The Brancatelli File



December 28, 2006 -- 'Tis the season for snowbound airports and all sorts of important decisions, like the Transportation Department denying Virgin America certification to fly, but granting L'Avion the right to launch all-business-class flights between Newark and Paris.

But most frequent flyers I know couldn't give a fa-la-la-la-la about all that stuff now. After all, we've most likely been at home, off the road and blissfully free of our business-travel commitments until at least New Year's Day.

This ever-so-brief intermezzo in our frequent flying gives us the time to do so many things: Clean out our laptop bag, introduce ourselves around the water cooler at the office, maybe even take a loved one out to dinner without checking our watch to see if we've still got time to get to the airport. We might even do "real" stuff: Duck our heads into a museum, take our kids ice skating or fill out that form from human resources that was due last June.

By this time next Thursday, of course, we'll all be bored to tears. Because, truth to tell, we can only handle so much normalcy. After a few days of decompressing and readjusting, we're forced to admit a basic truth about our lives: Frequent flyers fly. That's what we do. For us, the only thing worse than being a business traveler is not being one.

So what do we do with all this free time until we get back on the road next year? Well, I watch movies about business travel. Trust me on this one. When you've got a few extra hours during this downtime, pick up one or more of these celluloid representations of the life we lead. You'll be surprised how much better they'll make you feel.

This 1963 British flick might be the most absurd movie ever made, but that's why it's so wonderful. An all-star cast (Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Louis Jourdan, Rod Taylor, Orson Welles, Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith and David Frost) is thrown into a VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport to wait out a long, fog-induced delay. (That hasn't changed in the intervening generation, has it?) Everything about the movie is bizarre: the fashions, the acting, the plot lines and the depictions of business and business travel. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll make fun of Elizabeth Taylor's clothes--and then you'll wonder why your life on the road isn't nearly so glamorous! The bad news: The DVD version is only available as part of the new Taylor/Burton Film Collection and the VHS version is hard to find.

The 1959 Hitchcock classic is best known for the remarkable scenes where Cary Grant is chased through a field by a crop-duster and the dazzling climax atop Mount Rushmore. But check out the business-travel action: Grant at the Oak Bar in New York's now-closed 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 New York-to-Chicago train. You'll wonder how come you've never met anyone as gorgeous as Eva Marie Saint or Cary Grant on a flight.

Another British import, this time from 1951, with a 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 him. Corny, charming, weirdly compelling. Bad News: No DVD yet and the VHS version takes a little work to find.

An Americanized remake of 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 the Waldorf-Astoria in its heyday as, well, a grand hotel. It's also got Xaviar Cugat, who really ran the Waldorf house band back in the days 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. The problem: The VHS is out of print and the only DVD available is a version recorded off digital television. But I bought one earlier this year for under $10 and the quality was just fine.

Seven years after he struck gold with Moonstruck, producer-director Norman Jewison essentially tried to remake the movie in Italy. The result, 1994's Only You, is a clunker. But there are hilarious, if hokey, scenes at the Pittsburgh and Rome airports, a nice set piece involving the concierge at the Hotel Danieli in Venice and breathtaking scenery shot in and around Le Sirenuse hotel on the Amalfi Coast. 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--even if he doesn't get Marisa Tomei.

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--it's about a hit man (John Cusack) going back to his 10-year high-school reunion in search of his life and a lost love (Minnie Driver)--yet it is also a laugh-out-loud comedy. What's it got to do with business travel? 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 back-at-the-office assistant who keeps her frequent-flying boss on track and on schedule.

Lastly, we come to Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the life-on-the-road comedy starring John Candy and Steve Martin. It's funny, of course, but, for my tastes, a little too much like our real lives. It makes me squirm. Still, lots of business travelers love it, so if you haven't seen it…

I'm gonna run out and see Unaccompanied Minors now. See you back on the road next Thursday.

Copyright © 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.