Wednesday, March 31, 2010

San Francisco International (Universal, 1970)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Charles got home we ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1970 Universal TV-movie called San Francisco International — as in “Airport,” a pilot for a TV mini-series that was shown in rotation with three other Universal shows (McCloud — the biggest hit of the bunch — Night Gallery and The Psychiatrist) in the 1970-71 season under the umbrella title Four in One. The star is Pernell Roberts, still a bit away from his star-making (O.K., semi-star making) role as Trapper John in the TV version of M*A*S*H, here playing airport security chief Jim Conrad, who in the opening scene is shown flying into the airport on a plane and announcing to the passengers — all of whom are U.S. Senators, Congressmembers and their staff — that there has been a problem with the landing gear and the landing is likely to be rough. The V.I.P.’s brace themselves for the impact of a crash landing — and then we cut outside the plane, to a stock shot of an airliner on an approach run, and its landing gear look in perfect working order to us and we wonder if director John Llewellyn Moxey (I hadn’t realized I’d watched two movies in a row with three-named directors!) has goofed big-time in the continuity. Just when it looks as if all the assembled V.I.P.’s are about to crap in their pants (the MST3K crew’s jokes here were far more scatological than funny), Conrad tells everyone that there was no emergency, that this was just a drill which he ordered to impress upon his Congressional guests the need for bigger budgets to assure airport and airplane safety.

In the manner of the Airport movies (also Universal productions), there are all manner of oddball plot lines going on in and around the airport, including Tab Hunter as a member of a criminal gang who disguises himself as a priest and holds a woman hostage at gunpoint; David Hartman as a pilot whose wife is kidnapped by the gang Hunter is a part of and ordered, as her ransom, to hold back his latest flight for an hour so the baddies can steal $3 million (why the success of their plot is dependent on the flight being delayed is such a peripheral issue that, if writers William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter actually provided an explanation, I missed it); Van Johnson and Nancy Malone as a divorcing couple whose son (Ted Eccles — kids usually don’t do much for me but he’s by far the cutest male in the film!) steals a small red plane and takes it aloft; and a few other intrigues I lost track of.

The film is actually a pretty professional piece of work — it’s far better than most of the movies MST3K mocked, not that that’s saying much for it (at least it doesn’t look like someone just had a lot of stock footage of planes taking off and landing at San Francisco International Airport and decided to build a movie around it, the way Racket Girls seemed to be built around someone’s cache of women’s wrestling footage) — and the MST3K jokes were actually pretty limp (aside from the almost too obvious puns on Tab Hunter’s first name, which were at least amusing). Their best contributions this time out were in the interstital segments, in which we got to see the characters of Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV Frank with their shirts off (not that that was much to write home about!) and there were some funny skits featuring the disembodied head from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, a worse movie in overall quality than San Francisco International but also a good deal more fun.

San Francisco International had the usual hallmarks of Universal’s made-for-TV production at the time: a potentially interesting plot lines (several potentially interesting plot lines, actually, which was part of the problem) made less entertaining than they could have been by competent but dull acting (you know your movie is in trouble when Tab Hunter comes the closest of anyone in your cast to creating a multidimensional character!), efficient but uninspired direction, good but totally unatmospheric cinematography by Andrew Jackson (who presumably did not fight the bloody British in the town of New Orleans) and an overall air of people who were good professionals all but were also watching the clock each shooting day, awaiting the hour they could knock it off and go home …