My mom’s in town, and this weekend she, my brother and I watched Airplane! I hadn’t seen it in a good long while, but it holds up pretty well. Watching it reinforced my general thought on these things, though, which is that they funny in direct contrast to how ‘funny’ the actors try to be. The film cast old school actors (of a type we really don’t have any more) like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges who came from an era where leading men were stolid, totally unironic and didn’t exhibit any discernable ‘feminine side’—in other words, pretty much the exact opposite of most leading men today.
Hence the joke was that the actors acted exactly as they did in their dramatic roles, and that resulted in real hilarity. Seriously, check out Nielsen in Viva Knievel! (made just a few years prior to Airplane!) or The Poseidon Adventure or, really, pretty much anything else he had done up until then. Following Airplane!, Nielsen more than anyone else became the poster boy for this type of comedy. However, he eventually lost sight of what made him so funny in these movies (and the original, short lived Police Squad TV show, itself based on the old Lee Marvin series M Squad). Eventually because he had recast himself as a ‘comedy’ actor, he started mugging for the camera and trying to act ‘funny.’ That killed the joke.
As an example of who this works, check out Airplane!‘s Robert Stack going off on how the ball’s now in Robert Hays court: “He’s the top man, the head honcho, the big cheeseâ€¦” Delivered in Stack’s trademark, ultra-serious Elliot Ness-style barking cadence, it’s pretty damn funny. However, William Shatner is assigned the exact same joke in Airplane 2, and goes with a forthrightly exaggerated, campy read of the lines. End result: It’s not remotely funny. In fact, it’s anti-funny, the sort of thing that actually leaves you a little angry at the filmmakers for screwing things up so badly.
Check out the above clip about 7:30.
Check out the above clip at about 2:55.
Anyway, seeing the film again inspired me to do something I’d been putting off for a long while. This was to watch Zero Hour!, the film from which Airplane! took its plot (not to mention its exclamation point). This was fitting, because the B-Masters’ theme this month is Films We Never Got Around to Seeing. Also, it reminded me of another way later Zucker-esque comedies went awry: They worked most strongly when they based themselves on a single film as a scaffold, and then hung additional jokes on there. And so Airplane! lifts not only the plot of Zero Hour!, but the occasional character name (both films’ tormented heroes are named Ted Striker). Moreover, quite a lot of dialogue proves to have been lifted from Zero Hour! and transferred directly over to Airplane!
Zero Hour! proves to have an interesting history (OK, interesting to nerds because there’s a Star Trek connection), but I’ll leave that to Liz Kingsley to elucidate. She’s currently working her way through disaster films, and starting with what I’d call proto or incipit-disaster movies; i.e., films that often deal with averting an actual disaster rather than having it occur. In any case, she should be reviewing Zero Hour! any time now, so I’ll leave a full examination of the movie and its background to her more than capable hands.
So I’m limit my thoughts to the film in regards to how it compares to Airplane! Zero Hour! is available on DVD via Warners’ apparently aborted Camp Movies line. One reason this failed—the primary one may just be that there’s not much of a market for such things—is that Warners didn’t really have a good grasp on what constitutes camp.
Zero Hour! is a perfect example. (As if, in fact, Hot Rods from Hell, another Dana Andrews vehicle in the same set.) Yes, it’s certainly melodramatic, and utterly unironic. Even so, there are but few moments when the film edges into outright unintentional camp (i.e., inherently ridiculous material played so straight that it turns into comedy), and much of the film’s presumed camp value is derived after the fact from it serving as the model for Airplane!
Still, this is no doubt a rather stilted piece of work. Dana Andrews, one of the least likeable movie stars ever—if you wanted somebody to play a stiff-necked stuffed shirt, he was your man—plays Ted Striker. Striker has been haunted since WWII for an air mission he commanded resulted in the deaths of much of his squadron. It was his decision which lead to the men’s deaths, and his all-consuming guilt has kept him neurotically clear of any plane for the prior decade.
We open on Striker interviewing for a job, whereupon his shaky employment record since the war is quickly limned. However, he fights for the new position, and gets it. Returning home, however, he finds he is too late—his wife Ellen (Linda Darnell), tired of his slide into perpetual indecisiveness, has taken their young son and left him. However, Striker has arrived home and found her note earlier than she intended, and manages to make it to the airport before their flight departs. He buys a ticket and makes it aboard just before the plane departs.
As you’d guess from the above, Zero Hour! is, like many films of its era, pretty compact. It runs a lean 81 minutes and gets to business pretty quickly. We spend less time getting to know the other passengers than we in Airplane!, but then it’s a smaller plane with less people on it. Striker confronts his wife, so basically (as in airplane) tells him that she can’t stay with a man she no longer respects. Meanwhile, Striker takes their young, gee-wizzing and sports jacketed son Joey up to the cockpit. These scenes, of course, inspired some of Airplane!’s most fondly remembered material.
Eventually the main plot kicks in, as the passengers and crew who ate the tainted fish dinner become violently ill and pass into comas. This leaves Striker, who forwent the fish, the only person on the plane who can possible land it. Reflecting the economical nature of the teleplay that inspired the film (written by future Airport novelist Arthur Hailey), we spend much of the film in the cockpit.
There Striker receives flight and landing instructions via radio from a hated former war associate (Sterling Hayden, playing what would become the Robert Stack role), while Ellen relays the radio messages. These scenes take up a lot more of the action, which makes sense, since Striker really would need to learn to handle the plane before trying to land it.
Zero Hour! is a decent programmer, but it’s not really much more than that. It’s certainly watchable, and it’s exactly the sort of thing people used to hope to stumble across if they were up watching TV at three in the morning. It has its over the top moments, but again, I didn’t really find it particularly campy. This is partly because despite Hayden’s occasional scenery-chewing, the acting is generally too understated to make the melodramatic elements entirely over the top. I mean, of course it’s melodramatic: It’s about a haunted ex-fighter pilot forced to land a commercial airliner in a raging storm.
What really struck me as interesting, though, is how well the Airplane! team worked the remake. They really did a great job, not just in building all the comedy onto Zero Hour!‘s framework, but also in the changes they made to update the material. Some of these are kind of pointless (Ellen becomes Elaine), but most of them make great sense. All in all, and putting the switch from drama to comedy aside, it’s a nearly perfect textbook example of how to properly rework a much older film.
First of all, the stolid middle-aged leads (well, Darnell was only 34, but dresses and plays older; Andrews, however, was 46) are replaced with younger actors more in tune with 1980. Although there are obviously black comic elements in Airplane!, they wisely excise those that would strike an improper note. Elaine is planning to leave Ted, but because they aren’t married it’s not a divorce—a situation that struck me as surprisingly ‘adult’ in the 1957 original. For the same reason, the Joey character is obviously not their son, but that of peripheral characters. Moreover, Joey in Airplane! never becomes sick like the original Joey does in Zero Hour!
As noted, more side characters are added in Airplane! to allow for more gags, but it’s also natural because a) some of the character are japes on passengers who appeared in one of the various Airport films, and also because a jet liner in 1980 was a much bigger plane than a commercial airliner in 1957.
Meanwhile, also wisely forgoing a potential pitfall, the Airplane! guys failed to port over a Zero Hour! character played by Jerry Paris (who played the next door neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show). This guy apparently makes his living with a sock puppet (!), and in several scenes ‘entertains’ young Joey with it. He also is romantically involved with the plane’s stewardess, a ho hum plotline that again wouldn’t have offered many laughs.
Still, the sock puppet thing is truly weird, and a less canny crew than the Airplane! guys might have thought this would provide prime opportunities for joshing. However, the whole thing is actually so strange that it would have surely left audiences scratching their heads wondering what the point was. (Trivia note: Paris also played a recurring character on 16 episodes of the Robert Stack series The Untouchables.)
Airplane!, as noted, takes hunks of dialogue from the original movie, but these lines are often given to other characters, usually to good effect. In Zero Hour! Ted is told during his job interview that “you’re the only one keeping [his tragic war record] alive,” but in Airplane! Elaine is the one who tells Ted that. Elaine also is changed from being just another passenger to being a stewardess. This works her more character intuitively into the plot, but also, presumably, was meant to recall the equally beset stewardess played by Karen Black in the then fairly recent Airport ’75.
Anyway, I don’t want to get any more into it than that, for fear of treading on Liz’s toes. Still, you could do worse for an entertaining evening of compare and contrast than to watch Zero Hour! and Airplane! as a double bill.