FILM REVIEW: Airplane! (1980)

Airplane! (USA, 1980)
Directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker
Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges

It’s long been argued that horror and comedy are very close together, something amply demonstrated by a wide range of directors. On the one-hand we have the blood-soaked romps of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson; on the other hand, we have the dark quirky wit of the Coen brothers.

Airplane! demonstrates this affinity in a different way – by being so funny it’s physically painful. Thirty years on this spoof to end all spoofs will still have the corners of your mouth starting to ache as you constantly grin at the chaos unfolding. Most if not all of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny and the film successfully sustains this hilarity over a breathless ninety minutes. While not quite the funniest comedy ever made, it is definitely in the top five.One could be forgiven for viewing Airplane! with some form of contempt because of the comedy legacy it has left behind. Its particular style of quick-fire wordplay and oddball slapstick has certainly produced a lot of funny work. But ever since the third Naked Gun film, the talents of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker have steadily ebbed away, and somehow we have ended up with the Scary Movie franchise and the pathetic parodies of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Fortunately, one quick viewing of this trio’s first film is more than enough to put such feelings to bed.

Because of its incessant level of gags, the natural point of comparison would seem to be Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, in my review of Holy Grail, I remarked that only Airplane! has ever matched the Pythons’ film for sheer unrelenting laughter. And there are technical similarities between the two films, since were both made by first-time directors on very low budgets, and neither has any kind of underlying political message – these are not comedies which argue that mediaeval warfare is barbaric or that air travel is inhumane.However, while Holy Grail feels meticulously mapped out and builds very subtly, Airplane! is a much more ramshackle concoction. The jokes are chucked at the screen in quick succession, and often the plot slows right down so all the gags have a chance to play out. In this way, the film owes much more to the farcical slapstick traditions of Blake Edwards and the early films Woody Allen. Think of it as The Party on a plane, or Sleeper without the time travel (or any of Allen’s neuroticism).

Airplane! is at heart a spoof or satire of disaster movies, a genre which gave us The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and the Airport series from which this chiefly stems. The script is lifted virtually verbatim from Zero Hour!, a much-famed 1950s disaster movie starring Sterling Hayden, who would later play General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.By coincidence, the career of Sterling Hayden helps to illuminate why Airplane! not only succeeds but flourishes. In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick took a piece of serious-minded political fiction (the Peter George novel Red Alert) and restaged it as an absurdist comedy. He achieved this by casting ‘serious’ actors like Hayden and George C. Scott, and getting them to deliver their lines absolutely straight, to the point of tricking Scott over which takes were used in the final cut. The characters take the talk of ‘precious bodily fluids’ and ‘mineshaft gaps’ so seriously, that it is impossible not to burst out laughing as the situation gets ever more ridiculous.Airplane! works on precisely the same principle. Before their performances in this film, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen were respected, ‘serious’ actors; Peter Graves even turned it down as first, calling it “tasteless trash”. As in Dr. Strangelove, none of the actors in the film know that they are being funny; if any one character were in on the joke, the entire film would collapse. Under these circumstance, we laugh at the absurdity of the dialogue, and the visual gags come in to enhance lines which before wouldn’t have seemed funny at all.As with Holy Grail, it is impossible to point off every joke in Airplane!, but we can identify categories into which the various jokes fall. We have broad slapstick humour, such as the woman running into metal towers as the ‘train’ speeds away, and the later scene of the hysterical passenger being slapped. We have visual gags, such as Rex Kramer driving his car against an erratic backdrop and Dr. Rumake doing a spot of gynaecology in the aisle. We have moments of great wordplay, like the immortal lines: “Surely you can’t be serious?”, “I am serious – and don’t call me Shirley”. And there is a whole stream of running gags, from the faux-foreign language translations to Lloyd Bridges confessing he picked the wrong week to quit a certain vice.The film also finds time to satirise both war films and the growing trend of Vietnam films; the project was green-lit shortly after the success of The Deer Hunter and was shooting while Apocalypse Now came out. Ted Striker’s bad experiences in ‘the war’ mark him out as a Vietnam vet, but both the script and the use of black-and-white stock footage refer to World War II. Intercutting sounds of plane crashes with early footage of failed flying machines is a simple but effective way of satirising war, and Striker’s ridiculous ‘drink problem’ is a pithy send-up of the kind of trauma suffered by soldiers. It could be worse – he could be left thinking he was Ethel Merman.

Although it never relies on self-reflexivity, or any real sense of ‘knowingness’, Airplane! does contain several examples of what could be called self-reflective casting against type. These casting decisions don’t contribute a great deal to the experience of watching the film, but they are a demonstration of the writers’ intelligence and enough to raise a wry smile among film buffs. The most obvious of these is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s casting as Co-Pilot Roger Murdoch, who is revealed by the young boy Jimmy to be Abdul-Jabbar’s alter ego. Ethel Merman (in her last film role) plays the soldier who thinks he’s Ethel Merman, and June Cleaver, who starred in the squeaky-clean white suburban drama Leave It to Beaver, plays the woman who ‘speaks jive’ to the African-American characters.Some elements of Airplane! are questionable. On the one hand, accusations of racism are misplaced, since the ‘jive-speaking’ characters are not portrayed as being stupid, and the subtitling of their conversations into deliberately stuffy English is funny. And the really uncomfortable scenes of Peter Graves using sexually suggestive slang are deliberate bad taste and well-played. But there are moments in which the film becomes dumb or boring, usually in the sequences which involve relatively large amounts of nudity. As with John Landis’ Into the Night, the frequent presence of flesh seems unnecessary, not because it’s exploitative, but because it’s a cheap laugh, or in most cases, not a laugh at all.Airplane! is undoubtedly a comedy classic which has dated extraordinarily well for a parody. Perhaps the ultimate proof of its deserved reputation is that the films it satirised have long since faded from the public eye. What was once taken seriously, to the point of Oscar nominations, has faded in the face of a comedy that always hits its mark and pokes fun at areas where you thought there was no fun to be had. Most of all, it’s a hilarious and thrilling comedy ride which almost gives the Pythons a run for their money.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: Relentlessly and breathlessly funny


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