Unearthed by the beloved geniuses of "MST3K", "San Francisco International" is a 10-course Velveeta banquet of ugly hair, ugly clothes, hysterically bad acting, nutty plot contrivances and a can't miss cast from B, C and D movie heaven.
Pernell Roberts (of "Bonanza" and "Trapper John, MD") plays the head administrator of San Francisco International airport. He's an insufferable, pompous ass who's personal motto is "My job, my way". Roberts' character is so full of himself that when "SFI" was made into a short-lived TV series, he was replaced by the much more likable Lloyd Bridges.
The head of airport security, meanwhile, is Clu Gulagar, a surprisingly mellow fellow for such an intense job. Skulking around the edges of the terminal is Tab Hunter, an airline employee/quick change artist who is planning a mid-flight robbery of a federal reserve shipment. Then there is David Hartman ("Lucas Tanner" and "GMA") as the most happily married pilot ever. Have I forgotten anyone? Oh, yes, ex-movie star Van Johnson as an influential newspaper columnist who is experiencing marital turbulence (rim-shot).
"I'm Pernell Roberts. Fly me."
Our story begins with self-satisfied Pernell hosting a special flight of congressmen and transportation officials. Suddenly, he dramatically announces that the plane's landing gear has conked out and they will have to make an emergency landing. While the passengers turn various shades of pale, Roberts turns things over to "this young woman" (the stewardess), who is dressed like a Burger King counter girl, complete with go-go boots.
On the ground at SFI, it's all hands on deck as the various airport departments and specialists spring into action. The plane and its precious cargo land safely, of course, and once the passengers breathe a sigh of relief, Pernell cheerfully declares that (yuck! yuck! yuck!) they were never in any danger! He was only kidding! He was just showing the VIPs why SFI needs all those federal funds and updated technology and stuff that the penny-pinchers in congress refuse to hand over! Isn't that clever?!
While Pernell is defending himself to his furious boss (and his cute blond secretary/cuddlemate Katie chuckles over her guy's latest weird-ass stunt), trouble is brewing elsewhere.
Tab Hunter, you see, has masterminded the kidnapping of SFI pilot David Hartman's wife. Why? So he will delay his regularly scheduled flight by one hour, which will allow Tab's ferret-featured cohorts the chance to abscond with a federal reserve shipment. If Dave refuses to comply, they will kill his wife, whom the baddies have stashed in the ugliest motel room imaginable.
Sweating bullets over his dilemma, Hartman does as he's told. To delay the flight, Dave insists his plane has a "mushy nose wheel" and demands that a fleet of mechanics check everything out, pronto. Pernell throws up his hands in despair.
"Roger, tower. Which way is the sky?"
Among the passengers forced to disembark from Hartman's mushy plane is the wife and teen son of columnist Van Johnson. He's obsessed with his job and never home and the Mrs. (Tina Scott) has finally reached the end of her rope. Even more unglued is their teen son Davey, who is nuts about planes. So nuts, in fact, that he sneaks onto the tarmac, hops into a two-seater and takes off. The only problem? Davey doesn't know how to land the plane!
Lucky for him, Pernell does. So Roberts hops into a plane, establishes radio contact with Davey and guides the sniveling little twerp back to SFI. After mom and dad embrace their kid, snotty Roberts informs Johnson and Scott that Davey's little joyride was the result of all the upheaval at home and they had better iron things out before junior does something really weird, like, oh, stealing an airplane and zooming off for parts unknown.
OK, so far Pernell has scared the pants off some congressman, tussled with his boss, saved an air born teen twerp and dispensed some tough-love marital advice. Makes you wonder what mellow fellow Clu Gulager has been up to, doesn't it?
Have no fear, Clu Gulager is here!
Well, criminal master-mind Tab Hunter and his nasty cohorts have boarded David Hartman's plane with his kidnapped wife in tow. By this time Gulager has pieced together Hartman's "mushy wheel" problem with the robbery and his wife's kidnapping. Ably assisted by fellow officers, Clu boards the plane in disguise, ambushes Tab and his miscreants and delivers Hartman's TV wife to the grateful embrace of her hubby. This takes about 10 seconds.
Earlier, while egomaniac Pernell was engaged elsewhere, Clu managed to mediate a dispute between a square and a guitar-toting, fringe-vest-wearing hippie that erupted at the terminal's candy counter. The upshot of this episode is that mellow Clu takes the hippie's side. Grateful that "the man" has dispensed justice fairly, the hippie plays Gulager the supreme compliant of saying "You're all right." The square, meanwhile, flounces off in a huff.
Order restored at last, "SFI" ends its broadcast day. So self-satisfied and deeply smug that he makes Donald Trump look modest and retiring, Pernell Roberts strides confidently into the sunset--blissfully unaware that "Trapper John, MD" is still 9 years off.
The problems with "San Francisco International" can be summed up in two words: Pernell Roberts.
It's not just that the guy is pompous, smug, insufferable, a know-it-all, a jerk and an egomaniac. He also sports mutton-chop sideburns and struts around the airport like he's God crossed with George Clooney. You simply end up hating the guy, while Roberts seems totally oblivious to how truly grating he is. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate artistic choice by Pernell or if his director made him do it, but, boy, is he unlikable. No wonder the producers replaced him! However, on the plus side, Roberts' ham-bone theatrics in "SFI" absolutely earned him a place in the Self-Satisfied Actors Hall of Shame.
The other cast members, meanwhile, struggle with their cardboard characters, hilariously convinced that they are acting in A SERIOUS DRAMA. Van Johnson, as the newspaper columnist with family problems, seems either on the verge of tears or wetting his pants. David Hartman, as the beleaguered pilot with the kidnapped wife, looks as if he's suffering from intestinal cramps. Teen flyboy Davey is certainly mopey--and a sniveling little twerp. Only Clu Gulager is having any fun as the totally mellow head of airport security.
However, even with all its flaws, I'll still take "SFI" over ANY reality show ANY day. Why?
Because the ugly clothes, the ugly hair, the ugly sets and the ugly acting all combine to make a singularly entertaining experience, almost in spite of itself. I'm sure everybody involved only had the best of intentions and never expected the viewers at home would be laughing their heads off. When a movie turns out to be as delightfully demented as "SFI", the cast, crew and producers are always the last to know.
So why waste your precious time watching "stars" attempting to rumba for cash, when you can watch fun people like Clu Gulager matching wits with Tab Hunter while simultaneously coping with David Hartman's mushy nose wheels!?
In short, "San Francisco International" may be a rickety contraption with poor landing gear, but Junk Cinema lovers wouldn't have it any other way.
Until next time, save the movies!