Carl takes a retrospective look at the hilarious disaster spoof AIRPLANE!
Years ago, I came across the spoof genre. And I have to admit that the genre is one I still relish to this very day. The first time I came into contact with the genre was through the classic Mel Brooks Western ‘Blazing Saddles‘ back in 1974. It was a fantastic send-up of the old western movies from the 1950s but with a knowing wink at some of the topics of the day. Nowadays, people call it (incorrectly) racist but they missed the point. The film was a send-up of racism and was in fact, trying through comedy, to show that racists and racism had no place in the world. And that campfire scene!
More Mel Brooks spoofs followed including probably Brooks’ finest one in ‘Young Frankenstein‘ which is not only mine but my brother’s personal favorite of all of Brooks’ films. Others came and went and of course, there have been many different ones over the course of the years, most notably ‘The Naked Gun‘ series and Brooks’ own ‘Spaceballs‘ which I find silly but hilariously so. But back in 1980, a film came out of nowhere which took the box office by storm on all sides of the Atlantic. Grossing over $83million at the American box office alone and over $158million worldwide, all from a budget of $3.5million, the film went on to become one of the finest examples of the spoof genre. That film was ‘Airplane!‘.
A brief history lesson here. Back in 1970, Universal Studios managed to have a huge hit on their hands with the film adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s novel ‘Airport‘. With an all-star cast which included Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, and Jacqueline Bisset, the film told the stories and the drama behind the scenes at the fictional Airport of Lincoln International near Chicago. The story focused on the airport manager trying to keep the airport open during an intense snowstorm while a suicide bomber plans to blow up a Boeing 747 in midair. The film made $100.5million against a budget of $10.2million, giving the studio a great success. They repeated the formula, albeit with different scenarios in 1974s ‘Airport 1975‘ which starred Charlton Heston, ‘Airport 1977‘ which starred Jack Lemmon and James Stewart and ‘The Concorde-Airport ’79‘ which featured Alain Delon and Robert Wagner.
The original in reality gave birth to the famous all-star cast disaster movie which became a staple of cinema back in the 1970s, giving rise to ‘The Poseidon Adventure‘, ‘Earthquake‘, ‘The Towering Inferno‘ and ‘The Swarm‘. It also gave birth to the idea of ‘Airplane!‘. The entire ‘Airport’ series of movies inspired the team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker to create what they called ‘The disaster movie to end all disaster movies’. They also created a send-up that to this day, remains hilariously funny and laugh out loud 40 years since it first hit the screen.
In keeping with the spirit of the ‘Airport’ Movies, the team filled out their cast with familiar faces. However, instead of having big-name movie actors, they decided to go with classic stars of TV shows such as Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, and Peter Graves. And in an inspired piece of casting, they recruited the legendary Lloyd Bridges to appear. Bridge’s performance of Steve McCroskey was a riot of comedic silliness but all played with a straight face which made it all the more hilarious. His now famous ‘Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit….’ speeches continue to make me cry with laughter and the classic ‘He’s coming right at us!’ scream which was followed by his leap through a window at the top of the control tower is inspired in its genius. But the standout performer of them all was Leslie Nielsen. Nielsen was famous for his dramatic performances over the years on film and TV screens but it was here that he played against type, giving a serious face to Dr. Rumack all the while the audience was rolling about in the aisles in uncontrollable laughter. Who today HASN’T heard the famous ‘Surely you can’t be serious?’. ‘I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley’ scene? Virtually no-one. Without realizing it, the makers of the film unleashed a beast upon the world that, to my mind has yet to be bettered. ‘The Naked Gun‘ came very close but ‘Airplane!‘ just about holds the title of the best of them all.
Of course, some of the humor is a little close to the knuckle and still surprises me that the film escaped with a PG rating in the United States. With bared female breasts in one scene and references to oral sex in another, It was amazing the filmmakers managed to get it all past the rating boards. But they did manage it and the film still stands the test of time today. In England, at the time of release, I and my brother were living in North Wales. To get to the cinema meant a 90-minute journey into the northeastern town in England of Chester. But we made the trip on quite a few occasions. But what I remember quite vividly is that despite ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ dominating box offices around the world, quite correctly in my opinion, not even it could hold onto a screen longer than ‘Airplane!‘ did.
Most of the films shown at the Odeon Cinema in Chester had no more than a months engagement on the screen. ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ managed a solid six to eight weeks playing on the screens there. But ‘Airplane!‘ held a screen in the cinema there for six months straight and even when it was removed from the screens there, people complained about it, forcing the cinema chain to bring it back again for a further month-long run. Never have I seen a movie hold onto a placing in a cinema for that length of time. But it managed it and did it with ease.
The parody struck a chord with audiences around the globe and was a highly rented film on the fledgeling Video Cassette market at the time. With the advent of sell-thru, people could now buy the films they loved and have them at home for all time (or at least until the tape wore out and disintegrated) and ‘Airplane!’ was one of the films that almost every home had a copy of. Forget the godawful edited for television edition, the complete, unedited version was a must-own. And now with the slowly fading DVD format, the Blu-Ray market and the digital download facility, the film can be preserved for all time and to be viewed by a whole new generation of film lovers. The film was the fourth highest-grossing film in North America of 1980 and was the fifth highest-grossing film around the world. But to me and its many fans, ‘Airplane!’s money-making skills pale in comparison with its ingenious ability to make us cry with laughter time and time again. This is a genius of a work. This is comedy at its silliest but also at its finest. The Disaster movie to end all disaster movies? No, Its simply the comedy parody to end all comedy parodies.
Happy 40th birthday ‘Airplane!’.
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Carl Roberts is a Senior Staff Writer and Books and Literature Correspondent for The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter @CarlRoberts2 where he uses the force frequently!