Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's An Entirely Different Kind Of Flying

When AIRPLANE!, the comic masterpiece by the team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, was first released in the summer of 1980 it was a much less media-savvy world than it is now. It was thought at the time that the film was a direct parody of the Universal AIRPORT series and the rest of the disaster films that had proliferated throughout the 70s. Because of how effective the film was, it was seen as the last nail in the coffin of that subgenre not that, after films like THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT ’79 and WHEN TIME RAN OUT, it needed much help. But the hidden secret, one that I never even knew until years after the fact, is that AIRPLANE! is a direct parody, almost a remake, of the 1957 potboiler ZERO HOUR!

All the elements are there: former pilot Ted Stryker (Striker in AIRPLANE!) who has never gotten over his horrific experiences during the war, finds himself on a flight attempting to work things out with his wife Ellen (girlfriend Elaine in AIRPLANE!), when a sudden outbreak of food poisoning (it was the fish) causes many of the passengers and crew to become ill. After this is discovered, the one doctor onboard gravely intones, “The survival of everyone on board depends on just one thing: finding someone who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner.” When it is determined that Ted is the only one onboard who any flying experience, he has to summon up every once of his courage to get the job done and land the plane. While AIRPLANE! may have been slightly influenced by the famous John Wayne vehicle THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY and some of the basic 70s disaster movie style, it’s crystal clear that ZERO HOUR! is what Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker were really aping. That film was co-written by Arthur Hailey, from his earlier teleplay “Flight Into Danger” and written by him in novel form as “Runway Zero-Eight”. He later went on to write the novels of “Hotel” and “Airport”. Who knows what he thought of AIRPLANE! Fortunately, the film has finally been released on DVD, allowing direct comparisons to be made now and forever.

Forget Van Sant’s PSYCHO—AIRPLANE! is pretty damn close to being a shot-for-shot remake. Camera set-ups are eerily similar, whole chunks of dialogue recur from one to the other. The only difference is that in AIRPLANE! that dialogue turns out to be straight lines for the jokes. In ZERO HOUR! it’s just the dialogue. Much has been made about how the line referred to above turns up in both films but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s very hard to hear someone say “You’re gonna have to talk him right down to the ground…” and not have a watermelon crash behind him.

The cast of ZERO HOUR! includes Dana Andrews (who later also appeared in AIRPORT 1975) as Ted and Linda Darnell (looking ready to take over the Margaret Dumont role in a Marx Brothers movie) as Ellen. The two leads have a child named Joey, a character who gets sick in this version for added jeopardy but was simply the son of another pair of passengers in AIRPLANE! Sterling Hayden, in what would later be the Robert Stack role, seems to be playing his part as a dry run for Jack D. Ripper in DR. STRANGELOVE. Jerry Paris, a name famous for having directed seemingly every episode of HAPPY DAYS, appears as the boyfriend of the stewardess and is intentional comic relief. There’s no equivalent for his character in AIRPLANE!

Running about 80 minutes, ZERO HOUR has to tread a little water to get to its fade-out. There’s a midsection involving contact with the plane being lost that goes on too long—AIRPLANE! solved the length problem by inserting the character’s flashbacks, one of the other ways the two films diverge. To be fair, ZERO HOUR! isn’t quite a bad movie—the editing in particular contains some enjoyably pulpy smash cuts to the following scene. But it’s impossible to watch it without thinking of the more famous film that overshadows it. In contrast, the first AIRPORT, as goofy as some of it may play today, does manage to be somewhat entertaining and suspenseful on its own terms. If you know AIRPLANE! well enough, then watching ZERO HOUR! will provide enough laughs. But if you watch AIRPLANE! yet again just after, it manages to make what Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker accomplished that much funnier. For the first time, someone came along who managed to pinpoint what was absurd, but also strangely endearing, about a certain type of filmmaking style and at the same time managed to totally obliterate it. Film comedy, and also film drama, would never quite be the same again. But in some ways none of that matters quite so much as the simple joy of being able to see both Sterling Hayden and Robert Stack proclaim into a microphone, "how there are a few people, particularly me, who'd like to buy you a drink and shake your hand."


Unknown said...

This is still one of my all-time fave comedies. It's sorta sad how this kind of comedy - the shotgun effect pastiche - has become completely diluted with DISASTER MOVIE, SCARY MOVIE 4, etc.

Watching AIRPLANE! again recently and TOP SECRET! as well, I realized how great these films still are and hold up over time. I wonder if any of these news one will? Somehow I doubt it.

m said...

Oh my, I just watched this movie with a friend a few hours ago.

It is unlike anything I have see before. The comedy is has its full effect, but at the same time it's not ridiculous; simply subtle and it packs a good punch.