There's a wonderful scene in Frank Capra's holiday masterpiece, It's a Wonderful Life, when Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter tries to buy out Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey.
The nasty, gnarly Potter offers the credulous George a big salary, the finest house in Bedford Falls, and the opportunity to do what Bailey has longed to do all his life: travel. Knowing George is desperate for a Bedford Falls exit strategy, Potter dangles business trips to New York and Europe as part of the employment package.
Every time I see Barrymore and Stewart spar, I can't help but yell at the screen, "Don't do it George! Don't become a business traveler! It would be better if you were never born!"
I know that's not what Capra was going for, but I can't help myself. To use the vernacular of the movie, I'm just a warped, frustrated, middle-aged frequent flier. I can't watch a flick without seeing the business-travel angle.
And since this is the one week of the year when I know that most of us are not on the road, I suggest you take the time to relax, fire up the flat screen in the living room and find the angles in my favorite business-travel movies of all time.
North by Northwest
The 1959 Hitchcock classic is best known for the remarkable scene where Cary Grant is chased through a field by a crop-duster and its dazzling climax atop Mount Rushmore. But check out the business-travel atmospherics: Grant at the Oak Bar in New York's Plaza Hotel; Grant and Leo G. Carroll at Midway Airport, when it was Chicago's only airport; and Grant in a battle of wits with the front-desk clerk at Chicago's Ambassador Hotel. And don't miss the scenes on the overnight New York-to-Chicago train. You'll wonder why you've never met anyone as gorgeous as Eva Marie Saint or Cary Grant on a flight.
Seven years after he struck gold with Moonstruck, producer-director Norman Jewison tried a similar formula in Italy. The result, 1994's Only You, is a clunker. But there's a hilarious, if hokey, scene at Rome's Fiumicino Airport, a nice set piece involving the concierge at the Hotel Danieli in Venice, and breathtaking scenery shot in and around Le Sirenuse Hotel in Positano on the Amalfi Coast. Watch for wonderful performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Bonnie Hunt, who steal every scene from the star, a very young Marisa Tomei. The payoff involves a no-nonsense (and previously unseen) business traveler who solves the entire dilemma of the 109-minute movie in about 30 seconds-as he's rushing to catch a flight. That guy's my hero.
No Highway in the Sky
A British import from 1951, with an international cast led by James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, and Glynis Johns. Stewart is Stewart-bumbling, befuddled, distracted, lovable, and heroic-and he saves the day by bucking the establishment over the safety of an important new passenger plane. Johns plays the quintessential 1950s stewardess who falls in love with Stewart, moves in with him, and then organizes his life. Corny, charming-and weirdly compelling because the plot is eerily similar to the mid-50s catastrophes that befell the De Havilland Comet, the world's first commercial jet.
Weekend at the Waldorf
An Americanized remake of 1932's Grand Hotel, this 1945 version has a gorgeous cast (Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, and the almost-as-pretty Van Johnson and Walter Pidgeon) and a thousand beauty shots of New York's Waldorf-Astoria in its heyday. It's also got Xaviar Cugat, who really ran the Waldorf house band back in the day when hotels had house bands. This is the antidote for too many stays at Hilton Garden Inns, Courtyards by Marriott, and Four Points by Sheraton. I should know: I did a weekend at the Waldorf last year with my frequent-flying wife and we had a marvelous time comparing the hotel then and now.
Another remake of Grand Hotel, this 1963 British flick moves the action to London's Heathrow Airport in the early days of jet travel, when the "jet set" was a new phenomenon. An all-star cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Louis Jourdan, Rod Taylor, Orson Welles, Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith, and David Frost) is thrown into a V.I.P. lounge to wait out a long, fog-induced delay. The Terence Rattigan script is supposedly based on Vivian Leigh's real-life attempt to leave Laurence Olivier for Peter Finch. Which might explain why everything about the movie is bizarre: the fashions, the acting, the plot lines, and the depictions of global business and business travel. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll make fun of Elizabeth Taylor's Givenchy togs-and then you'll wonder why your life on the road isn't nearly so glamorous.
Retitled Jet Lag for its American release, this 2002 French film was Juliette Binoche's first outing after Chocolat. She plays an unhappy hairdresser running away from her life and into unhappy celebrity chef Jean Reno at Paris' Charles DeGaulle Airport. They dislike each other on sight, which means they must share the last available room at the airport hotel during a flight disruption. You already know how this goes: brief affair, lots of angst, lives altered, and what the French consider a happy ending. But it is surprisingly effective in showing how a business traveler (Reno) and a tourist (Binoche) react differently to basic travel snafus.
Grosse Point Blank
This may be the best movie you've never seen. It was in and out of theaters so fast in 1997 that I'm not sure it ever made in-flight movie rotations. It is dark and disturbing-an assassin (John Cusack) goes to his 10-year high school reunion in search of his life and his true love (Minnie Driver)-but it is also a laugh-out-loud comedy. Watch how Cusack plays his character, especially in the hotel-room scenes, and then tell me he isn't playing a stressed-out business traveler. Pay attention to Joan Cusack in the tiny but extraordinary role of the office assistant who keeps her frequent-flying boss on track and on schedule. There are also wonderful supporting performances by Jeremy Piven, Dan Ackroyd, and Hank Azaria.
The Fine Print.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the life-on-the-road comedy starring John Candy and Steve Martin. The 1987 box office hit is probably the most successful business-travel film ever. It's funny, of course, but, for my tastes, a little too much like our real lives-and it makes me squirm.
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