The Set of 400: #37 – My Favorite Sale at Penney’s

Today! Because I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley –

Airplane! (1980)

Directed by Jim Abrahams (x3), David Zucker (x4), and Jerry Zucker (x3)

Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty (x3), Leslie Nielsen (x3), Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges (x2), Robert Stack (x3), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Stephen Stucker (x2), Jonathan Banks (x3), Barbara Billingsley, Lorna Patterson, Maureen McGovern, Joyce Bulifant, Gregory Itzin (x4), James Hong (x2), David Leisure, Ethel Merman, Jason Wingreen (x2), Jimmie Walker

Does anyone actually watch Airport anymore? Any of the Airport movies? I knew in some vague way growing up that they existed – that Airplane! was a direct parody of those films – but I never saw any of them until I was probably in college. Because those movies are nonsense. Now, by 1980, all four Airport films had been released, so I’m guessing the time was ripe to lambaste those hokey melodramas, but it kinda feels like making a parody of Twilight, no? Like, we all know its garbage, so how to escalate that and make fun of it? This being said, were you to glance at Airport‘s statistics, and found how it was nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, and figured ol’ Joe for hyperbole, you’d be wrong. The 1970 Oscars were clearly insane.

When you’ve got Dean Martin playing a pilot, no tongue in cheek, you know there are problems

Maybe then it’s for the best that Airplane! is far more popular and beloved than its subject.  Unlike many of the best direct parody satire films, it doesn’t require you to have any foreknowledge of its subject, besides a general sense of the air travel industry, and from forty years ago, which bears virtually no resemblance to modern airports or in flight entertainment options. Besides some basic plot similarities, Airplane! is free to do whatever the hell it wants, and did so magnificently.

Sure, there were plenty of jokes I didn’t understand as a kid, but this is a PG movie, and was a big hit with us kids, for its sheer zaniness and wacky sight gags. It’s also quite possibly the most quotable movie ever, with nary a minute going by without another famous line. “A hospital? What is it?” “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” “Leon’s getting laaaarger!” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines.” “I say let ’em crash.” “He’s all over the place – 900 feet up to 1300 feet – what an asshole.” “We have clearance, Clarence.” “Get that finger out of your ear! You don’t know where that finger’s been!” “Let ‘er down and smack ’em yak ’em!” I could go on the whole post.

Plus the sight gags

Now, did this style of film wear out its welcome? I think we’ve talked about this a bit before – as a bunch of ZAZ films have already popped up herein, with your Naked Guns and Hot Shots! and whatnot – but Airplane! really was the big screen patient X for this style of comedy. Sure, ZAZ had done #218 The Kentucky Fried Movie and the Channel One comedy group had The Groove Tube (never mind National Lampoon’s Disco Beaver From Outer Space) but these were sketch films primarily focused on skewering television. The whole genre morphed into one-film-at-a-time takedowns pretty much from this point forward (with notable-ish exceptions like Amazon Women on the Moon and UHF). And then after, say, Scary Movie, the whole thing went to shit with countless cheap, grade-Z gagfests like Don’t Be a Menace to South Central… and the Not Another… films.

But Airplane! is clearly the apex. This definitely falls into that category of series films that I could not differentiate between as a kid – we watched II as much as the original – to the point that again, I still think of scenes and am not 100% sure where they came from. And watching them in this way, the tiredness of the sequel isn’t as evident – it nearly made this list, but just retreads a bit too much. But considering how ludicrous the Airport movies got – one of them has the passengers trapped on a plane at the bottom of the ocean, for Chrissakes! – they could’ve kept cranking out increasingly absurd sequels through the ’80s. There are some interviews tackling why they didn’t make the hinted at Airplane III, but mostly it seems that franchising and sequel-itis was not as prevalent a concept as it is now.


In a film full of terrific performances large and small – from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Otto the auto pilot – the MVP for me without question:

“Oh, it’s a big pretty white plane with red stripes, curtains in the windows and wheels and it looks like a big Tylenol.”

Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker all directed #355 Top Secret!, while David also helmed #210 Naked Gun and #314 Naked Gun 2 1/2, Jerry directed #398 Ghost, and Jim directed #276 Hot Shots! There are a bunch of actors joining the Twos and Threes today, but only 24 great Gregory Itzin reaches all the way to the Fours, appearing here very briefly as one of the airport religious freaks, after his work in #60 Teen Wolf, #61 Lincoln, and #163 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Spotlight!

“It’s for somebody named Thompson, but it says Care of Raoul Duke.”

Coming tomorrow! Sometimes, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks –

1 Comment

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One response to “The Set of 400: #37 – My Favorite Sale at Penney’s

  1. Pingback: The Set of 400: #38 – My Favorite Open Heart Cave Surgery | Knowingly Undersold

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