Airplane! (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, 1980)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Airplane!

In this zany masterpiece written and directed by the trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker of The Kentucky Fried Theater, a traumatized fighter pilot (Robert Hays) boards an airliner to win back his flight attendant girlfriend (Julie Hagerty) and becomes the plane’s last hope when the crew and half of the plane succumb to food poisoning. Loaded with surreal humor and rapid-fire gags, Airplane! parodied the popular disaster films of the 1970s and took audiences by storm in the process, a breath of fresh air that turned into a massive box office hit. With an iconic cast that includes Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Airplane! is one of cinema’s most quotable films and an all-time, off-the-wall, comedy classic.

Disc Features:

The genesis of Airplane! came in the accidental recording of Hall Bartlett’s Zero Hour! (1957) by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker of The Kentucky Fried Theatre. ZAZ, as they are known collectively, often recorded late night television looking for comedy sketch material in its commercials, and the perfect classical film structure of Zero Hour! captured the trio’s attention. They crafted a comedy script faithful to the movie’s plot and inspired by its late night airing, originally titling the screenplay The Late Show and including a series of spoof TV commercials in its first drafts. Zero Hour! is adapted from Arthur Hailey’s screenplay for the widely hailed Canadian television film Flight into Danger (1956) (also adapted for the BBC in 1962, for German television in 1964, and American television in 1971). It concerns Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews), a traumatized WWII fighter pilot whose wife Ellen (Linda Darnell) leaves him. Told at the airport by his wife that she cannot love a man she doesn’t respect, he buys a ticket on her transcontinental flight and follows her aboard hoping to work things out. During the flight, the pilot, co-pilot, and many of the passengers become ill from the in-flight meal’s fish option and Stryker becomes the plane’s last chance for a safe landing. With his wife manning the radio and his former military superior (Sterling Hayden) on the ground providing instructions, Stryker saves the stricken passengers by successfully landing the aircraft.

ZAZ’s Airplane! is shockingly comparable to Zero Hour!, using the same premise and plot points and sharing many of the same character names, lines of dialogue, and even its titular exclamation point. The filmmakers were so concerned that their fidelity to Zero Hour! would capsize any fair use claim for parody that they bought the rights from Warner Bros. and Paramount. Following the success of The Kentucky Fried Movie (John Landis, 1977), ZAZ had the confidence to take on directing their first feature and had enough regard to get their film made by a studio. In perhaps a rare case of studio meddling improving the filmmakers’ final product, ZAZ gives great credit to Paramount for helping them tighten up their script (removing the scripted commercials and adding the flashback sequences, making jokes into plot points and plot points into jokes) and for appointing veteran producer Howard W. Koch on the project (who supported the script and gave the production added credibility during calls with agents and others). The film was an unabashed success – budgeted at $3.5 million and grossing $83 million in North America, receiving the Best Adapted Screenplay award from the Writers Guild of America and Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, and eventually being preserved with the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

There is sometimes a tendency to overstate Airplane!‘s originality, neglecting its resemblance to early Mel Brooks and Woody Allen films or ZAZ’s acknowledged debts owed to MAD MagazineThe Goon Show, and the Marx Brothers. Nevertheless, there is and remains something singularly electric about the film, a true comedic danger that anything can happen from any direction and at anytime. There is no joke too silly, zany, or low-brow for Airplane! to stoop to include and the movie has no regard for how fast those gags arrive – laugh too hard and you might miss three more yuks (at your peril). The tension in Airplane!‘s humourous excess perfectly compliments its disaster film setting. Arriving in 1980, the movie parodies the genre’s golden decade of the 1970s and a bounty of harrowing films that include the Airport franchise, The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972), Earthquake (Mark Robson, 1974), City on Fire (Alvin Rakoff, 1979) and various big budget threats by John Guillermin like Skyjacked (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and King Kong (1976). In truth, disaster films seem to flourish each odd-numbered decade, from Barry O’Neil’s When The Earth Trembled (1913) to Brad Peyton’s San Andreas (2015). Airplane! put a cap on the genre’s run in the ’70s by providing a cockamamie take on the flight-in-peril plot that would largely forestall the disaster film until its resurgence in the mid-90s with popular multiplex fare like Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996), Daylight (Rob Cohen, 1996), Dante’s Peak (Roger Donaldson, 1997), Volcano (Mick Jackson, 1997), Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998), and James Cameron’s mega-hit Titanic (1997).

Airplane!‘s casting stands as the key to the film’s seriocomic success. While the studio recommended comedians like Chevy Chase and Bill Murray and suggested Dom Deluise for the role of the doctor and Barry Manilow for Ted Striker, ZAZ was convinced that the key to Airplane! rested in playing the entire film straight. In an era where stunt-casting is now commonplace, it’s easy to miss the significance of seeing Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges appear in a wild, goofy comedy. In the filmmakers’ minds, Robert Stack (who plays Striker’s former captain Rex Kramer) was the film’s lynchpin, their first choice for the role and the individual for whom they specifically wrote the character. Stack, who had played a troubled airline pilot of his own in The High and the Mighty (William A. Wellman, 1954), immediately understood the aim of the film and was key to bringing Lloyd Bridges into the film’s goofy fold. For his part, Bridges brought his own intertextual authority to the substance-abusing tower-supervisor Steve McCroskey, having played airport manager Jim Conrad in the TV series San Francisco International Airport. Similarly, Peter Graves, whose wife and kids talked him into the role of pedophilic Flight Captain Clarence Oveur, was known as the taciturn IMF team leader on Mission: Impossible as well as a passenger on the 1977 TV movie SST: Death Flight. Leslie Nielsen found a second career as a comedy actor as a result of Airplane! but prior to his role as Dr. Rumack, Nielsen had an already established screen persona with stern and responsible authority figures, even appearing as the ship’s captain in The Poseidon AdventureAirplane! provided a liberating experience Nielsen, described by Jerry Zucker as a “closet comedian” and co-star David Leisure as “the goofiest motherfucker you’ve ever met in your life,” and his acting career for the next three decades would be typified by light-headed performances for which Roger Ebert would dub him “the Olivier of spoofs.” This quartet of straight men provide a baseline of bizarro dignity against which Robert Hays (as distressed former pilot Ted Striker), Julie Hagerty (as Striker’s sensitive girlfriend/flight attendant Elaine Dickinson), Lorna Patterson (as stewardess Randy), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (as co-pilot Roger Murdock) could engage in their own seriocomic wordplay, puns, absurdity, and movie parody.

There is one gleeful exception to Airplane!‘s wacky world played straight and that is Kentucky Fried Theatre alumnus Stephen Stucker as Air Traffic Controller Johnny Henshaw-Jacobs. As noted by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, Stucker’s Johnny fills the time-honoured role of movie sissy, being “one of the most magnificently unrepentant faggots to ever grace the screen in the entire 1980s.” With his fashion commentaries and his shout-outs to Barbara Stanwyck and Auntie Em, Johnny’s homosexual coding can’t be missed, but Ortberg observes that at no point does Airplane! make the character’s gayness the target of any joke – no mean feat at the time. However, Johnny’s euphoric silliness, shaking tummies and smiling ear to ear, is not merely another gag. It operates in an orbit completely apart from Airplane!‘s otherwise ironically serious register, going virtually unnoticed by its other poker-faced characters except for when McCroskey snatches a newspaper or a weather report from Johnny’s hands in a short-tempered huff. In Johnny, Stucker and ZAZ create a comedic palette cleanser that allows the film to briefly and decisively step outside of itself, change the film’s tone and tempo for a second or two, and then return to its arch absurdity with renewed vigour. For as overstuffed as Airplane! is, Johnny’s character is indispensible to its success, fancy typing and all.

Airplane! might seem like at unlikely addition to the Criterion Collection, however it is an essential and influential American comedy that has inspired various movie franchises yet has never been eclipsed by the movies that followed. The film has had numerous hard media releases but its special features have generally remained constant, making Airplane! due for some refreshing. Looked at from the right angle, Airplane! has elements of the experimental within it, making the film something of a weird cousin to the Collection’s trilogy of surrealist Luis Buñuel titles. It’s difficult to imagine a release of Airplane! not using Robert Grossman’s poster of a passenger plane tied in a knot, however a strong alternative would be Witold Dybowski’s very-’80s Polish poster featuring a very come-hither mouth on the plane’s nose cone. Airplane! is a silly film that takes its comedy seriously and MMC! is serious about a Criterion release. Slap a wacky “C” on Airplane! and we’ll let you call us “Shirley” as much as you like.

Credits: Shout-out to my dad who loved Airplane! and was always quick to ask if “you’d ever been to sea” or if “you liked gladiator movies.” My appreciation for Airplane! came directly from him and I still think Ted’s drinking problem is hilarious and Kareem’s reaction to admitting his true identity is comic gold.

This imagined edition ports over from previous hard media editions the audio commentary, the “Long Haul” version of the film, the trivia track, and the deleted scenes. We added various other features including one on Leslie Nielsen’s infamous farting device. (Seriously, search “Leslie Nielsen fart” and be astounded at the number of videos that show up featuring Nielsen farting on various mornings programs and late night talk shows.) Patton Oswalt was chosen to provide an appreciation on the film given his relationship with the Collection, his insight on the craft of comedy, and his comments on the film in an article for The New York Times by Matthew Zoller Seitz. Filmmaker Peter Farrelly was chosen to contribute a booklet essay as he credits Airplane! with inspiring him to send a comedy script to David Zucker, an act that got him hired by Zucker for his first Hollywood writing job and that launched his career.

Those looking for an expansive history of Airplane! should check out The A.V. Club‘s oral history of the film (and imagine a version starring Bruce Jenner as Ted Striker, Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Dickinson, Peter Rose as Roger Murdock, and half the cast of the Airport series in various sundry roles). This post also owes debts to TCM’s article on the film, John Patterson’s article for The Guardian, and Adam Troy-Castro’s comparison article at The Remake Chronicles.

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