Synopsis: Voted “one of the 10 funniest movies ever made” by the American Film Institute, Airplane! is a masterpiece of off-the-wall comedy. Featuring Robert Hays as an ex-fighter pilot forced to take over the controls of an airliner when the flight crew succumbs to food poisoning; Julie Hagerty as his girlfriend/ stewardess/ co-pilot; and a cast of all-stars including Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar…and more! Their hilarious high jinks spook airplane disaster flicks, religious zealots, television commercials, romantic love…the lists whirls by in rapid succession. And the story races from one moment of zany fun to the next!
eyelights: the genre-defining humour. Leslie Nielsen. Robert Stack. Peter Graves. Lloyd Bridges.
eyesores: the sloppy direction. Robert Hays. Julie Haggerty.
“There’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?”
I actually remember seeing the TV commercials for ‘Airplane!’. I was too young to go see it back then, of course, but I recall the impression it left me with: I had literally no idea what to make of it, not knowing that it was a movie ad (I was very young); I would see the nose of the plane crash through the terminal’s windows and wonder what that was about. It played incessantly at the time, so the image stuck.
Fast forward a few years, and my mom got into renting a VCR from the local grocery store (!) from time to time. It would be a couple of years before I got to see ‘Psycho II‘, the rental movie that impacted me the most during that period, but my mom allowed me to get ‘Airplane!’ and another film or two one weekend (I couldn’t tell you what those were at this point). No doubt those ads could be credited for making an impression.
Hooked, I ended up watching ‘Airplane!’ compulsively seven times over the course of 48 hours, when we finally had to return the machine and films. It was a total binge: since we didn’t have a VCR, and never would, I watched as much as I could while I could. Heck, I wasn’t even enjoying it that much… by the 5th or 6th time! But I laughed my head off anyway: ‘Airplane!’ was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
I wasn’t alone. When it was released, Zucker/Zucker/Abraham’s riotous spoof of airline disaster films broke box office records as much as it broke the mould; there had been no other comedy like it before and people were loving every minute of it. It started the trio’s careers and it veritably brought to the world a new kind of comedy, one whose influence is omnipresent today – particularly in all that series of (insert genre here) movies, such as ‘Scary Movie’.
To this day, over three decades later, ‘Airplane!’ holds its own. It’s still extremely funny, if corny and sophomoric, and it zips by at jet speed. I found myself snickering all the way through, even though I’ve now seen it countless times.. How could one not laugh at how moronic some of the exchanges are, how simple misunderstandings that don’t really make any sense are taken so seriously by the film’s characters:
Rumack: “I won’t deceive you, Mr. Striker. We’re running out of time.”
Ted Striker: “Surely there must be something you can do.”
Rumack: “I’m doing everything I can… and stop calling me Shirley!”
It helps that Zucker/Zucker/Abraham were able to attract such an excellent cast. Seriously, I don’t know how they did it, but, somehow they managed to bolster their film with Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen and Robert Stack. Not only does this lend their film credibility, but most of them played it straight throughout, as though everything were entirely normal. This juxtaposition is essential to ‘Airplane!’s comedy stylings, and these guys pulled it off amazingly well.
Personally, I can’t even imagine what the film would have been like if these characters has less familiar faces and were less authoritative, or if the actors were less capable of delivering. I suspect that it would have come off as a lackluster b-movie and that it would not have been nearly as successful. Because, let’s be objective here, the direction is slightly sloppy (see the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ segment as proof), and some of the other performers were… shall we say, not exactly top flight.
Rumack: “Elaine, you’re a member of this crew. Can you face some unpleasant facts?”
Elaine Dickinson: “No.”
In particular, I have to single out Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays’ performances.
Frankly, I’ve always found Hagerty slightly weak in her delivery and it’s always bothered me – even in a ‘A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy‘ and ‘Lost in America‘. But this was her first film role, so… As for Robert Hays, he does the physical comedy relatively well, but his delivery is unnatural, unconvincing. To be fair, though, he had only been on TV for a couple of years and was doing double duty on his show ‘Angie’ at the same time – he likely wasn’t at his best.
Now, given that it’s a comedy, and that they were surrounded by very average supporting players (and some execrable ones, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), it normally wouldn’t matter so much; Hays and Hagerty should have flown under the radar with relative ease. Except that they played the two central characters and, thus, have tons of screen time, making them completely unavoidable. Thankfully, the gags, one-liners, satire, slapstick and other general nonsense makes up for it.
What’s great about ‘Airplane!’ is that Zucker/Zucker/Abraham don’t leave the audience much time to linger on the film’s flaws – their brand of comedy is of the rapid-fire variety and there’s always a zinger coming at you before you know it. In fact, it began a modern genre of comedy that requires the audience’s attention because there’s always additional elements one has to pay attention to. In fact, watching it more than once is almost essential to get the film’s full flavour.
This became a problem with their television show, ‘Police Squad!‘, because people often tend to be distracted when watching television, doing chores, talking with friends and family, …etc. At the cinema, however, this style works terrifically because the audience is basically strapped in their seats with nowhere else to go, and exposed to a limited amount of external influence. So noticing background gags while the foreground characters are moving the plot along is easily done.
The fact that much of the dialogue, plot and even camera positions come from ‘Zero Hour!’ is even funnier – for those who are familiar with the original, of course. But, whether one has seen it or not, hearing dialogue that was once delivered in a totally straight fashion, but is now transposed in a totally ridiculous context is nothing short of a blast.
Young Boy with Coffee: “Excuse me, I happened to be passing, and I thought you might like some coffee.”
Little Girl: “Oh, that’s very nice of you, thank you.”
Little Girl: “Oh, won’t you sit down?”
Young Boy with Coffee: “Cream?”
Little Girl: “No, thank you. I take it black, like my men.”
In fact, I would be extremely curious to see ‘Zero Hour!’ now that I know that it was a huge inspiration on the picture (Truth be told, I always thought that it was a satire of the ‘Airport’ series, because of the title and of how popular those films were. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in making this mistake, though). The moment that I get a chance to get my grubby hands on it, I will snatch that up right quick. Heck, it may even give ‘Airplane!’ a little extra mileage.
Because, unfortunately, I must admit that, for the first time, my reaction while watching it was a little less than enraptured; whereas I may have once given it a 9 I now can only muster an 8.25 (which is still respectable, I suppose). I suspect that I may have finally watched it once too many times and will need to give it a rest for a couple of years. So, perhaps having ‘Zero Hour!’ around could give me a point of reference and help me appreciate ‘Airplane!’ on a new level.
I’ll give it time. ‘Zero Hour!’ or not, there is no doubt that my appreciation for ‘Airplane!’ will be renewed. It’s a classic and it doesn’t grow old, even as it becomes dated – it’s just a matter of letting a couple of years pass before the next viewing. I’ll just need to be patient. Shirley I can wait. If anything, ‘Airplane!’ is well worth the effort. And, anyway, there are plenty of other Zucker/Zucker/Abraham films (together and solo efforts) to keep me busy in the meantime.
“Well, I’ll give him another twenty minutes, but that’s it!”
Date of viewing: May 9, 2013