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AIRPLANE!

       

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 24, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Like Mel Brooks’ ‘Blazing Saddles’ some six years earlier, ‘Airplane!’ pushes the envelope in the sleaze department, foreshadowing what would (sadly) become the accepted norm in the 21st Century. This is especially noticeable since the movie is rated PG (the PG-13 would not arrive on the scene for another four years). But it gets away with it simply because it is so hysterically funny. And it gets funnier with each viewing. In fact, I’d probably rate it higher today than I did 40 years ago — yes, 40 years ago! — despite some of the same misgivings. Now it’s getting a 40th anniversary Blu-ray reissue from Paramount Home Entertainment. My review was published in the Deseret News on July 8, 1980.

I’m going to give “Airplane!” (don’t forget the “!”) a 50-50 endorsement, because it is very much a 50-50 movie.

For every gag that works there is also a clunker, with a few tasteless moments thrown in for the sake of offending everyone possible.

But if you can stick it out the reward is a great deal of hearty laughter, much more than a lot of the youth film fare that is being dished up these days.

“Airplane!” was written and directed by Kentucky Fried Theater veterans Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, whose only previous big-screen venture was the successful (and way raunchier) “Kentucky Fried Movie.”

The latter film released in 1977, was a series of blackouts spoofing television and movies. It was written by Abrahams and the Zuckers but directed by John Landis (who later directed “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”).

Abrahams and the Zuckers direct with a much less heavy hand and the material is not nearly as tasteless. (The only really funny section in “Kentucky Fried Movie” was a lengthy spoof of Bruce Lee’s king-fu flicks.)

       

       Lloyd Bridges, left, Robert Stack, ‘Airplane!’ (1980)

It’s harder to make a full-length 90-minute feature hold up all the way through on one thin plot supported by crazy, off-the-wall humor — and to their credit “Airplane!” generally works.

While it has neither the technical finesse nor twisted insight of Monty Python or Mel Brooks’ efforts, it is very reminiscent of Brooks’ first completely weird film, the cowboy movie spoof “Blazing Saddles.”

Taking its basic plot from the 1957 film “Zero Hour!” (which featured Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch in a key role — honest!), “Airplane!” has the crew and many of the passengers of an airliner stricken with food poisoning. and the only one who can pilot the plane to safety is an ex-GI suffering psychological problems stemming from a wartime experience.

TV’s Robert Hays has the latter role and, as with all the other cast members, he plays it straight, letting the jokes and sight gags bounce off him. Newcomer Julie Hagerty is also very good as a stewardess, his former girlfriend — dippy, but sweet.

From the opening credits (printed in the same bold lettering as “Zero Hour!” and many other such films of the ’50s) we know what we’re in for. The opening gag pokes fun at “Jaws,” we see various religious cults offering free (“would you like to make a donation?”) flowers in the airline terminal — and eventually being punched out (not as funny as Alex Karras knocking out a horse, but still funny), and so it goes.

       

         Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty, ‘Airplane!’ (1980)

The dialogue is incredibly silly, but the deadpan delivery makes it funnier than it has any right to be:

     — “Stewardess, we must get these passengers to a hospital!”

     — “What is it?”

     — “A big building with patients, but that’s not important.”

Elmer Bernstein’s music is appropriately dramatic, the jokes come fast and free, and the bad ones quickly escape your mind. And every now and then the writers-directors break for another movie parody (“Saturday Night Fever,” “From Here to Eternity”) to ease the monotony of craziness in flight.

And, it must be said, every so often a real gem appears. Peter Graves, as the pilot, is talking to the Mayo Clinic when the operator interrupts with a call from a Mr. Ham on line five. “Ham on five, hold the Mayo,” Graves says.

But the best part is seeing straight actors like Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen and others running around like idiots, seriously speaking insane dialogue. (Which Stack also did in “1941.”)

I should add as a warning that “Airplane!” is also rather raunchy for a PG-rated movie — for nudity, profanity, sex talk, vulgarity — and may be offensive to some viewers.

But it made me laugh out loud repeatedly — and I wasn’t alone.