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Paramount Presents: Airplane!
Who doesn't like Airplane! ?
Fans can remember every last joke, and will laugh even if they're seeing it for the tenth time. It's still hilarious forty years after disco died. Its sex and race-centric humor is so basically sweet, it flies under the PC radar. And there's always Otto, the taciturn pilot with an inflated sense of himself. By the end of the 1970s the world was inundated with every kind of slick skit humor, put-on comedy relying on cultural references, political sarcasm and college-grade raunch. The chief inspiration for Airplane's scattershot, non-sequitur parade of visual gags is usually pegged as Mad magazine. Bill Gaines' wild humor magazine doted on crazy movie parodies right in its first issues: Ping Pong!, Flesh Garden, Superduperman! Silly gags and visual puns were jammed into the margins. No individual joke had to make sense for longer than the time it took to read it.
Airplane! keeps the mirth going when many latter-day spoof comedies bog down. Parody can easily be too hip for the house. It can get lazy or outsmart itself by being so clever that it forgets to be funny. Even extra-clever spoofs tends to sag as soon as the basic joke wears out its welcome. The show actually has a strong plot skeleton. Distraught ex-fighter pilot and taxi driver Ted Striker (Robert Hays) boards the plane of his girlfriend/stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), hoping to convince her not to leave him. Unfortunately, a catastrophic food poisoning incident in mid-flight leaves the plane without a functioning crew. Ted must steel himself to take responsibility for landing a kind of plane he knows nothing about -- but first he must overcome the crippling neurosis that stems from his traumatic wartime failure in the big Raid on Macho Grande. See? What's so funny about that?
Most audiences of 1980 knew Mad as well as the spirited movie spoofs on Carol Burnett's TV show. But recent attempts at outlandish comedy hadn't done well, as witness the gargantuan 1941 and the likable The Big Bus. ZZ&A of Kentucky Fried Theater fame spent years steering their goofy airplane movie concept through a series of studio rejections. Nobody 'got it.'
Airplane's movie references are classic-eclectic. Unintentionally hilarious melodramas and genre pictures were a major cultural undercurrent in the 'seventies, a spinoff of 'camp' perhaps. Ed Wood was just being 'discovered.' But for a consistent font of they-can't-be-serious plotting and overwrought performances, the Zuckers and Abrahams gravitated toward the in-flight disaster epic: The High and the Mighty, The Crowded Sky, Fate is the Hunter. But Airplane! is actually a comedy adaptation of the unbelievably corny Zero Hour!, which plays as a nearly wholly unintentional comedy anyway. The 1957 suspense thriller has the exact same plot and even some of the same character names. The Zuckers found it so funny, they couldn't believe it hadn't been planned as a comedy all along. Audiences of 1980 assumed that Airplane! was riffing on the then-popular Airport series of increasingly awful in-flight jeopardy pictures. But it's really an expanded remake of Zero Hour, right down to camera setups and dialogue lines.
Workaday Hollywood moviemaking of the past was mostly medium range pictures without big stars, made on strict budgets. Journeymen actors showed up with their scripts memorized. Reliables like Lloyd Bridges, Richard Denning, Dana Andrews, Frank Lovejoy, Arthur Franz were hired because they could dish out long passages of exposition and make it understood. Their stock in trade was unflappability. They hardly ever blew a line. Nothing would cause them to break character, until the director said 'cut.' It takes skill to give earnest import to flat, stern exposition lines. In big films, these actors worked hard playing second-banana functionaries while the stars read the easy lines and hogged the camera attention. A go-to guy like Peter Graves was never granted egotistical 'motivation difficulties.'
Airplane! is not improvised; the actors aren't doing whatever they want. Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack maintain straight faces despite the provocations of Steven Stucker's control-tower queen 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. As a dramatic actor Leslie Nielsen had been cheerfully unexceptional in just about everything he did -- see his screen test for Ben-Hur sometime. He eventually found his place as colorless television baddies, making the stars look good. As if built for comedy parody, Nielsen's sense of timing and comic finesse turned out to be the beginning of a glorious second career. These guys soon realized what the Zuckers and Abrahams had in mind, or at least most of them did. As reported in the extras, when Bridges asked Stack if a joke was going to work, Stack said, "Lloyd, we are the joke."
With this background, the charming Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays only need to be sincere and underreact to the provocations of the insanity around them -- breakaway sets, water dump tanks and disco fever nonsense. We like their personalities and accept their silly personal proclivities. With no 100% straight characters, Airplane! forces us into Abrahams and the Zuckers' crazy cartoon world. We love the picture.
Paramount Presents' 40th Anniversary Blu-ray of Airplane! has a spiffy new transfer that reenergizes the screen, with its bright TV-movie colors and clever miniature effects. Older dull transfers can now be forgotten, as can some of the dirt everybody noticed on earlier editions. They've organized the extras very well. The new interview piece with Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker allows them to tell the story of the making of the film from a greater distance, and it helps. They say they directed their actors with the words, 'don't act like you're in a comedy.'
Airplane! was revived for a special screening at the Egyptian. The same co-writers - co-directors attended a post-screening Q&A, presented here as the second new extra. The biggest issue with the movies seemed to be getting studio executives to understand how a comedy without comedians would work. They did take out a couple of jokes on the basis of taste, like an 'Air Poland' gag. The Q&A piece is very amusing -- these guys haven't lost their sense of humor.
On the setup menu is the older 2006 commentary with producer Jon Davison joining the three principals. There's also an Isolated Score Track for Elmer Bernstein's music, something we're happy to see (or hear). One good detail is that the generous subtitles include subs for the commentary, in English, French, German and Japanese. That kind of buyer-friendly attitude is very welcome these days. No trailer is included. Readers are recommended to find a way to take in the astoundingly cornball / lovable Zero Hour! It's got Sterling Hayden, Linda Darnell and Dana Andrews as you've never seen them before --- and may never want to see them again.
Sound: Excellent English, German, French, Japanese
Supplements: Featurette with the writers/directors; screening Q&A with the writers/directors; 2005 commentary with the writers/director and producer Jon Davison; Isolated Score Track.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: (feature and commentaries) English, English SDH, French, German, Japanese
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: August 26, 2020
Text (C) Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson