Did you ever have a film that you would watch over and over again when you were a child? It probably won’t surprise you, given the premise behind The Rotation, that the film that fit this criteria for me was ‘The Land Before Time’, an animated dinosaur film primarily for children. I knew the dialogue inside-out, and I could probably quote or act out the entire film for you, and I probably did for my exasperated parents. Parents in particular will probably relate to this frustrating stage that their kids go through the most as they’re forced to endure ‘Frozen’ or ‘Moana’ on a constant loop that, at best, leads to them embarrassingly humming the songs aloud in their office or, at worst, is considered a form of slow torture that slowly erodes the love that they have for their children. I’m not a parent…I assume this is correct.
Airplane! offers the adult me the closest I’ve ever come to this feeling that I had when I was a child. It’s a film that I will watch whenever I come across it on TV, watch it on streaming services, and even throw the DVD on if I’m looking for an old-fashioned approach. When it’s on I’ll find myself reciting punchlines out loud (to the chagrin of whoever is in my immediate area) and even start chuckling at the thought of the next sight gag or joke that’s due to appear onscreen. People will undoubtedly hate watching this film with me as I sit there practically living the entire film on my sofa.
The plot of Airplane! is, on the face of it, a simple story that follows the troubled flight of passenger plane flying from Los Angeles to Chicago. The pilot, co-pilot, and many of the passengers are incapacitated by food poisoning, and it’s up to ex-fighter pilot Ted Striker to take control of the plane and land it safely in Chicago. Ted is unfortunately a traumatised pilot who hasn’t flown since the war since being involved in doomed air mission, and he was only on the plane to try and win back his ex-girlfriend, flight Attendant Elaine Dickinson, after they broke due to his obsession over this mission. At first glance the film seems to be a fairly ordinary story typical of the disaster movie genre of the early and mid-20th century, with writers and directors David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, noting that they are times parodying exact scenes from the 1957 film Zero Hour! The film, however, is elevated from its substandard origins by the introduction of jokes…and I mean a bucketload of jokes!
Comedy is an often a subjective medium that will divide friends and family. I usually have to remind myself of this fact when I launch into a rant at my mum and grandparents insisting that we turn over to Mrs Brown’s Boys when I return home to visit. Comedy TV, films, and comedians will divide families and friends across political divides (right wing comedians are generally a rare breed) and across age differences. Airplane! is the exception to this comedy rule. I’ve yet to come across anyone who says that they hate this film. You can introduce this film to anybody, of any age and background, and they will find a joke, visual gag, pun, or actor that will elicit a groan, chuckle, guffaw, or belly laugh.
The main stars of the film, Robert Hays (Ted Striker) and Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson), are relative newcomers, but they are supported by genuine acting stars who must have taken some convincing to appear in a film that appears to lampoon their carefully crafted onscreen personas. Peter Graves (Captain Oveur), Lloyd Bridges (Steve McCroskey), and Robert Stack (Captain Kramer) all play their roles straight whilst the comedic chaos happens around them or even comes out of their mouths. However, it’s Leslie Nielsen as Dr Rumack who steals the show, appearing midway through the film as the calm doctor dealing with the sick passengers and delivering the film’s most quoted joke.
Ted Striker: “Surely you can’t be serious.”
Dr. Rumack: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
The entire cast of pilots, aircrew, passengers, air-traffic control staff, hospital patients, and African villagers, including a notable appearance of Basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a pilot trying to escape the pressures of the NBA, make the apparent ludicrous tick along, and all are given a chance to shine in the story, and inevitably amongst all of the jokes.
You’ve often heard the adage ‘quality over quantity’ in all walks of life, and the same is often said about comedy. Airplane! appears to take that notion and laugh in its face. The jokes individually on their own in this film are genuinely funny, but it’s greatest strength is the sheer machine-gun rate of jokes that simply bombard you over its hour and a half running time. Empire Magazine, and also Movie Muse, once did a feature where they recorded every joke featured in the film and the sheer amount make you wonder how they fit them all in whilst making the story flow naturally. Movie Muse claims that there are 223 jokes in an 86-minute film, which equates to a joke every 2.6 jokes per minute. You simply haven’t got time to get your breath back from laughing at one joke before another comes along, and it’s this that makes me come back for more.