Airplane!: The ‘Don’t Call Me Shirley!’ Edition (1980)

I remember the movie Airplane! (1980) being among the funniest things I’d ever seen at the age of 11. Watching it again 25 years later, I’m forced to conclude that at 11, I hadn’t yet seen many funny things. If you have fond recollections of splitting your preadolescent sides to Airplane!, sorry, I’m here to ruin them.

A chaotic parody of the underrated Airport series (which, incidentally, had already parodied itself by 1980 with the atrocious, and in many ways much funnier, Concorde: Airport ’79), Airplane! basically gets by on one joke: sight gags based on tricks of perspective or on thwarting expectation. You know, like when a mechanic lifts a hood on the pane’s nose as though it were a car. This formula was later exploited for Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), Top Secret! (1984), and the Hot Shots series (1991 and ’93), so basically anyone who’s been to a movie or rented a video in the last quarter century is probably familiar with it. But Airplane! relies on the audience taking it as new — which is to say, the jokes aim more to surprise you with their audacious silliness than to demonstrate genuine wit.

Still, Airplane! is groundbreaking for more than simply laying the groundwork for Hot Shots: Part Deux. Its significant innovation — its penchant for borrowing liberally from other movies — is made evident in its first few frames, when the opening credits unfold over a hazy bed of clouds lit by a full moon. The Airplane’s vertical fin pokes sharklike through the clouds, goes back the other way, and repeats; then the whole jet lunges up and flashes the camera its underbelly, and the movie’s title unfurls across the screen, all in capital letters, complete with exclamation point. Already, in about two seconds, here’s Hollywood referencing itself in three wildly different ways. The reference to Jaws is obvious. Then there is the style of the rolling title, which riffs on the tinseltown melodramas of the golden age. And finally there’s the obvious sound-staginess of the high-altitude backdrop, seemingly inspired by the ludicrous musical love scene in 1978’s Superman, in which Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder dangle on wires over a virtually identical soundstage as they play goo-goo eyes among the stars.

Airplane! constantly riffs on other movies, a device that, like the sight gags, has no rhyme or reason. (By contrast, consider Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety [1977], which reveals an admiration of Hitchcock’s films, while at the same time managing to tell a story in its own right. And still be funny as shit.) Most of the more eclectic movie nods come in the frequent flashbacks of hero Ted Striker (Robert Hays) and heroine Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), as the movie recalls their erstwhile love affair by way of From Here to Eternity (1953), Tora Tora Tora (1970), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and a million other familiar and unfamiliar titles.

By necessity the movie is a little more focused when Ted and Elaine are in the air, dealing with a crisis that ensues on their plane after one of the two in-flight dinners poisons half the people on board, including the flight crew. Here Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams echo Brooks’ focus in High Anxiety, if little of his reverence, by restricting their references largely to the Airport series — and, thankfully, picking in particular on the best of the lot, Airport 1975 (um, 1974).

The correlation between the two plotlines is exhaustive. In the former, a private plane spirals out of control and slams into a jumbo jet, sending the flight crew to their deaths and leaving flight attendant Nancy Pryor (Karen Black) to pilot the plane with only the aid of the ground controllers and the computer. When Elaine briefly sits in the captain’s seat and struggles to keep the blow-up autopilot fully inflated, the film delivers one of Airplane!‘s few genuinely funny jokes.

The movie also borrows one of Airport 1975‘s many human-interest subplots. That would be the girl in need of medical attention — Janice Abbott (Linda Blair) in the original, Lisa Davis (Jill Whelan) in the parody. In both cases, she’s a stretcher-ridden invalid with an IV in her arm, who tugs at our heartstrings. In both, the invalid is sung to by nuns; the joke in Airplane! has the abbess (Maureen McGovern), transported by the groove, yank out Lisa’s IV with the neck of her guitar. This is less funny than the bit with the inflatable autopilot. But the song is actually quite nice.

Airplane!‘s many references to Airport 1975 doubtless resonated with audiences of the time — and resonate with me, because, improbably, that’s one of my favorite movies. But they’ll probably make little sense to younger viewers encountering Airplane! for the first time through this DVD.

Being an anniversary release, the DVD is loaded with extras. Its menu has the look of an in-flight information card and as you range from one option to the next, soundbites from the movie’s more notable scenes play in the background. (The voice of a panicky passenger shrieking, “I can’t take it anymore!” greets each return to the main menu, so that if you change several options in quick succession, that line, repeated over and over, is all you hear. This strikes me as a fairly grievous miscalculation on the part of the disc encoders.) The edition includes not only commentary and trivia tracks, but also a novel “Long Haul” track, where the movie is frequently interrupted with short interview snippets in which stars, directors, and extras relate factoids and behind-the-scenes insights in the familiar manner of the DVD featurette.

If the DVD’s technology breaks new ground, though, the panoply of features easily outstrips the content available to fill them. Many continuity errors and technical gaffes are noted; many banal stories related about behind-the-scenes non-events; there’s a lot of senseless chuckling among the principals and semi-joking pronouncements that this or that director has at long last run out of things to say; but the stories by and large feel pointless. Two exceptions: the actors portraying two slang-talking passengers — this time the reference is to Shaft — describe the process by which they wrote their own nadsattian dialogue by stringing bits of ’70s vernacular together; and Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams reveal that the real inspiration for Airplane! isn’t the aforementioned Airport series but instead an obscure Airplane disaster B-movie from much earlier, Zero Hour (1957).

Just because the directors cite Zero Hour as Airplane!‘s fulcrum doesn’t make it true, of course. The references to Saturday Night Fever, Airport 1975, and the rest are still plenty obvious. But it does underscore that Airplane!‘s hodgepodge of movie allusions is likely to look muddled today, since such wholesale borrowing afflicts current movies with the exasperating relentlessness of a facial tic. (Scary Movie 4 is scheduled for release in 2006.)

The “Don’t Call Me Shirley!” Edition also raises the question of Airplane!‘s legacy. And because the movie trades so heavily in previous legacies, it’s a tricky question. The best feature in the Long Haul track is probably when the trio of directors take us through a split-screen tour of the sequences in Airplane! that double sequences from Zero Hour — and do so as slavishly as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho follows the Hitchcock original. As movies come to refer more and more to other movies, which in turn refer to other ones, subsequent generations will see them as exaggerated reiterations of undifferentiated genres, signifying nothing.

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