#134) Airplane! (1980)

airplane

#134) Airplane! (1980)

OR “With a Name Like Zucker’s, It Has To Be Good”

Directed & Written by Jim Abrahams & David Zucker & Jerry Zucker. Based on the film “Zero Hour!”, screenplay by Arthur Hailey & Hall Bartlett & John Champion.

Class of 2010

The Plot: In a mashup of “Zero Hour!” and “Airport 1975”, a commercial flight is thrown into chaos when both pilots (Peter Graves & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) fall ill. The only man who can land the plane is Ted Striker (Robert Hays) an ex-fighter pilot traumatized by flying in the war. With the aid of his estranged lover Elaine (Julie Hagerty), his former commander Rex Kramer (Robert Stack), control tower supervisor Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges), straight-faced Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) and an inflatable automatic pilot (Otto), Striker will either land the plane, or the shit’s gonna hit the fan.

Why It Matters: The NFR’s description says the film “skewered Hollywood’s tendency to push successful formulaic movie conventions beyond the point of logic.” Geez, way to over-analyze everything. An essay by NFR go-to Michael Schlesinger puts the film in the context of other ‘70s comedies and disaster films.

But Does It Really?: This is the gold standard by which all parody films should be measured. “Airplane!” takes the disaster genre (a genre that’s already pretty ridiculous) and takes it to the next level. All of the jokes are individually stupid (and some a bit too crude for my tastes), but when they come at this relentless a pace, you are at the mercy of unstoppable laughter. “Airplane!” is one of the rare film comedies where everyone is in on the joke. From its rapid-fire pace to its pitch-perfect casting, “Airplane!” holds up better than most other comedies from that era, and even better than the films it’s satirizing.

Shout Outs: Among the films parodied are NFR entries “The Wizard of Oz”, “Knute Rockne, All American”, “Pinocchio”, “From Here to Eternity”, “Jaws”, and “Saturday Night Fever”.

Everybody Gets One: Practically everyone, most notably the ZAZ team, Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and of course, Otto.

Wow, That’s Dated: Despite the film’s timeless humor, there are a lot of references to the late ‘70s. Among them; Hare Krishnas at airports, pre-9/11 flight procedures, a parody of this Yuban Coffee commercial, an extended disco sequence, and a slam on Anita Bryant.

Take a Shot: Amazingly, the word “airplane” is said only twice in the entire film: once by McCroskey and once by Striker.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nominations, but “Airplane!” did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy or Musical (losing to the hilarious “Coal Miner’s Daughter”). The ZAZ team won the WGA Award for Best Adapted Comedy, beating out… “The Empire Strikes Back”? Does anyone in Hollywood know what a comedy is?

Other notes

  • The third credit in the opening titles (after Hays and Hagerty) is for costume designer Rosanna Norton. She must have a great agent.
  • Exhibit A for “This Film Couldn’t Be Made Today”: an abortion joke three minutes in.
  • Among the many, many bit players in this film are Jimmie Walker, future “Breaking Bad” star Jonathan Banks, future “24” president Gregory Itzin, ‘70s game show staple Joyce Bulifant, and ultimate TV Mom Barbara Billingsley. Special Bonus: Dr. Brody of the Mayo Clinic? He was the original voice of Boba Fett. I’m not kidding, look it up.
  • I can’t say enough about Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty. They may not get the funniest lines, but they really are the glue that holds this film together.
  • Peter Graves’ running joke with Joey is creepy as hell, but I’ll be damned, Graves sells it.
  • Shout-out to Lt. Hurwitz. This is the last movie I’d expect Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne to get royalties from.
  • Quick jab at the expense of then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.
  • In today’s money $113.30 isn’t too bad for a cab fare.
  • I love this movie, but I’ve never quite gotten the spear/watermelon gag. The directors have said it never got the laugh they wanted it to.
  • As previously mentioned, everyone’s in on the joke, but Robert Stack especially gets it. That performance is flawless.
  • Speaking of great performances: Stephen Stucker as Johnny. It’s not exactly PC, but in a film where everyone plays it straight, Stucker’s the only cast-member who gets away with being over-the-top.
  • I have too many favorite lines, so here’s just a few:

“Joey, have you ever been in a…in a Turkish prison?”

“You can’t take a guess for another two hours?”

“Keep them at 24,000. No, feet.”

“Pinch hitting for Pedro Borbón, Manny Mota…Mota…Mota…”

“Me John Big Tree!”

“He’s all over the place. 900 feet up to 1300 feet. What an asshole.”

“Municipal bonds, Ted. I’m talking double A rating. The best investment in America.”

Legacy

  • Following the success of “Airplane!”, Paramount wanted a sequel, and team ZAZ definitely did not. The result: “Airplane II: The Sequel”, written and directed by Canadian comedy writer Ken Finkleman, is a beat-for-beat remake of the first film.
  • Leslie Nielsen reteamed with ZAZ to make the TV show “Police Squad!”. Critically hailed but roundly ignored, the show was cancelled after six episodes. It did, however, spawn the successful “Naked Gun” film series.
  • ZAZ is also responsible for “Top Secret!” and one of my favorite jokes in any movie ever.
  • Nielsen wasn’t the only one who got a career revival from “Airplane!”. Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Peter Graves all got second acts playing straight-faced characters saying ridiculous things.
  • My friend Travis and I tried our hand at adapting “Airplane!” into a “39 Steps”-esque stage production. It is currently a lovely Word document on my computer, but if anyone with the rights to “Airplane!” wants to talk, we are listening.
  • And of course:

Further Viewing: “Zero Hour!” Duh.

Further Further Viewing: While promoting “Police Squad!” on an early episode of “Late Night”, ZAZ presented David Letterman’s screen test for the role of Ted Striker. Yeah, good call for everyone involved.

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