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Note: Most reviews of Airplane! are content to simply reiterate a handful of its funnier jokes. For those who have yet to see the film, I'll offer no spoilers. Honest.
Monty Python is credited with reigniting the idea that Silly is Funny, something that had perhaps soured a bit in Mad magazine during the 'cool' sixties. But the incomparably funny Airplane! owes much to Bill Gaines' wild humor magazine, which was fond of crazy movie parodies right from its first issues: Ping Pong!, Flesh Garden, Superduperman! Silly gags, puns and visual non-sequiturs chased each other so quickly that giddy paroxisms would result. No individual joke had to make sense for longer than the time it took to read it.
Airplane! keeps the mirth going for almost 90 minutes, a definite record in screen comedies based on a spoof premise. As clever as a parody may be, once the audience absorbs the general joke being put across, they tend to sag. Even something as reasonably inspired as Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? isn't consistently amusing, and a loser like Start the Revolution Without Me just sits there most of the time. Parody can easily be "too hip for the house," get lazy or outsmart itself by being so clever that it forgets to be funny.
The only thing remotely resembling Airplane! in 1980 were the 'old movie' spoofs on Carol Burnett's television show. Perhaps the real progenitor is a Universal film that hasn't been seen much in over 60 years, 1940's Hellzapoppin by the Broadway comedy team of Olsen and Johnson. Descriptions make it sound as if it used the general Mad magazine style. The gargantuan comedy spectacular 1941 had some big laughs but was just too massive and labored to be consistently enjoyable. The Big Bus had a wild sense of humor, but audiences thought the gag was a little too drawn out. The Zuckers and Abrahams had been zeroing in on this particular comedy target for several years, concentrating not on colossal action setpieces but on what really makes people laugh. Nowadays a funny writer-directing team might find receptive studio ears by pitching their proposed comedy as, you know, like Airplane! But Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams of Kentucky Fried Theater fame spent years steering their concept through a series of rejections. Nobody "got it."
In-flight disaster movies are some of the most unintentionally hilarious films going. The premise that a plane is in trouble invariably leads to embarrassing scene chewing, spiritual conversion and manic behavior. The High and the Mighty is barely rescued from idiocy by a fine John Wayne performance and a great music score, but cheaper follow-up pictures (Fate is the Hunter) amped up the melodrama and came off as major embarrassments. The Zuckers caught Zero Hour on the Late Show and were struck by how idiotically it now played, as if it had been planned as a comedy. Audiences assume that Airplane! is a riff on the then-popular Airport series of increasingly awful in-flight jeopardy pictures, but it's modeled closely on Zero Hour, right down to setups and dialogue lines.
Airplane! has a firm handle on great, silly gags that work because of their recognition value. It's as if we've been taking these old pictures semi-seriously for decades without realizing that they're hilarious, and Airplane! shows us a new way of looking at them. It's not disrespectful because people who know the old movies are painfully aware of how they were made. Journeymen actors showed up with their scripts memorized, men like Lloyd Bridges, Richard Denning, Dana Andrews, Frank Lovejoy, Arthur Franz. They were hired because they could dish out long passages of exposition and make it understood. These guys' stock in trade was unflappability. 1 If a truck drove through the stage wall they'd probably continue in perfect character until the director said "cut." And it takes skill to give flat, stern exposition lines the kind of earnest import they need. These are the people that work hard being second-banana functionaries in big films while the stars read the easy lines and hog all the attention with their egotistical 'motivation difficulties.'
So the beauty of Airplane! is that it's not throwaway humor with actors doing whatever they want. Bridges and Robert Stack (the princes of countless dramas requiring deadpan intensity and terse line readings) keep straight faces despite the provocations of control-tower queen Steven Stucker's Johnny Hinshaw. Peter Graves gives every absurd dialogue line his patented 100% sincerity sales push, even when he's hitting on a nine-year-old boy. Best of all is Leslie Nielsen's doctor Rumack. Dramatic actor Nielsen was cheerfully unexceptional in just about everything he did (Forbidden Planet, The Opposite Sex ... see his screen test for Ben-Hur sometime ...) even though he was obviously a borderline nut in person. Nielsen eventually found his place as mostly colorless television baddies, making the stars look good. As if built for comedy parody, Nielsen's sense of timing and finesse with ridiculous material turned out to be the beginning of a glorious second career. These guys instinctively knew what the Zuckers and Abrahams had in mind, or at least most of them did. As reported in the extras on this "Don't Call Me Shirley!" edition, when Bridges asked Stack if a joke was going to work, Stack said, "Lloyd, we are the joke."
With this background, all that Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays need do is be sincere and underreact to the provocations of 1001 absurd jokes, gags, breakaway sets, water dump tanks and disco fever nonsense. But they're charming in their own right - we like their personalities and accept them, even though they're as silly as everyone else is. Airplane! doesn't have any normal leads for the audience to identify with, forcing us into the Zuckers and Abraham's crazy world.
Paramount's Don't Call Me Shirley! edition of one of the funniest films ever made, Airplane! is a very good if not fabulous transfer. It's sharp and colorful but dirtier than one would expect, and not just in the frequent optical sections. The audio is in 5.1 or 2.0 (with a French mono) but I don't know if the stereo tracks are remixed or simply reprocessed.
The extras are a comedy bonanza in their own right, although accessibility to most of the goodies requires watching the entire movie again. The Zuckers, Abrahams, and producer Jon Davison provide an amusing commentary that duplicates some information in the disc's playful trivia track. Balloons pop up to identify extras or point out tell-tale wires and crewmen lurking around the periphery of shots, and also add some jokes of their own.
There's no making-of docu with film clips wrapped around actors and creatives explaining how this or that happened, or how a gag came about. Instead, a "Long Haul Version" forces one to watch the film all over again, with frequent programmed "seamless branches" that interrupt for input by the Zuckers, Abrahams, Davison, the special effects man and actors Hay, Nielsen, Graves (who claims innocence in regard to the 'bad taste' in the script), Lorna Patterson, Lee Bryant, Norman Alexander Gibbs, Nicholas Pryor, Rossie Harris and Al White.
A couple of good deleted scenes are presented in the "Long Haul" and the enthusiastic interviewees offer dozens of worthy anecdotes, with the memories of Nielsen and Graves coming off the best. They also fondly mention actors not present -- Julie Hagerty, Maureen McGovern, and many who have since passed away. The most startling revelation is in the "shit hit the fan" gag: The first attempt with an air mortar full of bean dip missed and hit actor Stephen Stucker square in the chest ... and he reportedly freaked out.
The "Long Haul Version" also has a few clips from Hall Bartlett's Zero Hour that make us desperately want to see that movie --- Airplane! is really a comic remake. Airplane!'s success in 1980 surely (Shirley?) put the Airport series out of business, an unsung service that deserved a special Oscar.
The original Trailer is also included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Unflappability is a perfectly crumulent word.