I was exceedingly harsh on Jerry Zucker’s First Knight, and deservedly so, but the Zucker name is also associated with one of the most fondly remembered comedies of the modern film era. Chances are good you’ve seen this film already a billion times on cable or satellite TV. Its time for 1980’s Airplane!
Against the backdrop of a looming airline disaster where the entire flight crew and half the passengers have been disabled by food poisoning, one shell shocked man is the only one capable of landing that plane, and the only reason he’s on that flight is because he’s trying to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend.
Ted Striker: Robert Hayes is our Hero. Intentionally generic, he was shot down during “The War” after a mission went sour, leading to his “drinking problem.” Generic though he may be, Hayes does a great job of playing the character straightforward, making it fairly believable.
Elaine Dickinson: Julie Hagerty is a stewardess on the flight and Ted’s ex. She does a fine job of being in distress and worried all the time.
Steve McCroskey: Lloyd Bridges is the Chicago air traffic control chief who’s trying to coordinate the safe landing of the flight. Most of his role is played straight. He doesn’t start the movie off as the insane lunatic that people associate with Lloyd Bridges comedy roles, but he does get there by the end.
Rex Kramer: Robert Stack plays a retired Air Force Captain called in to help call the plane in, but he and Striker have a bitter history between them.
Dr. Rumak: Leslie Nielsen in his first comedic role. He plays a doctor on the flight who’s trying to treat all the sick passengers and is a go-between character between them and the makeshift flight crew. Mostly he’s there to provide incredible deadpan delivery of one liners.
Randy: Lorna Patterson is the other stewardess and the one that gets the most interaction with the passengers. She’s actually really good and does some fantastic comic reactions.
Johnny: Stephen Stucker plays the “camp gay” air traffic controller working under McCroskey. His job is not to help in any way shape or form. He’s there to basically drive by, throw a rapid one-liner and then leave. And its great.
Captain Oveur: Peter Graves is the straight-faced captain of the flight who takes a keen interest in the young boy brought up to the cockpit. A very keen interest.
Roger Murdock: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, that one) plays the co-pilot of the flight.
Otto: The automatic pilot of the plane, inflated in case of emergency. It’s an incredibly lame pun, yes, but Otto gets some great visual gags (well, that’s all he gets since he has no dialog whatsoever) and honestly, a friendly, inflatable pilot keeping a plane level is hilarious. Otto is the movie’s badass on that visual alone.
Directed by Jim Abrahams (remember the Hot Shots films?) and David & Jerry Zucker, the movie looks pretty good. Most of the visuals go toward background gags, over the top reactions and so on. When things like the airplane look fake, its obviously intentional because we’re romping through the wonderful land of farce.
Abrahams & the Zucker Bros. again, keeping the rapid fire comedy hurtling along. Not every gag works, true, but there’s so many of them being thrown around that a lot are bound to stick. Dialog is deadpan and fast and a lot of the movie’s real comedy comes through that. Characters will say something, we move to a new scene, and then the audience goes “wait, they just did what!?” Pacing is frenetic in the movie, except I wasn’t really a fan of the flashback sequences, those went on a little too long in my opinion, but nothing deal breaking.
Elmer Bernstein did the score of the movie, and its really good. It’s fairly straightforward and serious, emphasizing the whole deadpan thing going for it. The sound effects are also helpful for the comedy, like when the jet engines start up, you hear prop engines instead. Stuff like that.
Airplane! is another of those comedies that’s become etched into the pop culture. Its been quoted to death, imitated to death, and overplayed on cable to death. But surely the reason for all of that is because its hilarious. It’s a solid farce and parody of the overly dramatic “disaster movie” genre, and if somehow you’ve never seen it, do so. Its worth your time.
…And don’t call me Shirley.