I noticed Airplane! was on TV the other day, so I recorded it as I could never remember having seen the film from beginning to end. Sure I knew most of the gags from it, but more from reputation than having watched them first hand.
So, I watched it the other night, and I have to admit I almost, almost, switched off after the first 15 minutes or so, because what I was watching was failing to live up to my expectations. Sure there were a few bits that made me smile, like the tannoy announcers arguing about which coloured zone was which, but everything seemed far too serious at this point.
Maybe that was the idea though, as when Airplane! was first released in 1980 it was pretty much the first film of its kind (I’m struggling to think of anything similar that came before it, though I’m sure there must be something) so perhaps it was intentional, to ease audiences in for what was to come later.
Signs that things were heading back where I expected them to be soon came though, when Ted Striker goes to buy a plane ticket and is asked if he wants smoking or non-smoking. He replies that he wants smoking, and is then handed a paper ticket which, yes, you’ve guessed it, is literally emitting smoke in his hand.
Things started to improve also when Leslie Nielsen finally appeared. If there was ever an actor to be linked to this type of film it is the now, sadly, late Mr. Nielsen. I admit I gave a little cheer when he appeared, and from then on Airplane! suddenly became what I expected it to be from the beginning. The running gags I had been waiting for started to appear, including Nielsen’s “Don’t call me Shirley” line, and the “…but that’s not important right now” jokes.
By the end of the film I was glad I hadn’t switched off earlier, and my expectations had been met, and even exceeded, as I had forgotten all about the bonkers Johnny, the air traffic controller who constantly comes up with inane comments about things the other characters say or do.
I also liked the joke about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played the co-pilot Roger Murdock. I didn’t know who he was, but assumed he must have been a basketball player when he’s quizzed by the young boy who comes to visit the cockpit. Sure enough, he was a famous basketball player, and when he passes out later in the film is dragged from his chair wearing basketball kit.
At the time the film was released it worked so well because most of the actors, including Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack, were serious actors and not known for comedy roles, and indeed in the case of Nielsen the movie became rather a turning point in his career.
Now, the film is regarded as a classic and I can see why. If I’m completely honest I didn’t enjoy it as much as, say The Naked Gun (which also came from the same creators – David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker) but since it was the first of its kind it should be recognised, as without it we wouldn’t have had a whole slew of films made in the same absurd manner.