THE PLANE’S GOING TO CHICAGO! THE PILOT’S GOING TO NEW YORK! THE PASSENGERS ARE GOING TO PIECES!
“Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.” A funny quote from one of the great comedy classics, Airplane!… right? Well, yes, Leslie Nielsen’s doctor does say something like that in the movie, but it’s actually a real quote from the disaster movie on which Airplane! is based, Zero Hour. Not that the old Dana Andrews-starrer was particularly loved by critics on its release in 1957, but it’s amazing how a parody made more than twenty years later can ruin the reputation of a movie entirely. And Airplane! did it with a straight face.
Taxi driver Ted Striker (Robert Hays) and his girlfriend, stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), are having problems. Ted is still traumatized after his experiences as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and Elaine is getting tired of it. When she leaves him, Ted desperately follows her onboard a plane bound for Chicago; perhaps he can come up with a way to convince her not to leave him. Unfortunately, after dinner is served, many of the passengers are falling ill and a doctor (Nielsen) who happens to be onboard realizes that there must have been something wrong with the fish. When the cockpit crew also fall victim to food poisoning, Ted has no choice but to face his demons and try to land the plane.
Throwing everything at a wall
This is the directing debut of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, the comedy-writing trio who hooked up with director John Landis in 1977 for The Kentucky Fried Movie. Their first attempt at directing was a great success and remains a classic, following a formula that recommends throwing everything at a wall and see what sticks. Enough of it does, a great deal of it in fact. There seems to be something weird or funny going on in every shot, sometimes in the dialogue or the background; many jokes fall flat for various reasons, but the sheer amount of them is a guarantee that you’ll find something to like. However, the key to success in this case is also the film’s audacity and brilliant casting. This is a movie where you’ll see a little girl play grownups and say no thanks to milk in her coffee because she takes it “black, just like my men”; this is also a movie where you’ll see Peter Graves ask a boy if he’s ever seen “a grown man naked”. Funny how it seems virtually impossible for a movie nowadays to make such brazen jokes about children and pedophilia and get away with it, but it’s absolutely hilarious in this case and oddly enough fits perfectly with the extreme silliness of the rest of the material. The gags felt fresh, at least at the time, even though the direction looks amateurish. The disaster movie genre was certainly ready for a send-up, and I loved the less obvious inside joke of having Maureen McGovern (who performed two Oscar-winning songs for disaster movies in the ’70s) appear as the singing nun.
As for the casting, the directors saw a chance to fill the movie with older, male actors who’d done their share of straight-faced cardboard characters in a lot of B movies; by once again playing it straight they bring the biggest laughs. They’re almost outdone however by the legendary Ethel Merman in her last appearance – also doing what she’s always done… albeit with an ingenious twist.
Airplane! 1980-U.S. 86 min. Color. Produced by Jon Davison, Howard W. Koch. Written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker. Cast: Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson), Robert Stack (Rex Kramer), Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar… Leslie Nielsen. Cameo: Ethel Merman.
Trivia: Christopher Lee was allegedly considered for a role. Followed by Airplane II: The Sequel (1982).
Last word: “People tell me, ‘You guys were the first ones to do that kind of comedy,’ and I say, ‘Thank you.’ But the truth of the matter is, we were following in the footsteps of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy and ‘The Goon Show.’ It’s all one long evolution, and we just happened to be one of the steps along that path.’” (Jerry Zucker, The New York Times)