Thursday, July 02, 2015

'Airplane!' Is 35? Surely You Can't Be Serious

"Ladies and gentleman, this is your stewardess speaking. We regret any inconvenience the sudden cabin movement might have caused. This is due to periodic air pockets we encountered. There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"

Elaine (Julie Hagerty)

"Airplane!" has always been something of a guilty pleasure. For me, anyway.

Even in the far less politically correct climate of this day in 1980, when "Airplane!" was first shown on America's movie screens, much of its humor was of the National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live variety — irreverent. Mostly, though, it was silly, the kind of stuff you probably giggled at when you were in fourth grade.

Film critic Roger Ebert put it this way: "It is sophomoric, obvious, predictable, corny and quite often very funny. And the reason it's funny is frequently because it's sophomoric, predictable, corny, etc."

A good example: Robert Stack pulling off a pair of sunglasses, revealing another pair of sunglasses beneath it.

If "Airplane!" premiered today, it would probably draw the wrath of many groups who would claim to be offended by something — either on their own behalf or someone else's.

Even in the context of its 35–year–old form, it probably is not advisable to quote lines from it if you're in the company of people who belong to certain social, ethnic and/or religious groups. In fact, I am convinced that it would not be a success today. The times just aren't right for it.

The times were right for it, though, in the 1970s and 1980s — which, despite their many shortcomings, were good years for movies like "Airplane!" — and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein."

"Airplane!" wasn't really discriminatory, though — at least, not in the traditional sense. It was an equal opportunity insulter.

The story was loosely based around Ted (Robert Hays) and Elaine (Julie Hagerty) and their rather dysfunctional relationship. Ted once flew planes in battle, but he suffered a traumatic experience and steadfastly refused to fly a plane again — until he was forced to do so by circumstances.

Ted (Robert Hays): Surely you can't be serious?

Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen): I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.

One thing I have discovered with movies that I really find humorous, like "Airplane!" is that I find things that are new to me each time I watch them — and I can only conclude that I must have missed them the first time because I was laughing at the joke before it.

That would probably be my only complaint about "Airplane!" — there are places where its pacing could be much more beneficial to the overall script.

But I can say that about many comedies that I have enjoyed over the years. It often takes two or three viewings to get the full benefit from such a movie.

All my old favorite moments are still my favories — like the scene where the former June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) volunteered to translate the jive lingo of two black passengers for their white stewardess.

And I always laugh at the line that formed of people who wanted to calm an hysterical passenger. The first few people slapped her around; those standing in line had a crowbar, a lead pipe, a revolver ...

Randy (Lorna Patterson): Excuse me, sir, there's been a little problem in the cockpit …

Ted (Robert Hays): The cockpit … what is it?

Randy: It's the little room in the front of the plane where the pilots sit, but that's not important right now.

The last time I watched it, it occurred to me that "Airplane!" was written in the Mel Brooks style — not quite as clever as Neil Simon but easily capable of producing a belly laugh or two.

I will admit, though, that most of the movie's humor was related to things and people that would have been recognizable to audiences in 1980 — but not necessarily audiences in 2015.

There isn't much point in relating any more of the plot — such as it was — except that it is probably just as funny now as it was then for someone seeing it for the first time — even if that person isn't familiar with many of the references — although my guess is that, if you're seeing it for the first time and you don't know who June Cleaver was, you'd probably be wise to watch an episode or two of Leave It To Beaver before you watch "Airplane!" It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to watch the movie that is being parodied — 1970's "Airport." That's just my opinion, though.

Incidentally, "Airplane!" marked the debut — and probably the career high point — of actor David Leisure, who went on to star as Joe Isuzu in TV commercials in the late '80s and early '90s. He played one of the Hare Krishnas at the airport.