of its '70s style.

This TV-movie, in the tradition of other star-filled, hokey-yet-fun '70s aviation films such as AIRPORT (1970), SKYJACKED (1972), and AIRPORT 1975 (1974), can be seen on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive.

Captain Pete Douglass (David Janssen) and his copilot Stan Burkhart (Christopher George) are each feeling a bit distracted as they pilot a plane from L.A. to New York via Salt Lake City: back in New York, Pete's wife Kitty (Jane Powell) is unexpectedly undergoing surgery for a lump in her breast, and Stan has just reconnected with and proposed to his old flame Susan (Margaret Blye), who's on the plane as a passenger.

Also on the plane is a psycho killer, played by Marjoe Gortner, who was also the psycho National Guardsman in EARTHQUAKE (1974). He's guarded by a marshal (Broderick Crawford) who makes the mistake of taking the flight despite feeling unwell and having left arm pain (hint, hint).

No one watching is surprised when the killer gets loose and shoots up the airplane, seriously wounding Pete, Susan, and the plane's hydraulics system. Will copilot Stan and his engineer Mike (Don Meredith) be able to safely land the plane?!

As with other films of its type, this 96-minute film is silly yet quite enjoyable, thanks in part to the interesting cast, which boasts not one but two Best Actor Oscar winners. Broderick Crawford's limited role as the worn-out marshal ends early on, but Ray Milland is in it for the long haul as a cranky, inebriated doctor turned hero.

Jane Powell has roughly four scenes on the telephone or unconscious in surgery, which probably amounted to less than a day's work, but it's nonetheless great to see her acting in a mid '70s film. (I saw her with Howard Keel in SOUTH PACIFIC at the Pantages Theater roughly a year later.) Ditto Tom Drake, who plays an operations manager at LAX. Loved his presence in the cast, although he was saddled with a rather unfortunate helmet-style toupee; he should have emulated Ray Milland and done without!

Don Meredith is quite enjoyable as the flight engineer, who proves he's more than a flyboy womanizer when the chips are down. Although his character is obnoxious early on, he ultimately turns out to be one of the more interesting characters. I loved the scenes showing how he manually cranks the landing gear into position.

Lynda Day George, wife of Christopher, is one of the stewardesses, along with Shani Wallis (OLIVER!) and Christopher Norris.

It's a sad side note that both lead actors playing the pilots died fairly young. David Janssen was just 48 when he died in 1980, and Chris George was 52 when he passed away in 1983. Don Meredith's gone now as well, having passed on in 2010 at the age of 72.

Beyond the cast, it must be mentioned that some of the '70s set and costume designs are nearly blinding in their awfulness. Christopher George and Margaret Blye have a scene in a hotel room with yellow walls and a rather hideous TV set on a stand that's simply cringe inducing, and there are other similarly so-bad-they're-good visual moments. It's interesting how some past eras look different to the modern viewer, yet still attractive -- for instance, '40s hairstyles or the '50s bobbysoxer look -- but the '70s, well...not so much!

This film was directed by Robert Butler. Butler also did a great deal of TV series work, including multiple episodes of quality programs such as THE WALTONS, REMINGTON STEELE, and HILL STREET BLUES.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Love this: "Beyond the cast, it must be mentioned that some of the '70s set and costume designs are nearly blinding in their awfulness."

I confess, this is one of the guilty pleasures of watching '70s movies for me. When I watch "The Towering Inferno" it's just for those hideous burgundy and powder blue tuxedos on the men.

Not a great era for fashion, but so much fun to watch from a safe distance.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jacqueline! There's a scene in this with the gathered press corps..oh my gosh, the jackets and ties! You'd get a kick out of this one. I'll have to catch up with TOWERING INFERNO at some point!

Best wishes,

8:55 AM  

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