Airplane! (1981) dir. Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker
Starring: Robert Hays, Julie Haggerty, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges
“Airplane!” wasn’t the first spoof film – Mel Brooks probably takes that honour – but it was so successful and influential it is most certainly responsible for spawning the dozen or so spoof knock-offs which seems to be an annual tradition these days. It was an essential film of my youth. It's juvenileness and crudeness dates the film compared to the politically correctness of today, but its still one of the funniest films of all time.
“Airplane!” spoofs the 70’s trend of disaster films such as “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Airport 1970”. Robert Hays plays Ted Stryker a former pilot and war vet who pines after his estranged lover Elaine (Julie Haggerty). When Elain leaves him at the airport for a flight, Ted overcomes his fear of flying and buys a ticket to chase after her. While in the air a sickness overcomes the crew and Stryker finds himself the only pilot who can bring the crew and passengers to safety. Stryker gets the girl and redeems himself for his painful mistakes during the war.
Hardly sounds like a plot synopsis of one of the funniest films of all time? This is the reason why “Airplane!” works so well – and where the recent crop of spoof films fail. “Airplane!” is rooted in a real story, which if told in another genre could actually work. Although the filmmakers try their best to score every gag, not everything hits the mark for everybody, but in between the lewd, rude and crude behaviour, there’s engaging and likeable characters. So when you’re not laughing, it’s not a chore to actually watch the film.
There’s an interesting psychological study in the viewing experience of this film - something about the inhibition and contagion of laughter. Having seen the film numerous times in my youth and loving every minute of it, this recent viewing after several years was different. The jokes were all very familiar, but I didn't find myself laughing. The set-up/punch line mechanisms were transparent and so it took a third of the way to get settled in.
The first joke that actually made me laugh out loud is one of the least famous. It occurs when the passengers are on the plane and the stewardess is handing out reading material. The old lady sitting beside Ted requests something light. So the stewardess suggests a small one page pamphlet on “Great Jewish Sports Figures”. It’s a throwaway joke, but for some reason had me laughing out loud for minutes. It was like a release of built up laughter with this minor gag setting me off. With this seal broken, for the rest of the movie I found myself laughing at almost everything that was thrown at me.
The second half is aided by Leslie Nielsen’s presence which takes the film to another level of painful laughter. Has there ever been a better deadpan? Seriously. Leslie Nielsen in his youth was a serious actor (see the great sci-fi picture “The Forbidden Planet”). In fact Marlon Brando once said he was Canada’s greatest actor – besting Donald Sutherland and Christopher Plummer. But after “Airplane!” Nielsen gained a second career as a deadpan comedian.
His Dr. Rummack is so wonderfully over-the-top serious. In fact, perhaps the most famous line in the film comes from him – Rummack: "Can you fly this plane and land it?" Stryker: “Surely you can’t be serious?” Rummack: “I am serious and don’t call me Shirley”.
The entire film is deadpan, and along with Nielsen, the ZAZ team round out the supporting cast by raiding some of the great authoritarian figures from television. Lloyd Bridges, who plays the Air Traffic Commander McClosky, was known for his adventure TV series – "Sea Hunt"; Peter Graves (Captain Oveur) was Jim Phelps in TV’s “Mission Impossible”; and Robert Stack was serious-personified as Elliot Ness in “The Untouchables.”
The recent airing in high definition on the HD Net channel was a great experience. The resolution and clarity was refreshing, but after years of watching the badly 'edited-for-content' television version, seeing it commercial free with all nudity, swearing and crassness intact made me feel like a naughty perverted youngster all over again. Enjoy.