AIRPLANE!: The Craft Behind The Machine Gun Lunacy

Airplane! is one of those films we all take for granted.  It has been imitated so often and its parody-at-a-machine-gun-pace formula has become so commonplace in the world of comedy that it’s all too easy to forget how revolutionary it once was.  That said, the lessening of the surprise factor allows one to concentrate on the quality of the film itself… and there’s much more to the wackiness than meets the eye.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Airplane! is essentially a Mad Magazine movie parody brought to life in cinematic form.  Drawing its inspiration from the Airport series and a lesser-known 1957 film called Zero Hour, it tells the story of a commercial flight stricken with a massive case of food poisoning that has taken out its pilots.  The flight’s only hope is Ted Stryker (Robert Hays), an ex-fighter pilot who bought a last-minute ticket on the flight in hopes of patching up his relationship with his stewardess ex, Elaine (Julie Haggerty). 

This sets the stage for melodrama galore as Ted struggles to overcome his wartime traumas to save the flight and an on-ground crew led by airplane pro (and Ted’s ex-superior officer) Kramer (Robert Stack) tries to get them landed safely.  Also on hand are Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack, the plane’s irony-free doctor, and Lloyd Bridges as McCroskey, an airport chief who deals with the crisis while trying to kick umpteen addictions.

As the synopsis indicates, it’s a solid plot and could have served as the basis for an Airport installment.  However, all this plot is backgrounded in Airplane! as writing/directing triumvirate Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams go on a ruthless search-and-destroy mission for laughs.  This trio developed a madcap, slash-and-burn style of parody through a homegrown comedic troupe called the Kentucky Fried Theater (which also spawned the cult fave Kentucky Fried Movie) and that style translates beautifully to a film format. 

In the best Mad Magazine style, they cram jokes of all kinds into every nook and cranny: sight gags, slapstick, wordplay, funny sounds, funny faces, anachronisms, visual/verbal non-sequiturs and the ever-popular breaking of the fourth wall are all deployed at a rat-a-tat-tat pace designed to throttle the laughs right out of you. Nearly 40 years later, this style has lost the element of surprise.  The Zuckers revisited it time and again in films that ranged from very good (Top Secret) to dear-lord-what-were-they-thinking (Jane Austen’s Mafia) and countless imitators lifted their gag-a-minute parody format for scads of lesser films.  

However, this lessening of the novelty level allows the viewer to focus on what a well-crafted film Airplane! is.  For a low-end studio effort made by first-time filmmakers, it has surprising polish.  The pacing is tight thanks to sharp editing by Patrick Kennedy and the photography by regular Robert Aldrich cameraman Joseph Biroc gives it the perfect bland-yet-stylish sheen necessary to convincingly recreate the look of the Airport series.  However, the film’s stylistic secret weapon is the Elmer Bernstein score, which sets all the clichés of orchestral movie score writing on their ears to achieve a comedic effect that reinforces the film’s deadpan-yet-outrageous tone.

The final element that lifts Airplane! to classic level is the performances.  The major kudos has always gone to Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, and deservedly so: each man took subversive joy in giving their leading-man personas a Viking funeral and achieved a new postmodern hipness in the process.  However, one shouldn’t forget the performances of Hays and Hagerty as the film’s troubled romantic leads.  Each takes a personalized path into the film’s anarchic/comedic style and each makes it pay dividends:  Hays gives his role a fourth wall-breaking sense of sly wit while Hagerty plays out every situation with an eerie, deadpan straight face that amplifies the humor in its own way.

All in all, Airplane! deserves its place in history.  No number of retreads can erase the joyful, well-crafted comedic style on display here.  It might look like lunacy but there’s a lot of talent expended in making that illusion possible.

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