When the three-headed monster known as Z-A-Z (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker) was toiling in obscurity at Wisconsin's Kentucky Fried Theater, it most likely had no idea that it would change the landscape of screen comedy. The Zuckers and Abrahams transplanted the sketch-comedy outfit to Los Angeles, soon hooked up with director John Landis, and produced the cult movie Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977. Airplane! seemingly came out of nowhere to become the smash hit of 1980, but it was a feature-length extension of Z-A-Z's Kentucky Fried movie parodies.
In fact, Airplane! owes its basic plot, characters, visual composition, and much of its dialogue to the 1957 airplane-disaster clunker Zero Hour!. Writer-directors Z-A-Z had discovered the flick in their "Late Show" research for Kentucky Fried Theater and—no doubt musing on the contemporary popularity of disaster films such as Airport 1975—set to work skewering the genre. Of course, Airplane! took on a demented life of its own, taking random shots at Since You Went Away and Saturday Night Fever along the way.
Airplane! refined Kentucky Fried Movie's Mad magazine sensibility by not drawing attention to the fact that Airplane! was a comedy. With poker faces, ostensibly serious actors say embarrasingly silly things, and non sequiturs, sight gags, and anachronisms reside alongside straight dialogue (much of it lifted from Arthur Hailey's old screenplays), its melodrama becoming irreversibly absurd and funny. The results are unprecedented nonsense that—fashions aside—will remain timeless comedy cinema.
Robert Hays plays Ted Striker, a former war pilot with deep-seated trauma and a "drinking problem" (the glass always misses his mouth). On a flight with stewardess and ex-flame Elaine Dickinson (tremulous sweetheart Julie Hagerty), he finds himself called upon to save the lives of everyone on board—only he can land the plane...or can he?
Hays and Dickinson make credible and funny ingenues in their screen debuts, but the most hilarious moments belong to a supporting cast exclusivel associated with serious big and small-screen drama: Peter Graves (as Captain Clarence Oveur), Lloyd Bridges (as air-traffic controller Steven McCrosky), Robert Stack (as Captain Rex Kramer), and Leslie Nielsen (as Dr. Rumack).
Nielsen, in particular, would make a second career in comedy, rejoining Z-A-Z for TV's Police Squad! and three Naked Gun films (Nielsen gradually drifted from his stone-faced style—at its zenith here—to more loose-limbed self-parody). When Striker tells Rumack, "Surely you can't be serious," Nielsen delivers the now-immortal deadpan one-liner "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley." Bridges famously "picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue," and Graves risked his career by cheerily asking a young boy, "You ever seen a grown man naked?"
By likewise playing it straight, Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score fuels the non-stop barrage of high-flying gags. It's a mark of the film's relentlessness that Z-A-Z makes not one, but two great jokes about the Mayo clinic. Nothing is sacred: flashbacks, Peter Yarrow's song "River of Jordan" (the hilariously inappropriate use of which left Yarrow aghast), and even the end credits, which pioneered a Z-A-Z tradition. Not for nothing did the American Film Institute rank Airplane! number ten on its list of funniest American films.
With Airplane!, Z-A-Z inherited the mantle of populist screen comedy formerly grasped by the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, and Mel Brooks. Their time has passed (though they continue to make laffers with ever-diminishing returns), but their heyday saw them through a string of admirable and highly influential comedies.
Paramount's Airplane!: 'Don't Call Me Shirley!' Edition recycles an excellent transfer and commentary from its previous edition and adds significant new special features. On the screen-specific commentary track, Z-A-Z discuss all of their near-misses in getting the green light, their own greenness as directors (they shot their own second-unit footage), the shot-for-shot pursuit of Zero Hour!, and the inevitable sequel, in which they declined to participate.
The "Long Haul Version" is a bizarre way to watch the film. Though an exhaustive documentary and menu access to deleted scenes would probably make more sense, viewers get the option of branched footage that regularly navigates them away from the film. The pause between clips is often less than a minute (and the clips are usually between one and two minutes). Though the format can be a bit annoying, the trove of interviews are worth the trouble (I'll leave it to the directors to bad-mouth the few deleted scenes).
Sitting for the interviews are the writer-directors, Robert Hays, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, David Leisure ("Hare Krishna"), Lorna Patterson ("Randy the Stewardess"), special effects supervisor John Frazier, producer Jon Davison, Norman Alexander Gibbs ("Jive Dude #1"), Al White ("Jive Dude #2"), and the "Hammen Family": Nicholas Pryor ("Jim"), Lee Bryant ("Mrs. H"), and all-grown-up Rossie Harris (Joey). The actors seem largely amazed to have gotten the opportunity to appear in the film, and they are happy to dish about the experience.
A terrific text-based Trivia Track is partly redundant to the other features, but mostly quite informative. From the amusing animated menu, you can also access previews, including Airplane!'s theatrical trailer (3:32) and spots for Tommy Boy: Holy Shnike Edition, The John Wayne Collection, Bad News Bears, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off—The Bueller...Bueller...Edition.
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