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Airplane! (1980)

by on 2011/04/08

Airplane! is kind of a rarity for me. It relies substantially on two conventions I usually dislike: sight gags and a “more is more” approach to humour. The difference here is the creators David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker have gone so far with the latter, they compensate for the former. With such an excess of jokes attempted, a good many manage to stick.

Though I’m a much greater fan of their short-lived series, Police Squad! this high-flying comedy must have worked a kind of magic. Thirty years along, I still find airport announcements amusing, I pantomime death when I’m bored, and I even think of a drinking problem as someone missing their mouth.

The premise is simple and compelling. A large number of passengers aboard a midair flight become violently ill. The crew is likewise incapacitated, and the remaining staff need to locate a doctor to tend to the sick, and a pilot to tend to the plane. They do so carefully to avoid causing a panic, but time is running desperately short. It might not seem like the stuff of hilarity, yet it makes an effective framework.

Julie Hagerty (What About Bob?) stars as flight attendant Elaine Dickinson. Robert Hays (The Larry Sanders Show) plays Ted Striker, her estranged boyfriend. His wartime experience makes him a possible candidate to land the plane, but it’s also left him unstable. Their main line on the journey is intercut with a series of flashbacks documenting their meeting, courtship, trials, and tribulations.

A large ensemble cast populates the present-day scenes, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible), and Robert Stack in major roles. Smaller parts and cameos feature Barbara Billingsley, James Hong, Maureen McGovern, and Ethel Merman, among others. A particular standout, in a significant career pivot, is the late Leslie Nielsen (Forbidden Planet) as the poker-faced eccentric, Doctor Rumack.

From the serviceable story, the filmmakers have hung all manner of jokes including, but not limited to, black humour, puns and other wordplay, slapstick, surrealism, visual gags, and casting playing off other, prior roles.

While some rely on dated references — From Here to Eternity, Jaws, and Saturday Night Fever — those subjects have been successful enough to be remembered still.

Other aspects haven’t dated at all, playing on evergreen conventions of style — novelty rear projections, subtitled “jive” talking, and a character noticing the echo on his own internal monologue — and content: disaster tropes, a happy singalong, and inspirational speechifying.

What surprised me most were things I’d forgotten, or never registered in my youth, surprisingly adult humour, especially for its PG label. Had I seen an edited version? If so, they’d almost certainly cut out the following hard-to-forget sequences:

  • a passenger refusing whiskey in favour of cocaine,
  • the most (deliberately) gratuitous topless shot I’ve seen in a mainstream movie,
  • a “no sex” warning light,
  • Elaine’s memory about how she “used to sit on your face and wiggle”,
  • the captain asking a boy if he’s ever seen a grown man naked,
  • a woman in bed with a horse,
  • and the autopilot’s inflation . . . or should I say “infellation”?

Despite the unexpected maturity, I found that Airplane! remained as entertaining as I remembered from long ago. Familiar bits were a comfort. Others were fresh or forgotten. The extensive minefield of jokes ensures no one gets through unaffected.

Besides, it’s given me something more than just humour I couldn’t appreciate as a child: Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen doing a scene together.

And that’s what makes me the resident geek.

* * * *

Rated PG

88 minutes

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