Airplane! (1980) was a new kind of motion-picture comedy. It skillfully satirized a popular film genre (category), one that was dramatic and serious in nature yet at the same time ripe for parody. In the case of Airplane!, the genre to be made fun of was the disaster movie (see entry under 1970s—Film and Theater in volume 4), set on board a commercial airplane or an ocean liner. In such films, the plane or ship becomes imperiled in mid-journey, and is in danger of crashing or sinking.
Airplane! may be most directly linked to Zero Hour (1957), scripted by Arthur Hailey (1920–) and based on his television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) play "Flight Into Danger" (1955). However, the film's most celebrated film ancestors are Airport (1970), based on a best-selling novel by Hailey, and its three sequels: Airport 1975 (1974); Airport '77 (1977); and The Concorde—Airport '79 (1979). The standard storyline in such films first involves the introduction of the characters, from pilots to stewardesses, passengers to airport personnel. Their personalities and interpersonal relationships are revealed: a pilot might be romantically involved with a stewardess, for example, or a key member of the airport staff might be overworked and overstressed. At first, the flight that becomes the film's centerpiece is ordinary, like any one of thousands of others. Then peril enters the picture. In Zero Hour, the pilots are stricken with food poisoning; in Airport, a disturbed man is intent on blowing up himself and the plane. The tension then increases. Will a pilot or other able-bodied individual somehow manage to safely land the plane? How will the different passengers respond to the danger at hand? Will there be heroes? Will there be cowards? Who will live? Who will die? Indeed, will the plane crash, and will all those on board perish?
Such scenarios are dramatic in nature, but they also may be seen as essentially corny—and are ripe for parody. In Airplane!, the main characters are a former pilot (played by Robert Hays, 1947–), whose experiences in battle have made him terrified of flying, and his ex-girlfriend (Julie Hagerty, 1955–), a stewardess who has ended their relationship because of his inability to overcome his trauma. The gags become increasingly sillier and pile up in nonstop fashion, as he pursues her on board her flight and then must operate the plane after the pilots can no longer fly it.
Airplane! established the careers of its director-creators, Jim Abrahams (1944–), Jerry Zucker (1947–), and David Zucker (1950–). Adding to the overall sense of mirth was their inspired casting of veteran performers such as Lloyd Bridges (1913–1998), Leslie Nielsen (1922–), Robert Stack (1919–), and Peter Graves (1925–). All these performers, who had earned stardom as dramatic actors, went about parodying just the sort of roles they often played on screen. Because of his success in Airplane!, Nielsen has enjoyed a second career playing bumbling police detective Frank Drebin in the television comedy series Police Squad (1982) and its big-screen follow-ups: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988); The Naked Gun 21⁄2: The Smell of Fear (1991); and Naked Gun 331⁄3: The Final Insult (1994). All satirize police dramas in the same manner that Airplane! makes fun of disaster films. The Zucker brothers were the creators of Police Squad, and David Zucker directed the initial two Naked Gun features.
For More Information
Aronsky, Rory. "Airplane!" Airodyssey.net.http://www.airodyssey.net/ (accessed April 1, 2002).
Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Unofficial Website of Zucker Abrahams & Zucker.http://uk.geocities.com/zaz_fan/zaz_web_pages/index.htm (accessed April 1, 2002).