Surely the fun­ni­est film of all time?

Empire (UK) - - REVIEW - An­drew DICK­ENS

SAY­ING “LIKE MY men” after ex­plain­ing how you take your cof­fee. Mak­ing a ‘drink­ing prob­lem’ joke if you ac­ci­den­tally send a G&T down your chin. Clamp­ing hard on your lip when you hear a sen­tence be­gin­ning with “surely”. These are all symp­toms of Air­plane!. It is the start­ing place for dozens of ref­er­ence points in­grained in us. Mainly, though, it’s a funny film. Pos­si­bly the fun­ni­est film, ac­tu­ally.

It was born, how­ever, of that most po-faced and self-un­aware genre: the disas­ter movie. In the ’70s you couldn’t throw a stone in Hol­ly­wood with­out it hit­ting a troupe of job­bing char­ac­ter ac­tors try­ing to make it out in one piece while bat­tling an over­turned cruise ship, or burn­ing tower block, or an earth­quake. Or planes fly­ing into mor­tal dan­ger, as seen in the in­creas­ingly un­suc­cess­ful Air­port se­ries. For­mu­laic, cheesy, yet some­how al­ways watch­able, they were three funny guys called Jim Abra­hams, David Zucker, and his brother Jerry Zucker, ripe for par­ody.

Zucker, Abra­hams, and Zucker — best known as ‘ZAZ’ and de­scribed by Robert Hays, who plays the film’s hero Ted Striker, as “three bod­ies with one brain” — would scour record­ings of late-night tele­vi­sion, seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion for their live La-based live skit show, Ken­tucky Fried Theater. One day they came across Zero Hour!, a 1957 film writ­ten by Bri­tish for­mer World War II pi­lot Arthur Hai­ley.

If you’ve seen Air­plane!, then you’ve ef­fec­tively seen Zero Hour!. The plot is lifted nearly whole­sale: the war-da­m­aged pi­lot bat­tling his demons as he tries to save not only a pas­sen­ger plane struck by a dodgy fish din­ner that poi­sons pas­sen­gers and crew, but also his crum­bling re­la­tion­ship. There are even lines copied ver­ba­tim, in­clud­ing the im­mor­tal: “Our sur­vival hinges on one thing — find­ing some­one who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for din­ner.” ZAZ sim­ply added jokes — like buy­ing a sen­si­ble suit and ac­ces­soris­ing it with clown shoes and a squirty but­ton­hole.

So close were the two scripts that, hav­ing re­searched the le­gal lim­its of par­ody, ZAZ had to buy the rights to Zero Hour!, al­beit for a modest $2,500. It was a smart move. They were joke-writ­ers, not screen­writ­ers, their only pre­vi­ous cinematic ven­ture be­ing The Ken­tucky Fried Movie, a par­o­dic fea­ture-length sketch show. Hang­ing their gags on the well-struc­tured Zero Hour! gave the film sub­stance. There’s a story to fol­low, char­ac­ters to in­vest in and con­text for the jokes. For ex­am­ple, if it weren’t for the plot’s jeop­ardy, when Les­lie Nielsen’s stone-faced Dr Ru­mack says, “This woman has to be got­ten to a hos­pi­tal,” and Julie Hagerty’s Elaine (flight at­ten­dant and Ted’s dis­ap­pointed love in­ter­est) asks, “A hos­pi­tal? What is it?” it wouldn’t be nearly as funny — nor as quoted — when Ru­mack

replies, “It’s a big build­ing with pa­tients, but that’s not im­por­tant right now.” Zero Hour! was the per­fect ve­hi­cle for ZAZ.

Para­mount wanted to make it, as­sign­ing the ex­pe­ri­enced pro­ducer Howard W. Koch, whose CV in­cluded The Odd Cou­ple and The Manchurian Can­di­date. At first, this brought ageist re­sent­ment from the thir­tysome­thing writ­ers, who wor­ried about Koch get­ting his gnarly six­tysome­thing paws on their zesty cre­ation. But Koch knew how to make a film and how to deal with three cocky up­starts — gen­tly re­mind­ing them, when they tried to put their artis­tic feet down, that they could al­ways try their luck at an­other stu­dio.

One ar­gu­ment the writ­ers man­aged to win was made pos­si­ble by Koch’s con­tacts. In­spired by the sin­cer­ity with which Zero Hour!’s cast pro­nounced faintly ridicu­lous lines, they in­sisted on hir­ing se­ri­ous ac­tors to de­liver their script, re­ject­ing comics like Bill Mur­ray, Chevy Chase and David Let­ter­man.

This stroke of ge­nius meant they had the pre­vi­ously ‘straight’ Nielsen as Ru­mack, Lloyd Bridges as the put-upon air­port chief Steve Mc­croskey, Peter Graves as the plane’s pae­dophilic cap­tain Clarence Oveur, and Robert Stack as Rex Kramer, Ted’s neme­sis and for­mer com­mand­ing of­fi­cer. Stack, an Em­my­win­ner in 1960 for TV se­ries The Un­touch­ables (pro­duced by Koch) and a 1957 Os­car-nom­i­nee for Writ­ten On The Wind, was top of ZAZ’S list. Bridges had been a lead­ing man in war films and Westerns and had over 100 ti­tles to his name. Graves was a hugely fa­mil­iar face on US tele­vi­sion, not least for his role as Jim Phelps in Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble. Nielsen, at that point, was best known for the hu­mour-free For­bid­den Planet and The Po­sei­don Ad­ven­ture. He was a Shake­spearean ac­tor of some renown. He had god­damn grav­i­tas.

Air­plane! changed all that. Nielsen, a closet clown, never looked back, hook­ing up with ZAZ again for Po­lice Squad! and The Naked Gun trilogy, as well as an ar­ray of lesser par­o­dies. Bridges is for­ever as­so­ci­ated with hav­ing “picked the wrong week to quit” things, while Graves is now best re­mem­bered not for Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble, but for ask­ing a small boy if he’s ever seen a grown man naked.

Of course, the heart of the film, the rea­son that re­peated view­ing is both a joy and a must, is the sheer num­ber of gags: vis­ual, sex­ual, ref­er­en­tial, slap­stick, and the finest word­play in town. Each time you go back, you spot some­thing new. When Elmer Bern­stein watched the film to score it, ac­cord­ing to Jerry Zucker, he was still chortling at the tenth view­ing.

The fun­nies are fired at an al­most un­eth­i­cal rate, the joke-writ­ers play­ing to their strengths, but this is no clus­ter bomb of com­edy: it’s tar­geted, with most shots hit­ting home. Granted, some are (and al­ways were) ex­tremely dicey, but they are so free of mal­ice and so swiftly lost in the del­uge of time­less zingers, that be­fore you have time to say ‘prob­lem­atic’, you’re laugh­ing at a woman sleep­ing with a horse.

But that’s not im­por­tant right now. What’s im­por­tant is that this film is still im­por­tant. Not be­cause of its cin­e­matog­ra­phy or some deeper mes­sage; not just be­cause of a legacy that runs from ZAZ’S own Naked Gun se­ries, through brothers Far­relly and Coen, to those cul­tural ref­er­ences and be­yond; but be­cause Air­plane! shows no signs of age­ing. It’s still the fun­ni­est com­edy you can watch to­day: a big, silly grin of a film that ex­ists only to make us laugh.

Surely, they can’t be se­ri­ous.


Otto the au­topi­lot (get it?) and Ptsd-suf­fer­ing wingman Ted Striker (Robert Hays) are joined in the cock­pit by Dr Ru­mack (Les­lie Nielsen).

Top: Julie Hagerty is flight at­ten­dant Elaine. Above: An un­ex­pected guest at the gate.

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