A film review by Craig J. Koban
25th Anniversary Retrospective
25th Anniversary Retrospective Review
1980, PG, 88 mins.
Lloyd Bridges: McCriskey / Peter Graves: Captain Oveur / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Murdock / Julie Hagerty: Elaine / Robert Hays: Striker / Leslie Nielsen: Rumack
Written and directed by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker
If I were going to teach a course on the best of cinematic screen comedy then I would have an eclectic list of filmmakers and films, to be sure. Guys by the names of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and The Marx Brothers would be there high on the list, most likely followed by Mel Brooks, whose first major feature, THE PRODUCERS, remains one of the funniest of all screen comedies.
Oh, I would also not fail to include Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers (Jerry and David). They made one of the most underrated films of high hilarity in 1984’s TOP SECRET! and, at least in my humble opinion, made the funniest film I have ever seen in 1980’s AIRPLANE! It is, quite simply put, an unadulterated masterpiece of silliness, buffoonery, juvenile high jinks, sophomoric sight gags, and sharply pointed satire and overall corniness. The fact that it holds every modern Hollywood cliché and convention up to sharp ridicule should not undermine its greatness. It’s a masterfully dumb film.
I look at all prospective film genres through divergent lenses. Obviously, the way I subjectively evaluate a film’s worth is in how well it adheres to and goes beyond what is expected of its genre. In other words, films are not black and white entities that should be all looked at in the same manner. Dramas move us on a deeply resonate emotional level; thrillers are meant to inspire tension and scares; escapist fantasies are meant to instill in the audience a undeniable sense of endless wonder in their sights; and screen comedies, quite earnestly, are meant to inspire consistent laughter in those that view it. At the risk of genre shuffling and engaging in wild, hyperbolic metaphors, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers’ AIRPLANE is the CITIZEN KANE of screen comedies.
I first saw AIRPLANE in 1984, perhaps a bit too early for me to draw out the obvious satiric elements that are clearly there, but not too young enough to giggle incessantly at all of the film’s physical sight gags. Today, I can claim to have seen the film perhaps more times than I have any other comedy and with each new viewing I am a bit amazed at how I manage to still laugh at the film’s gags every time, without failure. Actually, the films of ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker) have always made me laugh twice – once initially at the film’s moment of hilarity and a second time at myself for laughing at something so unapologetically dumb and moronic. Consider one sly and not so subtle moment when the stewardess in AIRPLANE tells her passengers, “There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?” See what I mean? If making films that bathed in waters of complete inanity, preposterousness, and stupidity where seen as high art, then ZAZ should be given honorary doctorates.
ZAZ’s penchant going to any length to make their audiences laugh began earlier than AIRPLANE. Their 1977 freshmen effort, THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, was a largely inspired comic film that was nothing more than a series of short, highly irreverent, and quite often tasteless skits. Some of the individual skits were a mixed bag, but there was no denying ZAZ’s incredible appetite for being zany in a capricious and boisterously colorful ways. My favourite single highlight from that film was their enthusiastic and spirited satire of Bruce Lee Kung Fu films called, amusingly, A FISTFUL OF YEN. Yes, film satires were nothing new at the time (Mel Brooks had been doing them for years), but ZAZ’s appeal was noticeably different. They not only appropriated elements and themes from many past films and held them up to ridicule, but they never hid from their obvious desire to beg and borrow from other films...as much as possible.
As I wrote in my TOP SECRET review, the true genius of ZAZ’s comic appeal lies in the essence that their films play like “MAD MAGAZINE on high dosages of caffeine supplements.” They simply don’t care if they are caught ripping off another film. They care more about using those borrowed elements and making us laugh uproariously. Nothing is not funny to them, whether it be organ donor clinics, army hospitals, nuns, people with drug addictions of varying degrees, human excrement, female breasts jiggling in unison with a bowl full of Jell-O...whatever! ZAZ’s sense of perverse dedication to their craft should be appreciated and commended. They are just not afraid to be held back by any politically correct conventions to get their point across and get that all-important laugh.
AIRPLANE, much like their other past and future works, is like a wonderful recipe of diverse, yet peppy ingredients. Nothing is left on the kitchen table. They utilize every comic trick in the book – they use sight gags, both crude and clean; political humor; ethnic pointed satire and wisecracks; vulgar language and scatological situations, not to mention well laid out anthology of already widely known and respected film clichés and formulas. In order to create this all in one, uniform mixture ZAZ’s uses their impeccable comic timing and sense of consistency and rhythm. There is a laugh to be found at every corner of AIRPLANE, and modern screen comedies, which more often than not are comic dead zones of puerile, bodily function laughs, only dream of achieving the enormous chuckle consistency of AIRPLANE.
A FISTFUL OF YEN proved to be a small comic skit that would allow ZAZ to make a smooth transition to AIRPLANE. Like YEN, it is a wonderfully conceived and wry satire of past films, most specifically the disaster films of the 1970’s. AIRPLANE’S mockery holds stronger and truer to a few films in particular, one being Arthur Hailery’s AIRPORT and even more specifically AIRPORT 1975. That film, if you don’t recall, featured many elements that have a scary similarity to AIRPLANE - a stewardess that is forced to pilot a plane after both pilots are incapacitated, a girl needing a kidney transplant, and a singing nun that brings joy to the girl through song. Funny, but I don’t recall the nun knocking off the girl’s life support tubing and thus sending her into an epileptic fit in AIRPORT 1975 as she gleefully did in AIRPLANE, but I digress.
The second, yet equally important, influence on AIRPLANE was a 1957 film called ZERO HOUR!, where the main character was named Ted Stryker and had such famous "not meant to be funny" lines like "We have to find someone who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner." Again, AIRPLANE is decidedly similar in more than superficial levels. AIRPLANE also manages to spoof and lampoon other famous films - modern populist entertainments of the time like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and JAWS and classics like KNUTE ROCKNE, ALL AMERICAN and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, the latter film ZAZ freely admits to have never seen before making AIRPLANE. That is funny in itself.
Nevertheless, AIRPLANE was not an easy film to get the green light from Paramount Pictures, the company that eventually released the film. As revealed in the DVD’s audio commentary, the only way ZAZ could secure the thumbs up to make their comedy was to sell it as “ANIMAL HOUSE on a plane”, a comparison that, in hindsight, does not really appear analogous. Yet, this white lie was a complete necessity on their part to engage the studio executives in understanding that they wanted to make a farce, albeit with some clear delineations.
The inspiration for making AIRPLANE seems so deceptively simple. Even before the first draft was written in 1974, ZAZ found inspiration for their KENTUCKY FRIED THEATRE skits by watching TV. Oftentimes, ZAZ would videotape TV all night and look at all of the shows and commercials and find ways to mock and parody them. One night they caught wind of ZERO HOUR and AIRPLANE, in essence, was born. ZAZ’s zeal to take AIRPLANE to successful fruition went so far that they even managed to purchase the rights to ZERO HOUR to ensure that no possible legal ramifications would have resulted.
AIRPLANE’s plot is as simpleminded as they come. The entire crew of a Chicago bound plane that originates from LA is stricken with a disastrous string of food poisoning. Even the pilots themselves are incapacitated and are unable to fly the plane. Of course, only one man cane fly the plane to a successful landing. That man is the troubled Ted Striker (the very funny Robert Hays). Striker was a pilot with a once sterling reputation, having flown in “the War” on many successful missions. Which war? Well, if you consider ZAZ’s shrewd usage of WWII archive footage, it could be the second or first World War, which would make Striker a man in his 60’s, a far cry from his thirtysomething visage – an obvious running gag.
Anyhow, Striker found himself in the midst of tragedy in “the War” and now discovers that he is unable to fly…ever again. Striker then saw his life after “the War” come tumbling down. Even his love interest Elaine (Julie Hagerty) wants to have nothing to do with him. At the beginning of the film he follows Elaine through the airport and desperately tries to woe her back. He fails. He becomes so discouraged that he does what any man that faces rejection would do – he punches out a religious zealot who is peddling in the terminal. If that was not bad enough, he has a "serious drinking problem”, which is a bit more literal than you might think. His “problem" is not alcoholic – he simply can’t connect a glass with his mouth.
Needless to say, Striker decides to buy a ticket on board to follow Elaine (when asked if he wants “smoking or non-smoking”, he replies that he wants “smoking”, to which the clerk hands him a burning ticket, another brilliant sight gag). Yet, by the time everyone on board becomes ill and faces death, Ted is the only one capable of flying the plane down to safety. Of course, he teams up with Elaine, who encourages his noble side to do what is right, which is not made anymore the easier when he finds out that his old army boss, Rex Kramer (the never-more-hilarious-than-here Robert Stack) taunts him from the ground. Steve McCroskey (played by Lloyd Bridges, terrifically mocking his own image as a serious actor) plays the air traffic controller that works with Kramer to help Striker and company down. Striker seems to like the fact that, despite the notion that he needs his old superior’s help, he feels in charge. “I guess the foot’s on the other hand now, Kramer,” he yells at him.
There are also a number of other lively supporting characters and actors in the film. In an obvious ode to ZERO HOUR’S usage of a real sports athlete (in its case, pro football player Elroy 'Crazylegs' Hirsch) to play the co-pilot of the plane, ZAZ enlists then Bball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a member of their flight crew. The gag here is that everyone around him thinks he’s Kareem, but he always just tries to pass himself off as a lowly co-pilot. When one young boy, who comes up to the cockpit for a visit, keeps nagging him on that he is - in fact - Kareem and that his dad thinks he does not play hard, Kareem responds, “The hell I don't. Listen kid, I've been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I'm out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.” To make matters worse for the inquisitive child, he must also answer the peculiar questions of the captain, named Oveur (played in another funny performance by Peter Graves) who is inquisitive in his own sick way. “Joey, do you like movies about Gladiators?”
Rounding off the cast is future ZAZ Hall of Shamer Leslie Nielsen, who plays the lone doctor on the plane, Rumack, to underplayed, deadpanned perfection. He was one of the men on board that was spared of the food poisoning (the choices for food on board was fish or chicken, but the doctor wisely remembers that he dined on Lasagna). It is through Nielsen (as well as the other stars like Graves, Bridges, and Stack, to similar degrees) that establishes the greatness of AIRPLANE’S comic energy.
This film succeeds terrifically by the way Hollywood tough guys and leading men are cast in broad comic parts and then play them absolutely straight. The integral element here is for Nielsen and company to not overplay the laughs for effect. Instead, playing the shenanigans as straight as an arrow leads to some of the film’s bigger laughs, like the now immortal exchange: “Striker: Surely you can’t be serious? Rumack: Of course I’m serious, and stop calling me “Shirley”!” Neilson’s incredible way of generating the largest of chuckles with the smallest inkling of effort would prove to be a bold career move for him, as he would later further sculpt and perfect this style in other future comic masterpieces like THE NAKED GUN series.
Much like the famous MAD MAGAZINE, which ZAZ has clearly studied, there is comedy at every corner of the frame of this film, often in the forefront, more times in the background where you’d least expect it. Watching this film once is just not enough, as you could easily notice jokes that you might have missed the first time around. Some inspire endless laughter, like the before-mentioned little girl who is separated from life support by the singing stewardess. Also funny are the shelves of the Mayo Clinic that have jars of, you guessed it, mayonnaise in it; a nun reads BOY’S LIFE while a nearby boy reads ‘NUNS LIFE’; two girl scouts erupt into a violent brawl in a seedy navy bar; the plane’s autopilot is less a computer invention than it is a blow up doll that sure likes to get blown up; and some unexpected laughs that are generated at the most politically incorrect peripheral characters of the film – two African Americans that speak their own ghetto tongue (jive) so thickly that subtitles are required. Thankfully, an old white woman can translate to the ignorant stewardess. Jive, apparently, has no color barriers.
The rest of the comedy in the film that is not overtly visual is derived from the dry dialogue, and there are just too many exchanges alone to mention that remain to this day to be pain inducing in their merriment.
Elaine: Would you like something to read?
Young Boy with Coffee: Excuse me, I happened
to be passing, and I thought you might like some coffee.
Ted Striker: My orders came through. My
squadron ships out tomorrow. We're bombing the storage depots at Daiquiri at
1800 hours. We're coming in from the north, below their radar.
You'd better tell the Captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This
woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
[as the plane prepares to take off]
…and my personal all-time favourite film exchange:
Captain, how soon can you land?
AIRPLANE, a modestly cheap film in 1980 at only $3.5 million, went on to be the comic smash of the year, grossing an astounding $83 million dollars. The film was a huge hit with modern audiences, who really never knew what hit them – all other future comic satires owe a considerable debt to this film. I guess, in this way, that AIRPLANE is unquestionably a great and seminal film, one that is not only an outstanding achievement in film comedy in and of itself, but it’s also a film that made me laugh more than any other, before or since.
AIRPLANE, 25 years later, remains one of the cinema’s most cherished and respected screen comedies, despite its moronic content. It is a non-stop outbreak of sight gags, puns, innuendoes, exaggerations, caricatures, and idiotic dialogue and exchanges - perhaps some of the silliest I’ve ever seen. Yet, despite its obsessive, juvenile nature, I never had any hesitation at placing this film proudly on my list of the GREATEST FILMS OF ALL-TIME, alongside such movies made by mavericks like Kubrick, Leone, Scorsese, DePalma, Lucas, Spielberg, and…yes…Welles.
Is it great like the films of these pioneers? No, not in the slightest. Yet, its greatness can be defined by its accomplishments relative to its genre – it made me laugh, laugh hard, and laugh more than any other screen comedy. The fact that it’s a comedy should not merit an exclusion from my list of cinema’s finest films. Surely, if you watch AIRPLANE having never laughed once throughout its tight and taut 88 minute running time, then you’ve obviously picked the wrong week to stop smoking…or taking amphetamines…or sniffing glue.