Flight into hilarity

You ever been in a cockpit before?

Published: Apr 05 2017, 01:01:am

Sunday, July 6, 1980.
AIRPLANE! Music by Elmer Bernstein. Written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. Running time: 86 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: occasional nudity, coarse and suggestive language.
THE WEATHER FOLK TELL US that we’re living through one of the worst summers on record. The wretched rain notwithstanding, Theatre Row is a brighter place since the arrival of Airplane!, an inspired bit of inflight insanity that spoofs the afterburners off  the Airport pictures.
    In a way, it’s all Nathan Cohen’s fault. Cohen, the acerbic drama critic who headed up CBC television’s script department circa 1955, encouraged a Toronto advertising copywriter named Arthur Hailey by buying his first teleplay, a suspense drama called Flight into Danger.
    The show was broadcast in April, 1956, on the CBC’s national network. In September,  the CBC kinescope was rebroadcast over the BBC. In New York , NBC studios mounted their own production.
    Hailey then sold his story to the movies, and the result was a 1957 picture called Zero Hour! Hailey shared his first Hollywood screen credit with writers John Champion and director Hall Bartlett.
    A success, the British-born Hailey went on to other things. Zero Hour! ended up on the late, late show.
    But wait. The story is far from over.
    In 1975, a trio of would-be filmmakers saw the movie version on TV. At the time, Jerry Zucker, his brother David and their partner Jim Abrahams were running a Los Angles revue company called Kentucky Fried Theatre. When they saw Zero Hour!, they fell off their chairs.
    Picking themselves up, they cobbled together a script lampooning the whole idea. At the time, nobody with the wherewithal to package a picture was interested.
    Only slightly disheartened, they collected together a selection of their best sketches, and thus was born The Kentucky Fried Movie (1975). Under the direction of John Landis (who went on to make 1978’s Animal House  and the still current [1980] The Blues Brothers), their picture was a low-budget hit.
    While Abrahams and the brothers Zucker were assembling their credentials as crazy persons, Arthur Hailey continued cashing royalty cheques. A former RAF flight lieutenant, Hailey recycled his endangered airliner theme as Airport, the 1968 novel that inspired the 1970 movie and the subsequent series (including Airport 1975, Airport '77 and The Concorde — Airport '79).
    The world is definitely ready for Airplane!. An unhinged, anything-for-a-laugh parody, it irreverently reprises the Zero Hour!/Flight into Danger plotline, generating good humour the entire way.
    The story, for anyone who’s forgotten, involves the aircrew aboard Trans American Flight 209 falling ill. A shell-shocked former fighter pilot is the only one aboard with the ability to bring the big plane in for anything like a safe landing.
    Newcomer Robert Hays plays Ted Striker. A one-time military pilot and a flashback-haunted bundle of nerves, he is desperately in love with stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty). She, however, cannot respect a coward.
    Their flight, under the command of the congenial, if slightly bent, Captain Oveur (Peter Graves), contains the usual selection of Airport picture passengers, a group that includes a singing nun, a little girl on her way to Chicago for a heart transplant, a pair of “jive dudes" (whose dialogue is subtitled), a pair of Hare Krishnas and an unflappable, impossibly responsible doctor named Rumack (Leslie Nielsen).
    In the tower, working to bring them all down safely, are Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges), the tough chief dispatcher, and Rex Kramer (Robert Stack), Striker’s old commanding officer who’s now Trans American's senior pilot. (Film buffs will remember Stack in the cockpit opposite John Wayne in one of the first airline suspense dramas, 1954’s The High and the Mighty.)
    Airplane!’s trio of directors, the Zuckers and Abrahams, neatly combine the spirit of the classic Mad Magazine (circa 1954) with the off-the-wall cheekiness of Saturday Night Live. From the vintage Mad, they’ve borrowed the cluttered, wall-to-wall approach to gag writing. Every scene has more comic cues — an amalgam of sight, situation and dialogue — than can be picked out in a single sitting.
    From television (and their own stage experience), they've absorbed the technique of straight-faced burlesque, a kind of take-it-or-leave-it comedy that refuses to belabour a point.
    Why bother? If a gag falls flat, wait one minute. Another one is on the way.
    Unlike many aspiring satirists, these filmmakers are completely familiar with the genre that they’re spoofing. Like expert clowns, they are able to twist, bend and shape it into a series of hilarious new configurations.
    Airplane! is utterly ridiculous, often outrageous and marvelously funny. It’s all Nathan Cohen’s fault, and I’m sure he would have loved it.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I came of age reading Nathan Cohen, Canada’s preeminent theatre critic from the mid-1950s until his death in 1971. No one had a greater influence on my approach to the craft when I first began writing movie reviews for The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto. Although I knew that few of my readers in 1980 Vancouver would recognize his name, I could not tell the story of bestselling novelist Arthur Hailey’s breakthrough to fame without mentioning Cohen's key role. Hailey shared credit with “John Castle” (a pseudonym used by the writing team of Ronald Payne and John Garrold) for the teleplay’s novelization, published in 1959 as Runway Zero-Eight. He went on to international fame with such literary doorstops as Hotel (1965), Airport (1968), Wheels (1971) and The Moneychangers (1975). The first two had successful movie adaptations (1967, 1970); the second two became TV mini-series (1978, 1976). Hailey died in 2004 at the age of 84.
    Broadcast live to air on April 3, 1956, the original Flight into Danger starred James Doohan as George Spencer, the airplane passenger called upon to save the day when the flight crew take sick. The Vancouver-born actor is remembered for starring in one of television’s first science-fiction shows, the two-season CBC series Space Command (1953-1954). He’s best known, of course, for his portrayal of Montgomery Scott, the Chief Engineer on the Starship Enterprise, where he worked alongside fellow Canadian William Shatner during the original three seasons of Star Trek (1966-1969) and seven feature films. As noted in the above review, Arthur Hailey’s novel Airport generated a movie franchise that produced four feature films. In 1982, Airplane II: The Sequel reunited most of the original film’s cast for a flight to the moon aboard a shuttle craft. Written and directed by Winnipeg-born Ken Finkleman, it was significantly less successful than its predecessor, and there’ve been no further spin-offs.