Airplane! 40th Anniversary Retrospective

A staple of 1970’s cinema was the star-filled disaster films. Films like: the Swarm, Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and relevant to this retrospective, the Airport franchise, were major hits for Hollywood. Throwing an all-star cast into grand chaotic situations proved to be big box office draws. All the while three screenwriters/directors wondered if they could put their own stamp on this trend and in 1980 they did, and it was a very silly, silly stamp. Their movie, Airplane! has gone on to become renowned as one of the great masterpieces of comedy. The legacy this classic has left is set in cinematic stone. Upon it’s release   The American Film Institute ranked it at 2nd in their list of the greatest comedies. In 2010 it was listed on the National Registry due to its incredible importance to our nation’s film heritage. It easily carved out a spot in the historic Empire magazine ranking of the 500 greatest films of all time. Most importantly even until this day new generations of movie lovers have fallen in love with Airplane! continuing its legacy even four decades after its release.

While trying to win back the love of his life, Elaine, troubled pilot Stryker ends up on the flight she is working on. While in the air every single person who ate the fish option for dinner comes down with a severe foodborne illness…..including the flight crew! This leaves Stryker as the only person on the entire flight with the experience needed to land this plane safely. While this all sounds like the plot of a thriller, it is executed in a way that is pure hilarious lunacy. Somehow the jokes range from low brow to highly intelligent and everything in between.

The key element which sets Airplane! apart from so many other parody films which followed, is the fact that it truly follows a set narrative rather than simply rushing the viewer from one gag to another. The trio responsible for the film, David Zucker. Jim Abrams, and Jerry Zucker, known as Zucker-Abrams-Zucker, took inspiration from a low budget Dana Andrews film called Zero Hour!. The three men based their own screenplay on this film they found unintentionally hilarious, and at some points even lifted straight lines of dialogue from the flick. Some filmmakers strive to make one scene or line their work which becomes remembered, but these three crafted a hit parade of moments movie fans still love. From Barbara Billingsley speaking jive to the blow-up doll co-pilot to Kareem Abdul-Jabar as a flight navigator to all of the vices Lloyd Bridges picked today to quit and so many other moments along the way all of these gags have become classic pieces of cinema. The resulting comedy masterpiece launched the careers of the trio. Before this they were the guys responsible for the criminally underrated Kentucky Fried Movie, but afterwards they were the talk of Hollywood. Over the years they would respectfully work on films like: Hot Shots and the Naked Gun which also followed the satirical blueprint they originally laid out.

One of the jokes which sadly does not translate to modern audiences is the casting. Modern viewers are already accustomed to the like of Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges as comedic actors, but at the time these men were viewed as serious dramatic actors by moviegoers. So for audiences of the era seeing the likes of Nielsen and Bridges along with Robert Stack and Peter Graves in these ridiculous situations was part of the gonzo fun of it all. Adding to the fact that these men played their roles super straight only made it better. Of course Nielsen’s performance was nothing short of a game changer as the veteran actor revealed awe-inspiring comedic chops. Over the years, many who have worked with the man knew of this skill but Airplane! was the first time we as an audience got to see it.

Despite the fact the grand disaster films this classic satirized rarely pop-up onscreen anymore, and many of the pop culture references are outdated, the jokes from Airplane! still land. The strength of the humor from Zucker, Abrams, and Zucker is timeless in a way which will always hold up. From the sharp dialogue filled with memorable lines (“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley”) to the grand absurd visual gags (Stryker and Elaine doing their Saturday Night Fever best). This demonstrates the lasting appeal of this film.

When it was released Airplane! made an immediate impact with fans and critics who showered the game-changer with praise. Not only did it conquer the box office making $158 million dollars (adjusted for inflation) against a budget of around $3.5 million. Zucker, Abrams, and Zucker received both BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for their screenplay. That is to say nothing of the legacy the film left which is still being felt to this day.