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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #368: Airplane!


Say it with me: “Surely you can’t be serious?” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” Now is that comedy gold or what? A lampoon of all the disaster movies set on airplanes during the 1970s, “Airplane!” (1980) was the blueprint for movie parodies for years to come. Unfortunately this would lead to the inferior and unimaginative “Scary Movie,” “Disaster Movie,” and “Epic Movie.” All of those movies were filled with cheap gags and references to movies that came out less than a year ago, whereas “Airplane” is filled with jokes and gags that still hold up 30 years later.

When I rented the movie to watch it for the first time while finishing high school, I knew the late great Leslie Nielsen was in it, and that was enough. Even when he was in a sub-par comedy that great Canadian import always did his best to make the audience laugh. For examples, see “The Naked Gun,” “Spy Hard” and Mel Brook’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.” I was watching the movie with my mom, and the moment she recognized him as one of the plane’s passenger, she knew more laughs were coming.  

Written and directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, “Airplane!” tells the story of a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago where everything goes hilariously wrong. The pilots and many of the passengers suffer a serious case of food poisoning after eating the fish dinner. Chicago tower supervisor Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges, father of Jeff and Beau) instructs stewardess Elaine (Julie Hagerty) to activate the autopilot. Unfortunately, the autopilot is an inflatable doll called Otto.

Onboard the plane is ex-fighter pilot and Elaine’s ex-boyfriend Ted Striker (Robert Hays) who could land the plane if it wasn’t for just one minor hiccup: he is afraid of flying. That’s right, the pilots are down, the stewardess is in charge and the only man who can land the plane is so scared he is literally drenched in sweat. Oh, and the plane later runs into a lightning storm and a little girl onboard needs a heart transplant.

This may sound ridiculous, and it is, but Abrahams and the two Zuckers were spoofing films that featured pretty similar storylines. I know at least one of those “Airport” movies had the line “The stewardess is flying the plane?” Since it was a crazy situation to begin with, the writers generated the humour by hiring serious actors and having them say the craziest lines of dialogue with a straight face. One of my favourites: “Looks like I picked the wrong day to stop sniffing glue!”

Even the names of the characters are clever. Basketball giant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Peter Graves, from the Mission: Impossible TV show, play pilots Roger Murdock and Clarence Oveur (pronounced over). This leads to conversations such as “Roger that, Oveur” and “Roger, Roger.” Another sign of things to come, the Abrahams and company managed to sneak in a paedophilia joke. When captain Oveur asks a kid if he has ever been in a cockpit before he follows that with “ever seen a grown man naked?” As if the word cockpit was not enough of a signal. 

Sadly today Leslie Nielsen is dead and Jim Abrahams’ last movie was “Scary Movie 4” which will most likely not end up on anyone’s list of the funniest comedies of all times. Hopefully “Airplane!” will live on as a classic of the genre and continue to inspire young would-be directors who discover it on DVD. As a matter of fact, the special edition DVD was called the “Don’t call me Shirley!” edition. 

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