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Thursday, November 13, 2014

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 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, mine an age-group that thought they'd discovered it. From such revelation came midnight revues like Saturday Night Live, Second City ... more than most could absorb through bleary eyes. My complaint at the time was fact these would replace vaulties that had once filled late slots, the jesters seizing bedtime to poke fun at features no longer there.

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 was 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

AIRPLANE got the gold, but for my money the laughs came thickest in the Zuckers' first: KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. The "Leave it to Beaver" tribute is there, as are the fading TV star cameos (Bill Bixby, Henry Gibson), and of course the questionable taste (a game of "Scott Free," anyone?) But the topper actually came 20 or so minutes before the end, with the finale of "A Fistful of Yen." I saw it during first run, and to this day, the sequence was the longest explosion of laughter I've ever experienced in a theater. There was no chance of hearing the dialogue, so hysterical were we at the visuals. It was the only time I literally fell out of my seat from laughing.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"Airplane!" was the funniest movie I'd ever seen. Then sometime in the early 21st-century, I happen to catch part of it again on cable. I still laughed -- except at the part where the plane, flying over New York, came close to crashing into one of the skyscrapers. Having lived through 9/11 in New York, that bit no longer seemed funny.

That's the problem with topical humor in movies -- a limited shelf life. One of the Zuckers' other movies featured a George H.W. Bush lookalike. And my first thought was, What if the real Bush drops dead tomorrow? Will this be funny anymore?

12:01 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Topical Vaughn Meader after 11/22/63.

2:12 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

When you think about it, "Airplane!" isn't that much more topical than many classic comedies of the past. How many people really "get" some of Bob Hope's quips in the "Road" movies or some of Groucho's one-liners in the Marx Brothers films?

What still holds up about "Airplane!", "Young Frankenstein" or "Blazing Saddles" today is how well they stick to poking fun at the conventions of their particular genres. The guest stars and topical jokes are just icing on the cake, so to speak.

I was forced a few years back to see "Scary Movie" and another one of the Keenan Ivory Wayans satires. They just don't work - the films are basically a collection of "gags" (and I use that term losely with these films) that center on celebrities and pop culture memes of that particular month. They felt dated by the time they reached theaters. Most importantly, there really wasn't an attempt to parody the form of the films or genres they were supposedly spoofing.

Wayans took on the throw everything in but the kitchen sink approach of "Airplane!", but that's all, really. And the jokes aren't particularly funny.

The only genre satire I've seen in recent years that works is "Tucker and Dale Vs Evil" from a couple of years back. The script is constructed an an inverse of some of the classic 70s horror films like "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th", poking fun at the visual setups and style of those movies, while giving us some fun comedic characters and funny gags based on the characters and situations.

6:56 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I saw this film when it was originally released in Argentina. The title was changed to ¿Y DONDE ESTA EL PILOTO? (And where is the pilot?) in a big movie palace of the old days, which was packed. My parents took me when I was aged 9. I remember laughing a lot and the whole audience laughing as well. However, some of the scenes with Kareem Adbul Jabbar were incomprehensible because at the time, there were no NBA broadcasts in Argentina, but for the most part it worked even though some gags involved things that were alien to us... yet the automatic pilot gags where screams of laughter. It is still a good comedy and I still enjoyed a while ago when I was able to see it again and managed to finally understand some details.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Two things I loved about Airplane! that really showed how it nailed the genre, much more scorched earth than Blazing Saddles: the overall beige-on-beige color scheme, which is exactly how drab Universal movies of the 70s all looked, and the fact that when you see the model jet flying, it's movie prop plane noise that could be from the 40s.

(Speaking of that, I remember an article in Film Comment talking with some sound guy, who said that after Star Wars and Dolby, all the sound effects they'd been using since sound came in finally had to be rerecorded; Errol Flynn's arrow shots from Robin Hood were no longer hi-fi enough to be reused in every movie with arrows in it.)

"The only genre satire I've seen in recent years that works is "Tucker and Dale Vs Evil" from a couple of years back"

Cabin in the Woods is in the same vein, a parody of the cabin in the woods subgenre that, by the end, has sent up pretty much every horror movie trope of the last 30 years.

11:44 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

After I finally saw Zero Hour! a few years ago, I wondered: If you did a double feature of the two movies, would it be funnier if you showed Zero Hour! before or after Airplane!?

9:51 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Pretty much agree with coolcatdaddy. Revisited AIRPLANE! as well as TOP SECRET and the first NAKED GUN movie all recently... they all still work for me, and it would seem, younger folk too. Granted, people under 45 all think Leslie Nielsen was always a comedian and they haven't a clue what those coffee commercial references are, but the good ones play just like old Warner Brothers cartoons from the forties. God knows we didn't get the topical context much less the radio catch phrases watching Looney Tunes after school. But that didn't stop us from laughing our heads off. I also think Michael is on to something linking two recent goodies, CABIN IN THE WOODS and TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL (I loved them both) to AIRPLANE! and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. The really good parodies are not just a string of gags. They usually are pretty thoughtful reflections on WHY we like these genre re-hashes and keep coming back for more. And, yes, it also helps when the gags are really, really funny!

10:13 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Oops! Just realized I sent last comment using my wife's Google account! Sorry!

10:47 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon steps aboard "Airplane!":

Great article on "Airplane!" which deftly separates, as though by special sieve, the topical from the dubiously durable gags in this movie. Certainly it was a success IN its own time, as I certainly remember. I remember too hearing from Rick Baker that his young protege Rob Bottin, on his recommendation, got a gig on "Airplane!" to simulate a nose that could grow, Pinocchio-like, on camera. You are so spot-on about the relatively 'cheap' value of so many recognizable stars, TV-sized, who made so much of this movie as enjoyable as it was, spoofing their own various 'rugged-heroic' earlier screen personas, and you're sadly on target too when you remark that they would never again succeed as easily in reestablishing themselves as credible dramatic actors, due to the impact of their semi-suicidal appearances in this one. Of course, this didn't phase Nielsen, who seemed to thrive as a farceur (and seemed to lean that way in real life, too); nor did it hurt Robert Stack or Peter Graves, who scooched over into narration, both with voices tailor-made for that. Bridges, I remember, had an effective role in a show in which Benjamin Franklin was intriguingly portrayed by more than one actor, himself included---but come to think of it, this was before "Airplane!" Even composer Elmer Bernstein continued in a trend begun by his youthful pal John Landis (who was once taken to and/or from school by Bernstein, whose own eldest son Peter was Landis's classmate) of spoofing HIS own distinguished and mostly-serious career as a film composer, and all without breaking his stride, as the same kind of head-on 'serious' scoring in such a ludicrous context spoofed the music's posturing, as well. Bernstein was too good to be pulled permanently down the drain by this, but it DID, I think, presage the eventual death of highly-involved, pro active film music, so that today we are 'treated' to film music which is either as bland as Pepto-Bismol or downright atonal and/or sound effects. Robert Hays lives out here somewhere (in Agoura Hills or nearby Oak Park), as I've seen him more than once at the local deli. I'm told that Guillermo del Toro lives nearby, too, and he'd be hard to miss---but I've not seen him 'at large' (no cheap laughs, please) in the neighborhood.

2:06 PM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

Ah the pleasure of seeing this on its initial release. I saw it in the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and there was a packed house. Laughter on that scale I haven't experienced since. I did earlier when, as a 12 year-old I attended a screening at the Suburban movie theater(long gone) at Ward's Corner in Norfolk, VA. They showed an odd assortment of Laurel and Hardy, FRACTURED FLICKERS, and other stuff and I laughed so hard my sides were sore the next day.

2:28 PM  

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