Airplane! A zany spoof on Hollywood disaster movies (1980)

Airplane movie with the autopilot

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Airplane movie poster

By Jack Zink, Entertainment Editor

The makers of Airplane! — a brassy, risque comedy spoof of the Airport movies in particular, and Hollywood in general — have managed to successfully put a nightclub act on film.

This flat-out zinger is a collection of one-liners, sight gags and quick sketches spliced together with the plot outline of Zero Hour, the 1957 in-flight disaster epic which starred Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden.

Airplane’s authors make no bones about the plagiarism, and neither should you. It’s good enough to be a compliment, and the model is a much better vehicle than the Airport movies which are Airplane’s real targets.


Airplane movie with the autopilot

The movie is much more satisfying in the long run than its more pretentious counterparts this season, most notably The Blues Brothers.

Significantly, Airplane is a low-to-medium budget flimflam whose creative roots trace back to Kentucky Fried Movie. Director-screenwriters Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker broke in their typewriters on KFM, and managed to wrangle directorial chores on their Airplane project. KFM was directed by John Landis, who later scored with a similarly unsophisticated Animal House, and then overextended himself on the $28 million Blues Brothers.

Probably because the Abrahams-Zucker team hasn’t yet waded in over its creative head, Airplane has a bright spontaneity and lack of self-indulgence more akin to the early raunch-comedies which spawned this whole genre.

Woman with eggs in her mouth - Airplane movie 1980

Airplane contains a treasure-trove of innocent social satire (the plane has a four-speed stick shift, and the mechanic lifts its “hood” to check the oil dip stick) — but more than earns its PG rating with blue dialogue used so offhandedly the lines whip you on the blind side. Still, the handling is risque instead of gross even in its most flagrant moments.

The film stars Julie Hagerty in what amounts to an acting debut as a harried stewardess, with Robert Hays (of TV’s Angie) as her love-struck beau. He’s a nervous Air Force vet who hasn’t flown since a disastrous mission, but buries his fears to chase her aboard a transcontinental flight.

Airplane disco dancing scene

Surely you can’t be serious

The plane is commanded by Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who are quickly put out of action by food poisoning. Leslie Neilsen is a doctor stumped by the tragedy, so Julie and Robert reluctantly take over the controls. They’re guided by Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges in the control tower.

It’s all familiar stuff, except that Airplane! uses attendant disaster movie conventions as platforms to interject humor at every turn. Each gag is an independent vignette bridged loosely, but effectively, to the next via the setting. Like a streamlined club act, it’s all over before the welcome gets worn.

WATCH IT NOW: Rent or buy Airplane – streaming or on DVD/BluRay

Though short, Airplane manages to swipe at such films as Jaws, Casablanca, Saturday Night Fever, Airport, On The Beach, Knute Rockne: All American and plenty more. There are a parade of cameos and small “featured roles” (another disaster movie trademark) including Maureen McGovern (a nun), Barbara Billingsley (a jive interpreter), Ethel Merman (herself) and Jimmie Walker (flight attendant).

As sheer nonsense, there are few rivals this or any season.

Barbara Billingsley - Excuse me - I speak jive - Airplane movie

AIRPLANE!Satire on disaster movies as a jetliner’s crew becomes ill during transcontinental flight. Stars Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Julie Hagerty, Robert Hayes. Rated PG (adult themes, suggestive dialogue)

Airplane movie - cockpit scene 1980

Airplane! Movie trailer (video)

YouTube video

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