RogerBW's Blog

Airplane! 11 October 2021

1980 air disaster spoof, dir. Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty: IMDb / allmovie. It's Zero Hour! all over again, with jokes. vt Flying High!

And this is the grave that air disaster films rested in: this film killed the genre for ten years or more (though disaster films were on the way out anyway). Don't like the joke? Never mind, there'll be another one along in a few seconds, and indeed the ones that fail seem to me to be the ones that are prolonged.

But also there's relatively little punching down: a bit of anti-Jewish joking, but the anti-Polish stuff was removed after a complaint, and mostly this film does the key thing of giving silly lines to straight actors who play everything deadpan. They're not in on the joke. (Indeed, the original plan was to make this in black and white, and set it on a propliner, as if it were a lost 1950s film found by accident on late-night TV; thus the propeller noises every time we hear the aircraft.) This is affectionate parody, like the first Pirates of the Caribbean, which admits that yes this stuff can get a bit overblown sometimes but it's still fun, as opposed to the easier option of just saying "har har, look at these silly people", which is a style of comedy that rarely works well for me.

(Except for Stephen Stucker, as Johnny the runway lights guy, who's just being Zany; he's almost in a separate film. Though at least here's a guy with stereotyped gay mannerisms who isn't the target of jokes about gayness.)

ZAZ famously reckoned they didn't know how to structure a long-form film, since they'd been doing sketch comedy with Kentucky Fried Theater, and therefore used the older script as a basis; this has a useful secondary effect, which is to maintain a feeling of tension and drama. These are characters one cares about, as well as people who are saying and doing silly things to get a laugh. (Indeed, one might fairly argue that Hays does a better dramatic job as the troubled ex-pilot than Dana Andrews managed in the original.)

While the script is largely Zero Hour!, there's a fair bit of Airport 1975 here too: not just the obvious stuff, like the semi-conscious pilot turning on the autopilot or the whole plot about the sick girl, but Julie's initial establishing walk from curbside through airport corridors, very directly echoing Karen's in the earlier film. ZAZ tried to get Helen Reddy back to sing to the sick girl, but Paramount threatened to sue, so instead they got Maureen McGovern, who'd sung the themes for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.

For me it's the four old white men who really make this, and they were no strangers to disaster films. Peter Graves had played a passenger in SST: Death Flight (1977), which was featured in the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, though to me he's always Jim Phelps from Mission: Impossible; Leslie Nielsen had been in Forbidden Planet, and was the ship's captain in The Poseidon Adventure; Lloyd Bridges had been the manager of SFO in the 1970 TV series San Francisco International Airport; and Robert Stack was the captain afraid of responsibility in The High and the Mighty, as well has being the pilot in Murder on Flight 502 (1975), and was probably best known as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (1959-63). Bridges, Nielsen and Stack all went on to second careers in comic parts after this, Nielsen in particular claiming that he'd always wanted to do comedy but nobody'd ever given him a chance; but to viewers who were familiar with them at the time they all were stony-faced Serious Men, and it's an effective disorientation to see them being silly.

The war flashbacks obviously involve WWII and WWI, but I spotted familiar clips in there – particularly some of the same "early flight" stock footage that had been used for Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965).

The only airline with the guts to buy this film as in-flight entertainment was Aeroméxico.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
Zero Hour!
Airport 1975

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