Thursday 24 July 2008

'80s RETRO: Airplane! (1980)

Thursday 24 July 2008
Writers & Directors: David Zucker, Jim Abrahams & Jerry Zucker

Cast: Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson), Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack), Lloyd Bridges (Steve McCroskey), Peter Graves (Captain Clarence Oveur), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Roger Murdock), Lorna Patterson (Randy), Robert Stack (Captain Rex Kramer), Stephen Stucker (Johnny Henshaw), Frank Ashmore (Victor Basta), Jonathan Banks (Gunderson), Craig Berenson (Paul Carey), Barbara Billingsley (Jive Lady), Lee Bryant (Mrs. Hammen), Joyce Bulifant (Mrs. Davis), Marcy Goldman (Mrs. Geline), Ross Harris (Joey) & James Hong (Japanese General)

The first movie hatched from the minds of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (hereafter ZAZ), following their writing of Kentucky Fried Movie ('77), Airplane! is a riotous spoof of airline disaster movies, following the basic plot of Zero Hour! ('57).

Robert Hays play Ted Striker, a wartime fighter pilot whose experiences gave him a fear of flying, who boards Trans American Flight 209 to try and get back together with erstwhile girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), a stewardess on the flight. Unfortunately, after the cockpit crew are incapacitated by food poisoning, Striker becomes the only man capable of landing the plane full of passengers...

For a comedy approaching its 30th anniversary, Airplane! holds up remarkably well, mainly because its parodies of then-modern hits like Saturday Night Fever are kept to a minimum. The same won't hold true for modern spoofs Scary Movie and Meet The Spartans, crass films that revel in lazy mirroring of contemporary pop-culture, outdating themselves the moment they're released.

Filmed in 1979 and released in 1980, Airplane! has dated aesthetically, but because it pokes fun at old-fashioned disaster films (The Concord: Airport '79, et al), its late-70s creamy-brown veneer actually works in its favour. And the scenario of a regular guy trying to land a passenger jet, with the help of a control tower's stern voice, is lodged in the mass consciousness as a timelessly amusing cliché. It even carries more relevance in today's post-911 world than it did back in the '80s, too.

Another masterstroke with Airplane! comes from the astute casting of actors then only known for their dramatic roles. Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen were "proper" actors, not comedians -- although the latter duo would become prolific in spoofs as a result of their standout roles here. While today it's difficult not to grin at square-jawed Stack, glue-sniffing Bridges, nonchalant pervert Graves ("have you ever been in a Turkish prison?") and pokerfaced Nielsen ("don't call me Shirley"), their involvement in such a daft comedy exacerbated the hilarity back then.

At a sprightly 87-minutes, the gag-rate is one the highest ever achieved in a comedy. Airplane! overflows with sight gags, one-liners, wordplay, non sequiturs, pratfalls, parodies and in-jokes. Barely a moment goes by without something to make you smile, and the abundance of material rewards multiple viewings. Just a few years ago I noticed how a scene set in Rex Kramer's home was actually a clever optical illusion -- as the shot is presented as if Kramer's being seen reflected a mirror, until he steps through the "mirror" (actually a doorway). I don't know how I'd missed it all these years, but how many other comedies are you still discovering jokes in 20+ years later? Being British, I also didn't realize "co-pilot" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a famous basketball player, the Michael Jordan of his day, until the mid-90s.

Like all great comedies, many of its jokes have entered the global consciousness and become as quotable as Monty Python. The classic exchange "surely you can't be serious? / I am serious. And don't call be Shirley" is the most obvious example, while the delightfully silly idea of inflatable "auto-pilot" Otto never gets old. But there are also some well-written moments of dialogue (the "how soon can you land?" conversation), clever jokes (the Jive Talking), gross-outs (the shit literally hits the fan), and extreme silliness (Ted's "drinking problem" means he throws cups of water into his own face). Its fondness for fast, scatological humour was later appropriated into '90s shows like South Park and Family Guy -- in many animation being the natural place for ZAZ-style humour.

Airplane! is an influential giant of its genre; a spoof that came hot-on-the-heels of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles in the '70s, but punched the quality, quantity and pace through the roof. It became the fourth most successful movie of 1980, grossing $83 million at the box-office while costing a mere $3.5 million. The three members of ZAZ sprinkled the '80s and early-90s with great spoofs like The Naked Gun trilogy and Hot Shots! couplet, but there's something alchemically perfect about their first venture together. Airplane! stands apart as the best of the ZAZ oeuvre, and one that will entertain and amuse generations to come.

Shirley, I am serious.

Paramount Pictures
Budget: $3.5 million
87 minutes