Jim Conrad (Pernell Roberts) has his hands full running the very busy San Francisco International airport. First he has to scare a bunch of congressmen with the threat of crashing their plane. Then he has to deal with a large shipment of cash from Juneau, that is being targeted by thieves lead by Tab Hunter. Then there’s the whole issue with a Davey (Ted Eccles) who feel that his mother and father just don’t pay enough attention to him – so he steals a plane. Yeah way to go! Clu Gulager rounds out the cast as chief of security Hatten, who has a run in with a hippy and a square who got in a fight. A lot can happen at SFX when it’s a made for TV movie – of course none of it is terribly interesting.
Wow, does San Francisco International just ooze the scent of made for TV extravaganza. Not only do you get Gulager and Roberts, but there’s the added joy of Tab Hunter, Van Johnson, David Hartman, and a bunch of 70’s actors you’ll recognized right away. Turns out this was a pilot to a series that got picked up – but with Lloyd Bridges playing Roberts role. It still didn’t live long after that, and you can kind of see why here.
Look, a television series about an airport seems like a good idea, and you can see elements that would have been carried over into future installments. The whole sequence with the hippy and the square trying to get Gulager to believe them screams – this is all gonna come back to haunt our hero! Unfortunately there is that strange issue that seemed to plague 70’s and especially 80’s television. Boring, stale old plots!
There is potential for interest in the whole cash theft. It involves disguises, kidnapping, a clever ruse for transporting the money, a guy with huge ears and a mushy nose wheel (don’t ask, just bask in the glow of David Hartman insisting that it is indeed mushy!). Its the disjointed nature of juggling storylines robs it of tension. This should have been a tight caper story, with Gulager and Roberts racing against time to stop the criminals – kinda like a 70’s Die Hard 2 with less machine gun fire. Instead the plot ambles along and manages to bore everyone.
To solve this problem the creators injected a second plot involving the delightful moppet Davey and his thievery of the plane. The whole angle with the parents is written with so much sap and sugar you’ll gag. When Davey steals the plane you can’t help but laugh, and then roll your eyes as Roberts jumps into a plane and flying up to talk the boy down. The cheese is so ripe you can smell it a mile away.
Pernell Roberts is all over this movie attempting to appear confident and in control. Instead he comes across like an obnoxious blowhard. He bellows and pressures and snarls so much you begin to wonder if a gorilla might have played the part with a little less ham. Still he’s entertaining to watch.
Clu Gulager is odd in San Francisco International. He mumbles his lines, looks so relaxed that you expect him to fall asleep in his car (like super 70’s cop Mitchell!). I can’t determine If he was going for cool or high. Either way it’s an odd choice to give the head of security.
Ted Eccles plays the part of Davey just like you’d imagine a child actor in the 70’s to play the part. It’s a funny performance that’s supposed to be touching. Really its not his fault, its just the way this kind of part was directed, but it doesn’t make it good. Not at all. When he shares the moment with his parents at the end, well I dare you not to want to throw something at the screen. But honestly you won’t have to, because Mike and the Bots are here and they’re ready to riff.
The TV pilot and TV movie genre has always been good to Mystery Science Theater 3000. Whether they are the 80’s stupidity of Master Ninja or the Sandy Frank conglomeration that is Time of the Apes all the way to Riding with Death – Best Brains had a blast with these and it usually comes across in the riffing. San Francisco International is probably one of may favorite from this genre.
Its almost as if the television movie gods knew this was going to end up on MST3K at some point, and they just kept adding good fodder. Pernell Roberts is the butt of a lot of the jokes, with his hairpiece and arrogance – he’s really just asking for it. After he bellows “My job, my way!” Mike and the bots start improvising other things that he demands his way… lunch, bathrooms, hostage situations: you get the idea.
Clu’s unique performance adds to the fun, with his mumbling providing the perfect gateway for the bots to try and guess what he just said. But his best riffable scene is the confrontation between the hippy and the square. It contains the best line of the show and maybe one of the classic riffs the series. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it involves the hippy and his stupid grin at the end of the scene.
Really the richest source of laughs in San Francisco International is Davey and his finale flight. With the silly acting, contrived plot and bad rear projection well Mike and bots have a blast. The riffs range from commenting on Roberts barking orders to the sensitive Davey, to the stunt flying during the landing sequence. Its one of the best finishes to an episode.
This should make this a top-notch episode but one thing holds it back – the host segments. Depending on your tolerance for running jokes. I’ve seen this episode a few times and find that if I’m not in the right mood, I just want to fast forward to the next movie segment. Here’s the issue. The episode starts with a hilarious take on political debates as Crow and Tom try to debate about… um something. It includes a line I often quote “Dill is a perfectly good spice. I will not have it maligned!” Then the mads show up and they are construction workers – no reason why, but it’s pretty funny, even if both men are sans shirts! It’s the next three host segments that will make or break the episode for you.
This episode first came out in 1994. You have to know this to understand why this series of host segments exists. 1994 meant you couldn’t escape the obnoxious character Urkel from the sitcom Family Matters no matter how hard you tried. Essentially, Mike dresses like Urkel and talks like him for three straight host segments. Mike does a killer imitation, and its kind of funny. For me the humor comes from the reaction he gets from everyone who sees him. They all think he’s fall down on the floor hilarious. And I mean everyone: Crow, Tom, Gypsy, Dr. Forrester and Frank – sure. But Jan in the Pan, Santa Claus, Pitch, and Nuveena all show up and think it’s hilarious as well. Don’t know who all those folks are? Well let’s just say they are characters who visited the show previously and are played by various cast members. Finally Torgo from Manos: the Hands of Fate shows up and just doesn’t get it. Mike is playing Torgo – so you get Mike telling Mike he isn’t funny.
Anyway, if you remember when Urkel ruled the TV and how everyone thought he was the funniest damn thing ever – this might make you laugh. Otherwise, it will probably annoy the hell out of you. It’s one joke for three host segments and arguably not a very good one. This can be a deal breaker for some fans, and I can see it. Things calm down when the movie finishes. Mike reads some letters and Dr. Forresters ears keep growing. But the pain of Urkel may be too much for some viewers to stand.
Strictly going by riffing, San Francisco International is gold, easily a five star episode. But those host segments may affect your enjoyment. So I feel I need to drop one star. That leaves us with four mushy nose wheels out of five – but seek this episode out to see for yourself.
This episode is available on DAP.