August 21, 2015
Airplane! (1980)
Grade: 56/100

Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Stars: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen

What it's about. A classic screwball comedy that parodies the disaster films popular during the 1970s. Elaine (Julie Hagerty) is leaving her hapless husband Ted (Robert Hays), who pursues her to the airport, and onto her plane, where she works as a stewardess. The rest of the crew consists of pilot Peter Graves, co-pilot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, the legendary NBA player), navigator Frank Ashmore, and perky stewardess Lorna Patterson.

The cockpit crew has fish for dinner and develops food poisoning. Medical doctor Leslie Nielsen takes charge, and determines that Ted is the only passenger with flying experience. The latter is obligated to man the controls and attempt a landing. The ground crew includes Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack.

Among the familiar faces in supporting roles: Barbara Billingsley, David Leisure, Maureen McGovern, and Jimmy Walker.

How others will see it. A surprise box office smash, Airplane! was also critically praised, and even secured a BAFTA nomination for Best Screenplay. Many of the film's lines are sufficiently memorable that they entered the cultural dialogue for a generation.

Today at, the movie has a huge 150K user votes and a high user rating of 7.8 out of 10. Usually with a film whose purpose is sophomoric humor, the user rating drops with advancing age, but there is only a marginal decline, from 8.1 under 18 to 7.8 over age 30. The gender spread is slight but measurable across all age demographics. Women like it a bit less than do men, perhaps because of the scene where the passengers line up with instruments to assault a panic-stricken woman.

How I felt about it. The gags are consistently amusing. Nothing is sacred, certainly not an inflatable sex toy that masquerades as an airplane pilot. But it is a surprise when Peter Graves hits on a worshipping prepubscent lad, and Lloyd Bridges passes out from inhaling glue.

Because the movie was released in 1980, we can forgive portraying the flamboyant gay man as a shirker apparently at work only to annoy his male coworkers. We can forgive Beaver Cleaver's mom "who speaks jive" like she learned it from Aunt Esther in "Sanford and Son" reruns, or the stewardess crestfallen about being single at age 26 (she doesn't know how lucky she is). We can even forgive Robert Hays, whose self-pitying, deer in the headlights character receives an excess of screentime.

But it is true that Ethel Merman has a great cameo. We laugh when Lorna Patterson knocks out the sick girl's IV. And who wouldn't want to tackle annoying religious shills that hang out at airports.

But movies like Airplane! are difficult to pull off. Mel Brooks tried to do it for decades, and Leslie Nielsen spent his sunset years with equally mixed results. Every joke has to work, or nearly so.

The best gag comedies tend to have been made between 1920 and 1940, when Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and W.C. Fields were in their heyday. It's unclear why Fields' Never Give a Sucker an Even Break remains the standard for a surreal screwball movie, nearly 75 years later. Perhaps because he had little interest in continuity, favored talent over friendship, and was unafraid to cast dark shadows.

Airplane! is undeniably well made, but four of the leads are aging male actors, has-beens at the time, and Kareen Abdul-Jabbar is present mostly for name recognition. Some non-sequitor gags, such as a watermelon falling from the ceiling, are best forgotten. Nonetheless, the movie is better than should be expected, and undoubtedly better than the various movies it parodies, e.g. Zero Hour and the Airport franchise.