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Thursday, June 2, 2016


Character driven, rich in dialogue, and sight gags, Airplane! is a work which broke new ground in film comedy.
Fast paced and rich in subtleties.
In writing about motion picture classics, very few of them have been comedies. I recall having written about Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as well as the comedic talents of directors Billy Wilder, Charles Chaplin, Woody Allen, as well as a few other films, which were great movies, but only mildly funny, undeserving to be classed as film comedies. In addition, I still have a few such films I may highlight in the future, such as Blazing Saddles, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Home Alone. As you can see, I set a pretty high bar. When it comes to comedy classics, it takes a lot to make me laugh. One of my favorite comedy classics comes from Jim Abrahams and the brothers David and Jerry Zucker--the 1980 classic Airplane!

From the makers of The Kentucky Fried Movie came the hilarious
parody of the popular disaster movies of the 1970s and 80s.
Same plot, different handling.
Despite being a comedy classic, Airplane! was heavily based on the drama-thriller from 1957, Zero Hour (left). In fact most of the plot, even some of the character names were retained by writer/directors Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers to the point that the film could easily be termed a parody remake of the original movie. The three even went so far as to purchase the rights to Zero Hour from Warner Bros. and Paramount. The film is known for its use of surreal humor and fast-paced slapstick comedy, including visual gags and verbal puns. In fact, I encountered some difficulty in selecting photos for use here in that the movie is almost totally devoid of any form of spectacle, instead it relies of clever comic dialogue, some of which has risen to rest among of the most quotable lines from motion picture archives--"I am serious...and dont call me Shirley."

Playing it straight, Lloyd Bridges,  Robert Stack,
Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen--not
a comedian amongst the lot of them
 Julie Hagerty's famous line.
Keep calm and enjoy the chaos.
The young writer/directors deliberatly did not cast comic actors in any of the leading roles. Besides Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen, rounding out the cast were Robert Hayes (below) as Ted Striker, Julie Hagerty (right) as stewardess Elaine Dickinson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as co-pilot Roger Murdock. Cameo roles were played by Barbara Billingsley, Ethel Merman, singer Mau-reen McGovern, Jimmie Walker, and "Otto" as himself, each having their comic moments, even though, by and large, it's the material, rather than the performances which generates the laughs.

Robert Hayes as Ted Stryker, the reluctant hero of the
movie, literally sweating blood.
Robert Stack impersonating
Robert Stack.
The writing trio knew director John Landis, who encouraged them to write a film called The Kentucky Fried Movie, made during the late 1970s. David Zucker explains: "It was the first time we had ever been on a movie set. We learned a lot. We learned that if you really wanted a movie to come out the way you wanted it to, you had to direct. So on the next movie, Airplane!, we insisted on directing." Shooting took 34 days during August of 1979. Jerry Zucker stood beside the camera during shooting, while David Zucker and Jim Abra-hams watched the video feed to see how the film would look. Later, they conferred after each take. They saved money by casting members of their families in bit parts. David and Jerry themselves appear in the beginning as the two ground-crew members who accidentally cause a 747 to taxi into a terminal window (the film's one and only spectacle shot). Abrahams is one of many religious zealots scattered by Stack (literally) throughout the terminal. Charlotte Zucker (David's and Jerry's mother) is seen attempting to apply makeup while the plane experiences turbulence. Their sister, Susan Breslau, is a ticket agent at the airport. Jim Abrahams' mother is the woman sitting next to Dr. Rumack (Nielsen).

As Dr. Rumack, Leslie Nielsen's dry humor "carries" the film,
 the main link between virtually all the characters.

Upon its release in July, 1980, the film was an instant hit. It made back its $3.2-million budget its frist weekend in theaters. Overall, it earned more than $83 million at the box office making it the fourth highest-grossing film of 1980. Airplane! was also widely regarded by critics as one of the best films of 1980. A critic termed it "unabashedly juvenile and silly, [yet] an uproarious comedy spoof full of quotable lines and slapstick gags that endure to this day." Roger Ebert wrote, "Airplane! is sophomoric, obvious, predictable, corny, and quite often very funny. And the reason it's funny is frequently because it's sophomoric, predictable, [and]corny.

Airplane! has been selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. It was also placed on a similar list by The New York Times, a list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made. In 2000 the American Film Institute named Airplane! as number ten on its list of the 100 funniest American films. That same year, readers of Total Film voted it the second greatest comedy film of all time. Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges saw shifts in their public images as a result of their roles in Airplane! Bridges went on to play similar comedic self-parodies in Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux along with Mafia!, all films cast in a similar vein as Airplane! Stack took on comedic roles in Caddyshack II, and the lesser-known, Beavis and Butt-head Do America and BASEketball.

In 1982, Airplane II: The Sequel, was released in an attempt to tackle the science fiction genre, while maintaining an emphasis on the general theme of disaster movies. Although most of the cast reunited for the sequel, the writers and directors of Airplane! chose not to be involved. Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, claim never to have seen Airplane II, nor to have any desire to see it.

It's funnier in the film.

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