Saturday, April 17, 2010

Airplane! (Paramount, 1980)

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

I shopped at Lucky and got two videotapes — the two Airplane! movies made by Paramount in 1980 and 1982 as spoofs of the famous Airport cycle at Universal (the first written and directed by the Jim Abrahams/David Zucker/Jerry Zucker team — with three co-writer/directors involved one suspects the disputes between them off-camera were at least as funny as the film itself! — and the second written and directed by one Ken Finkelman) and ran them both that evening for Charles. The first one is generally considered funnier, but I’d rate them about even — although the second one is considerably wilder and more dependent on your knowledge of other movies (the whole plot about the renegade computer trying to take over the ship and kill all the humans aboard would make absolutely no sense at all except to someone who’s seen 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Robert Hays — whom I remember thinking was really cute when he played Donna Pescow’s vis-a-vis on the short-lived sitcom Angie (though not as cute as Gary Sandy of WKRP in Cincinnati, whose tight jeans, incredible basket and boyishly slim figure made him the sexiest man on series TV in the late 1970’s) — makes a good nerd hero in both films, and Julie Hagerty is equally competent as the put-upon heroine, but most of the humor comes from the wild dialogue, the tossed-off gags (Hays’ oft-repeated retellings of his own past — beefed up by flashback sequences containing hilariously inappropriate clips from World War II action footage and old movies like the 1923 silent Hunchback of Notre Dame — invariably leave their listeners committing suicide) and the great cameos, especially in the sequel (notably Raymond Burr as a judge and William Shatner as the Kirk-like boss of a space station). Charles said he would have preferred not to see them as a double bill (though the two movies came in at less than three hours combined), though I liked the idea of becoming familiar with the running gags from film one before seeing them again, without explanation, in film two (particularly Hays’ “drinking problem” — every time he tries to drink any liquid at all he loses control and throws it in his own face instead), and I enjoyed both movies as the refreshing change from all that serious old stuff Charles had requested … — 10/2/97


I turned on the TV and watched the last two-thirds of Airplane!, a movie which holds up surprisingly well and is still funny — not at all sophisticated but also not especially gross, in sharp contrast to most movie “comedies” since. There are only two gags in questionable taste — inside the airport one character says, “The shit’s about to hit the fan!,” and it does; and on the plane the “automatic pilot” (a balloon in the shape of a man — when it first appears it’s one of the screamingly funniest bits in the film) attempts to fondle the breasts of the stewardess character played by Julie Hagerty — the rest is consistently amusing even though there is nothing even remotely representing wit or sophisticated humor in this film. I like the subject of the film (a spoof of the Airport movies, which were so terminally silly they practically qualified as comedies themselves) and the fact that so many of the gags were based on taking words over-literally — like Robert Hays’ constant use of the word “surely” in dialogue with Leslie Nielsen’s character and his reply, “Don’t call me ‘Shirley!’” as well as one marvelous scene in which ground controller Robert Stack insists that the people in the plane have to fly by instruments — and the next scene is the people in the cockpit suddenly turned into a jazz band with, you guessed it, instruments … — 9/6/03


Airplane! is the 1980 film that launched the careers of film spoofers Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, and apparently they stumbled into the project in a rather unique way. They had one of the first production VCR’s and frequently used it to record commercials late at night so they could make spoofs of them — only one night their VCR accidentally recorded a 1957 movie called Zero Hour that itself had been based on a live TV show called Flight Into Danger by future Airport author Arthur Hailey. Zero Hour (scripted by Hailey, Hall Bartlett — who would later turn Richard Bach’s feel-good best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull into a flop movie — and John C. Champion) told the gripping suspense tale of an airliner whose pilots are incapacitated by eating contaminated food, and in order to land the plane they have to draft a former World War II pilot (played by Dana Andrews) who hasn’t flown since to take over.

Abrahams and the Zuckers watched Zero Hour and decided it would make a great framework by which to spoof the highly successful Airport cycle of movies Universal made in the 1970’s based on a novel by — you guessed it — Arthur Hailey — and so they did, making a deal with Paramount (the same company that had produced Zero Hour) and winning a key battle with the studio that ultimately ensured that their film would not only be a box-office hit (a $125 million gross on a $3.5 million investment). Instead of casting established comedians, Abrahams and the Zuckers decided to recruit serious actors — or at least actors with serious reputations — for the leading roles (some of them, anyway): Peter Graves as stricken pilot Clarence Oveur; Leslie Nielsen as the on-board doctor, Dr. Rumack; and Robert Stack as Rex Kramer, the ultra-butch air official (and former comrade on the hero’s fighter squadron), who comes to the airport in Chicago to give scared pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) the instructions he needs to bring the plane down more or less safely. There’s also a series of flashbacks in which we learn how Ted and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, stewardess (the fact that they weren’t yet calling them “flight attendants” itself dates this movie) Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), including parodies of the famous scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (the two make love on the beach, end up with the water breaking over them and, when it recedes, they’re covered in seaweed and crabs) as well as the “Stayin’ Alive” number in Saturday Night Fever (when one customer is knifed in the back in the seedy dive bar in which this is taking place, he keeps on moving his arm in synch to the choreography until he expires completely), in which he recalls how he lost his nerve in combat and ever since then he’s had a drinking problem: every time he tries to drink something he can’t get it into his mouth — he throws the drink in his own face instead. (Hays’ narration of these flashbacks itself becomes the subject of an outrageous running gag: every time he tells one of these stories, the airline passenger sitting next to him commits suicide in a grotesque and visually impressive way.)

Airplane! dates a little, and some of the jokes are pretty racy — occasionally to good effect (when Julie Hagerty has to re-inflate the “automatic pilot” — actually a balloon painted to look like a human pilot — to keep the plane aloft, it’s shot to make it look like she’s giving it head and there’s a payoff shot of the automatic pilot with a shit-eating grin on its face and the two having post-coital cigarettes), other times not (I could have done without the scene in which shit literally hits a fan just as Robert Stack has warned it’s about to do so). But the movie is a lot of fun, and most of the gags hold up well out of sheer outrageousness — including the opening in which two disembodied voices over the airport P.A., one male and one female, get into an argument over whether passengers can unload themselves and their baggage at the white or the red zones, which quickly snowballs into the female voice complaining, “You’re just mad at me because I didn’t want to have the abortion!” and the male voice saying, “It was the only logical thing to do.” I also liked the flashback scene in which Robert Hays’ character is in a military mental hospital and one of the other patients on the floor is a serviceman who’s under the delusion that he’s Ethel Merman (and who’s played, you guessed it, by the real Ethel Merman, belting out a snatch of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy in her usual damn-the-intonation, full-volume-ahead manner).

Also among the best gags are the opening — in which the tail fin of an airliner protrudes above the clouds while the soundtrack plays the theme from Jaws — and one in which Robert Stack, in the middle of one of his forceful rages, pulls off his sunglasses to reveal … another pair of sunglasses underneath. And the exchange between Robert Hays and Leslie Nielsen — “Surely you don’t think I can fly this plane!’ “Of course I do — and don’t call me Shirley!” — has entered the language permanently. I have a hard time thinking of Airplane! as the tenth funniest movie ever made (which is what the American Film Institute rated it as on their 100 Years — 100 Laughs TV show) — there are enough movies from Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Marxes and more recent filmmakers (like Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove, an even funnier movie about an even more dire subject and with a performance by Sterling Hayden that presages the deadpan deliveries of Messrs. Stack, Nielsen and Graves here), but Airplane! is still a very funny movie and worth seeing for the sheer no-holds-barredness of the humor. — 4/17/10