Tuesday, 29 August 2017

1,001 Films: "Airplane!" (1980)

Now enshrined as a regular feature of the television schedules - where the pan-and-scan frame and broadcasting restrictions mean it usually loses a few marginal sight gags and Kitten Natividad's brief topless appearance - Airplane!, the breakthrough collaboration between Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, introduced a new style of screen comedy: a form of parody more immediate and scattershot than the considered, affectionate homages overseen by Mel Brooks in the previous decade's Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Several decades on, it's still possible to be struck by just how daring Airplane! is in its subversion of those tatty 70s mid-air disaster movies: not just casting basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a pilot, but then squeezing his seven-foot frame into a mock cockpit, and furthermore sending up the whole business of casting star names by subjecting his "Roger Murdock" to sustained interrogation by some punk kid passenger who refuses to recognise him as anything other than KAJ. (Just as outré, if you're thinking about rather than laughing at it: how the film sustains the inherently phoney romance between stewardess Julie Hagerty and pilot-with-a-drinking-problem Robert Hays, conceived along the lines of Casablanca meets From Here to Eternity.)

The more dubious, envelope-pushing jokes - like the paedophilic captain and his animal-loving wife, or the subtitling of two jive-talking passengers - are funny enough at the point of execution for one not to question exactly how dubious they might be, and even the flash-in-the-pan pastiches, like the Saturday Night Fever number that might have seemed a shameless coattail on the just-passed disco craze, hold up because the films being pastiched have endured alongside them. (It seems unlikely that the same will be said of the Scary Movies, on which the Zuckers worked, in a quarter of a century: given that those films have spoofed such here-today-gone-tomorrow titles as What Women Want, Snakes on a Plane and Click, probably not.) Finding a balance of smart-silly and dumb-silly in its saturation of verbal and visual gags, it remains one of the best performed comedies in the repertoire, a consequence of the ZAZ team's insistence that everybody passing before the camera maintain the straightest of faces, and quietly pulls off something very tricky: repeatedly breaking the frame, yet getting the viewer to believe in its reality to an extent such that we wonder whether this plane will touch down intact, and what would actually happen if a plane had pilots named Roger, Victor and Captain Oveur at the helm.

Airplane! is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Paramount.  

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