A Roof-Raiser From 34 Years Back
|What's Uglier Than a Typical 1980 Lobby Card? --- Nothing.|
Airplane! (1980) Mops The Floor With Universal Airports
It was like everyone woke up sudden to how ridiculous old movies were. Sketch comedians that sprout like weeds in the 70's took off constantly on stuff their parents had presumably taken serious. Mocking their entertainment became another way of gigging the old folks. Baby booming had bred a generation of parasites that would gnaw away at features and TV they grew up on. Blazing Saddles demolished westerns, Young Frankenstein doing as much for horror oldies, both of these fresh to patronage too young to remember Mel Brooks writing same spoofery going back to live 50's television. Hep ones knew, indeed had long known, how mock-worthy movies/TV had become, but here came an age-group that thought they'd discovered it. From such revelation came midnight revues like Saturday Night Live,
Airplane! would fire at fresh targets Universal spent a last ten years hanging. That company's Airport series had long gone round a bend of absurdity, as did others of disaster derivation. Airplane!'s was a rich vein to mine. Everyone by 1980 had sat through famine, fire, or flood in theatres, and it needed but exposure to one to know scorecard used by all. 70's TV fed off carrion, its blazes more localized, airports smaller, and shipping sunk in scaled-down studio tubs. Well, if all this wasn't comedy, what was? Actors off televised casualty lists could be had at a price and were instantly recognizable: Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Neilson, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, others. These were a bargain of the century for more viewers knowing them than biggest names demanding millions to do features. Airplane! also had advantage of solid story foundation from 1957's Zero Hour!, which it closely remade, even to borrow of exclamation point in the title.
Gags in Airplane! were scattershot, some now obscure. For instance, who's the guy waiting in a taxicab for whole of the picture? For myself, thirty-four years was sufficient to forget that it was Howard Jarvis, a California-based champion of tax reform, his Airplane! cameo a most "inside" of jokes that much of the rest of the country didn't get then, and certainly would not now. There was also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, instantly recognizable in 1980 even if you didn't watch basketball, as he did commercials and guest appeared lots on TV. Would his dialogue and gags as Airplane! co-pilot make sense to viewership now? There are touching reminders of how things have changed since 1980, like airport security as basis for humor. And was it vet producer Howard Koch who suggested take-offs on From Here To Eternity (none of three directing Zuckers had ever seen it) and amazingly, Since You Went Away, a seriously old feature (1944) that was mighty hard to catch in years leading up to Airplane! (the only way I did was via 16mm). More current and softer target for satire was Saturday Night Fever, another that everybody knew on sight in 1980 and was ready to laugh at, disco heading way of dodos by then.
The date I took to Airplane! thought it more silly than funny. She'd been the same toward 1941, a mistake we'd made the year before. Airplane! sidebars got biggest theatre laughs --- every time "Johnny" (Stephen Stucker) spoke, it got a howl, especially when he unplugged lights on the landing field ("Just kidding!"). Runner-up to Johnny may have been the spinning newspaper with headline, "Boy Trapped In Refrigerator --- Eats Own Foot." My highpoint comes when Peter Graves looks at the fish skeleton on his empty plate after being told seafood is contaminated. All this plus character names were taken right from Zero Hour!, where Dana Andrews was the Ted Stryker now played by Robert Hays. Wonder if anyone asked Andrews about Airplane! and whether he liked it, or even went. A closest to character in both films was Zero's Sterling Hayden in what would later be Robert Stack's Airplane! part. Hayden even does the line about picking the wrong week to give up smoking. Had he anticipated and gotten into comedic spirit of Airplane! way back in 1957?
Another gag Airplane! took from way-back machine: winning one for the "Zip," reference to a downed pilot under Ted Stryker's command and also the famous "Gipper" speech Pat O'Brien delivered in Knute Rockne --- All American, from 1940. An obscure-enough recall forty years later, made more so by that scene having been removed from many TV prints of Knute Rockne --- All American (underlying rights problem). Most of Airplane! patronage to pick up on this gag would be past middle age, and how many of those bought tickets? More immediate react came for Barbara Billingsley showing up as a passenger who "talks jive" --- 1980 not too late for much of Airplane! viewership to remember Leave It To Beaver from heavy syndication, if not network first-run. Airplane! gave whole new careers to many of its veteran cast, and all they had to give up was being taken seriously again. After desultory jobs Neilson, Bridges, Stack et all had been stuck with, especially on 60/70's TV, here was a trade easy to make.