Movies That Everyone Should See: “Airplane!”

Male announcer: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.
Female announcer: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.
Male announcer: The red zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the white zone.
Female announcer: No, the white zone is for loading of passengers and there is no stopping in a RED zone.
Male announcer: The red zone has always been for loading and unloading of passengers. There’s never stopping in a white zone.
Female announcer: Don’t you tell me which zone is for loading, and which zone is for stopping!
Male announcer: Listen Betty, don’t start up with your white zone shit again.

In 1970, Universal Pictures released “Airport”. Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey, it featured an enormous ensemble cast, including many big name stars, notably, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, and George Kennedy. In it, a suicidal passenger smuggles a suitcase bomb onto a passenger airplane and sets it off, hoping to leave his family with the life insurance proceeds. The crew is then forced to turn around and attempt to land the damaged plane during a fierce snow storm.

The movie was a huge success. It grossed over $100 million dollars… in 1970. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $500 million in today’s dollars. But it wasn’t just a financial success, it was also nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won one (Best Supporting Actress, Helen Hayes).

With that type of success, a sequel was sure to follow. A little over three years later, in 1974, “Airport ’75” was released. Again it featured a large ensemble cast, but this time they also secured the services of Charlton Heston. In it, a mid-air collision with a small passenger plane threatens the safety of a jumbo airliner. In order to add excitement (at the expense of realism), a substitute pilot is airlifted onto the damaged 747 mid-flight.

“Airport ’75” grossed half of its predecessor, and no awards were in the offing. Still, the return on investment it made for Universal triggered another “Airport” movie, “Airport ’77”. In their continuing effort to up the ante, this time a hijacker plot causes the airliner to crashes in the ocean, and the plane winds up sinking. Yet it remains water tight… the eventual rescue is an undersea effort. As ridiculous as that is, the film still brought in $30 million on a $6 million dollar budget, so the series continued with “The Concord… Airport ’79”. In this installment, a trafficker in illegal nukes wants to assassinate a passenger on the Concorde, and attempts to do so by blowing the entire plane out of the air via fighter jets and guided missiles. International air forces respond, but the damaged airplane eventually has to crash-land anyways.

The film was the first in the “Airport” series to fail to recoup its budget ($13m gross on a budget of $14m).

Audiences had had enough.

Enter “Airplane!”

The Zucker brothers (David and Jerry), along with co-writer and co-director Jim Abrahams, had been hoping to do an airplane disaster movie spoof for years. While trying to research late night tv commercials to parody in the script for “The Kentucky Fried Movie”, they had accidentally recorded “Zero Hour!”

“Zero Hour!” is, literally, “Airplane!” played straight. Released in 1957, “Zero Hour!” is a predecessor to the “Airport” series of the seventies. In it, the flight crew of a passenger plane succumb to food poisoning. Their only hope rests on the shoulders of former military pilot Ted Stryker. Years earlier, Stryker’s squadron was killed due to one of his command decisions. Stryker’s Captain from the war is called in to talk him through the landing.

Sound familiar? Because it is. The producers purchased the rights to “Zero Hour!” outright in order to retain the plot. The unintentionally laughable film was now being played intentionally for laughs. Check out some of the similarities in these “Zero Hour!” quotes to those from “Airplane!”

Capt. Bill Wilson, Pilot: Come on, move up here, you can see better. [Takes out a toy DC-4] Joey, here’s something we give our special visitors. Would you like to have it?
Joey Stryker: Thank you! Thanks a lot!
Capt. Bill Wilson, Pilot: You ever been in a cockpit before?
Joey Stryker: No, sir! I’ve never been up in a plane before!

Dr. Baird: Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.

Treleaven: Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport. But there are some of us here, particularly me, who would like to buy you a drink and shake your hand. We’re coming over.

So with the comedic framework in place, the writers/directors began to fill in the film with jokes.

Everywhere they could.

Literally, in every moment and way they could. There isn’t a minute that goes by that the film isn’t currently trying to get you to laugh. Honestly, there may not even be a thirty-second stretch without a joke.

There’s the spoofs, of course. The film obviously spoofs the “Airport” series, such as a sick girl needing an organ transplant (a role played by Linda Blair in “Airport ’75”) being entertained by someone singing and playing guitar. But it also spoofs other classic films as well. In seemingly haphazard fashion, “Airport!” throws around spoofs of and/or references to “Saturday Night Fever”, “From Here to Eternity”, “Jaws”, and “Knute Rockne, All American”, just to name a few.

But it’s not just a spoof movie. “Airplane!” uses every trick in the book to get laughs. There is practically no comedy strategy that the movie doesn’t attempt to use to some degree or another. Take the casting, for example.

Leslie Nielson, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and Robert Stack were all known as dramatic actors prior to their roles prior to this film. Their collective filmographies are all nearly completely devoid of comedic roles pre-“Airplane!”. Additionally, Bridges, Stack and Graves had each done serious roles in Airport related movies or tv shows. Here, their established dramatic reputations work to add humor by flipping audiences expectations on their head. Previously, each of these men exclusively played no-nonsense, straight arrow characters. Here, the gravitas the audience was conditioned to expect from them turns out to be levity instead. They all use their dramatic talents to their benefit, as well, delivering completely ridiculous material with straight faces.

The audience is left thinking, “Surely, they can’t be serious”.

Speaking of “they can’t be serious”, how ridiculous is casting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as co-pilot Roger Murdoch? Completely random, right? At the time, Kareem was right at the beginning of his Lakers career. The Lakers had just drafted “Magic” Johnson, and the “Showtime” dynasty was about to take off. In the year “Airplane!” was released, he would collect the last of his six NBA MVP Awards. “Airplane!” wasn’t his first acting role, he had a role in the Bruce Lee film, “Game of Death”, and his appearance actually spoofs the role of Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch as a pilot in “Zero Hour!”. But to the viewer, Abdul-Jabbar’s presence in the cockpit is a ridiculous non-sequitur, especially when Billy, the young cockpit guest starts calling him out in meta fashion.

There are other cameos, as well. Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver from “Leave It to Beaver”) “speaks jive” Ethel Merman plays a shell-shocked soldier who’s convinced he’s… Ethel Merman. Jimmie Walker – at the height of his “Good Times”, “Dyn-o-mite!” popularity – checks the plane’s oil before takeoff.

The movie has no downtime. If there’s an open moment, it’s filled with a one liner, or a sight gag, oftentimes just some random, odd, offhanded interjection.

Some examples… The bouncing heart during the Mayo Clinic call, Captain Oveur getting his credit card swiped during pre-flight, the smoking ticket which literally emits smoke. The seatbelt sign with pig English. The nun reading “Boys life” while the boy reads “Nun’s Life”, girl scouts who get into a bar brawl. The painting of the contortionist soldier rescuing a baby that Stryker is making in the hospital. Siamese twins  show up to take orders from McCroskey. The line of people, some armed, who form to beat the hysterical female passenger. A spear lands in a wall map, followed by a watermelon that drops on the desk from above. The washing machine in the radar room.

They get a lot of mileage out of literal interpretation of phrases, such as the shit hitting the fan, getting every light they can on the runway, the oil light reading “a little low”, checking the radar range, and of course, people getting in “Crash Position”.

But not all the jokes are quick and disposable, “Airplane!” makes use of “running gags” like no other movie. In order, tower supervisor Steve McCroskey “picked the wrong week to quit”: smoking, drinking, amphetamines, and sniffing glue. Striker has a drinking problem. Three people commit suicide while listening to him talk about Elaine. Ominous thunder and lightning sounds on multiple occasions, whenever something particularly negative is said in the cockpit. There are three “What is it?” jokes in the film.

  • “Headquarters? What is it?” “Well, it’s a big building where Generals meet, but that’s not important right now.”
  • “A hospital? What is it?” “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now”
  • “The Cockpit? What is it?” “It’s a little room up in the front of the plane where the pilots sit, but that’s not important right now”

Leslie Nielsen asks Robert Hays not to call him Shirley… twice.

“I just wanted to say good luck, we’re all counting on you”

It’s an avalanche of comedy.

There isn’t a single avenue that “Airplane!” doesn’t attempt in order to score a laugh. The jokes come in rapid fire succession, giving the film an absurd, madcap, zany feel. It’s full of spoofs, puns, character humor and visual humor. There are racist jokes, religious jokes, sexual jokes, pedophile jokes, bestiality jokes, and drug jokes. Johnny bounces around flamboyantly. Robert Hays breaks the fourth wall to say, “What a pisser”. They give characters names that are jokes themselves, such as Randy, the Stewardess, or names which will set up a joke somewhere down the line. “We have clearance, Clarence”, “Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?”

They feature an inflatable pilot who enjoys getting blown up.

The humor comes so fast and furious that you’re bound to connect to something, and shortly thereafter, you buy into everything. The writing, direction and performances are all phenomenal. This was the first role for Julie Hagerty, but she’s perfect as the spacey Elaine. Robert Hays had been bouncing around TV guest spots and projects prior to “Airplane!”, but he gives a great turn as the confidence shaken, nervous Striker. Nielsen, Graves, Stack and Bridges give fantastic, career changing turns in their first notable comedic roles. Bridges and Nielsen would primarily be known for comedy from this point forward in their careers.

“Airplane!” was a huge financial success when it was released, grossing over $83 million (in 1980) in North America alone, against a budget of merely $3.5 million.

It is universally regarded now as one of the funniest movies of all time. It’s #10 on AFI’s “100 Years…100 Laughs” Total Film readers voted it the second greatest comedy of all time. Empire magazine selected it the funniest comedy of all time. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

“Airplane!” certainly wasn’t the first spoof movie in history, but it is undeniably the most influential. It’s spawned a slew of lesser imitators in the decades following. It was given a direct sequel “Airplane II: The Sequel” and spiritual successors in the “Naked Gun” movies. It is undeniably the great grandaddy of the “Scary Movies”, “Not Another” Movies, “Vampires Suck”, “Meet the Spartans”, “Disaster Movie”, etc, etc. But none of them have ever risen to the level of the original, which is an incomparable piece of comedy.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See.”


53 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Airplane!”

  1. I don’t have much to add, you seem to have covered it all as have all the prior comments. I saw Airport, Airport 75 in theaters in their first runs, never saw the other two. Airplane was pretty much one laugh after another for the whole running time. I’d been a fan of the Kentucky Fried Movie, it was actually the first movie I posted on on my site

    One inside joke that younger viewers of the movie might not get, the passenger that Ted leaves in his cab, with the meter running, is Howard Jarvis, the author of California’s Prop 13 and the influential anti tax crusader who paved the way for some big political movements later. The idea that he sits in the cab, the whole time the story is running, and then after the credits pops up and says “I’ll give him five more minutes”, is so antithetical to what he stood for that it is a kicker. I don’t know how it played outside of Cali, but here, if you stuck around for the end, it was a big laugh.

    • Wow, man, thats great! No… I mean, I never knew any of that. That’s hysterical. I mean, that joke is funny enough with just a man being left in a cab. The fact that it had added meaning above and beyond is a great bit of trivia, for sure. 😀 Thanks for the 411, that’s awesome.

  2. Oh man, I had no idea about the history of this film. Now I kind of want to see Zero Hour or some of those Airport movies. Loved this post, Fogs. I didn’t see Airplane until last year — as part of my project — and I couldn’t stop laughing. You’ve made me want to revisit it again.

    • Nice…

      I saw 3 out of the 4 Airport movies, and trust me, they’re worth ridiculing. I want to see Zero Hour, myself, in order to fully educate myself about this one… Its the very definition of a classic comedy, to me. 😀

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