Watching Airplane! in 2017 is a good deal different from watching it in 1980. The points of reference have mostly dried up, though disco and Jaws still have a secure foothold on the culture. I’m sure I’m not alone among the movie’s fans in saying that I haven’t caught up with most of the ensemble disaster films that Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker (collectively known as “ZAZ”) are spoofing in it. One can easily get away with only the most cursory knowledge of those dimly-remembered blockbusters: members of the all-star casts were given stock subplots that eventually coalesced into the larger tragedy. So, using a comic strategy that will come up often in discussions of Airplane!, ZAZ inserted little dramas into the narrative that get dropped immediately after the punchline, from the heart transplant to the soldier leaving his sweetheart to the flight attendant sobbing over her singleness. There are a couple other visual and verbal layers to all those jokes, so the context isn’t even necessary there. Furthermore, in a dark portent of where the spoof genre would go in later decades, the movie references in Airplane! are mostly inconsequential. I have to think that a visual reference to From Here to Eternity felt pretty stale in 1980, whereas today it might not attract any notice at all. Shorn of these signposts, Airplane! is free to hold up or come apart on its own merits.
What impresses me the most about this film is its wild-eyed disregard for narrative and physical rules. A comedy should be experimental, and ZAZ goes even further than the Marx brothers in making things appear out of thin air, only to disappear again when they’ve stopped being funny. Sometimes, these details are defiantly absurdist, like the spear launched at the map on the wall and the watermelon falling onto the desk. More often, they’re puns (e.g. “They’re on instruments!” or the referee who introduces the “captains” to one another in the control tower). One of the first things the filmmakers do is demystify the airplane itself, by having an airport employee look under the hood and check the dipstick. (Then, for the scene with that woebegone soldier, the plane briefly becomes a train leaving the station.) Editing is the most useful tool in pulling off these effects. In one shot, Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) is standing in front of a mirror, with the camera pointed at the mirror and Kramer’s wife (Barbara Stuart) standing next to it. After a cut to the Kramers’ dog attacking the young man sent to fetch Kramer, the film returns to what appears to be the same image of the mirror, only now it’s an empty doorframe that Kramer, not his mirror-image, walks through. Other times the technique is less sophisticated, carried out by stagehands tossing props around, like Ted Striker’s (Robert Hays) boomeranging hat and coat in the flashback scene. What all these things have in common is a heightened, flickering intensity. Each moment is funny because it’s so out-of-nowhere and unrepeatable.
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe Airplane! as a series of unrelated tossed-off jokes with only the most threadbare of plots to hold them together, although that is probably the impression it leaves with most people. There are a few running gags executed with patience and finesse, as well. The sight gag of Striker’s “drinking problem” is straightforward and static, but it’s quite possibly the most inspired pun in the whole film, visual or verbal. (“Surely you can’t be serious” has become far too ubiquitous to be effective anymore.) Other scenarios are laid out beautifully, such as the religious proselytizers at the airport and the increasing violence of the characters’ rebuffs of them. Best of all is the running gag with the man waiting in Striker’s taxicab, which culminates in what is still the only truly worthwhile post-credits tag scene.
The most viable connection that Airplane! has to a serious disaster movie is also what keeps its relentless humor from going off the rails. The actors play it straight. (Stephen Stucker’s Johnny, the flouncing air traffic controller, is the take-it-or-leave-it exception.) Not every performance entirely works, but they all attempt to unleash the puns, wisecracks and absurdities as mere asides that they don’t even realize are strange. Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack are outstanding in this department. Their age and bearing provide them with an air of authority even though the characters they play are clearly nuts. The deadpan quality of Airplane! is essential. It extends to Elmer Bernstein’s score as well, which comes just short of being too emphatic in ascribing overpowering emotion to the film’s non sequitur dramas.
Airplane! never really had any high-minded aims to begin with, so it’s no great loss that its satirical powers may be fading. Possibly by accident, it does manage to retain a slender connection to the great twentieth-century comedies Modern Times and Play Time, thanks to its deconstruction of airports and the conventions of air travel. One of the first jokes illustrates this. A public address system over the sidewalk, with alternating male and female voices, explains the rules about the “white” and “red” zones. The instructions are repeated a few times. Flight attendant Elaine (Julie Hagerty) exits a cab and we follow her inside for a while. Then we return to the sidewalk, and our ears perk up when the male voice gets the red and white zones mixed up. The two voices commence to arguing, and we realize that it wasn’t a recording at all. The P.A. system inside the airport, meanwhile, can be spoken to directly no matter where the addressee is. In these and other ways, a vast, imposing machine is reduced to a flimsy human construct. Whatever else we can say about Airplane!, it is an unrepentantly human object, with its firecracker invention and its eagerness to keep the audience occupied. I’m inspired by its playfulness with cinematic possibilities, and the shiv-to-the-gut attitude of much of its humor (which lives on in The Simpsons and its descendants) is ageless.