It took a team of three writer/directors (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker) to run with the comic baton that Mel Brooks temporarily passed along after “High Anxiety.” Spoofing disaster films, that were all the rage in the ‘70s, was an obvious choice for a team of filmmakers looking to apply a kitchen-sink approach to getting laughs. Having worked together in the theater group they founded, the “Kentucky Fried Theater,” the filmmaking trio (known as ZAZ) found inspiration in a 1957 feature drama dubbed “Zero Hour!” starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and Sterling Hayden. Throwing non-stop jokes, gags, and snarky movie references at the wall proved a surefire method for getting humor to stick, slip, and split wide-open.
Much of “Airplane!’s” success can be attributed to its casting of well-established older television actors in eccentric roles. Most of them were dramatic actors that had never done comedy before. Peter Graves was a household name from his long-running stint on TV’s “Mission Impossible” in which he played Jim Phelps, the head of a super-secret government spy agency.
In “Airplane!” Graves plays commercial pilot Captain Clarence Oveur — get it, Captain “Over”? He’s a sex obsessed white-haired fellow who reads a dirty magazine titled “Modern Sperm” in the “wacking material” section of the airport newsstand before taking a call on the “white courtesy phone” from the “Mayo” clinic from a doctor whose office is filled with jars of mayonnaise — just in case the sperm reference wasn’t enough. Well, I did say, “kitchen-sink.”
Once in the cockpit, Captain Oveur gets a visit from Joey, a young freckle-faced passenger that the stewardess brings into the cabin to receive a toy Boeing 707. The warped Captain asks Joey, “You ever been in a cockpit before?” before delving deeper. “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” The presence of Los Angeles Lakers basketball center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flying the plane from the co-pilot seat distracts Joey. Kareem tries to keep up the ruse that he is a co-pilot named Roger Murdoch, but Joey knows better. Kareem has to let down his guard.
The film’s mixed bag of cultural references spill out faster than you can catch them. One of the funniest cameo bits comes from Barbara Billingsley, widely known to television audiences as “the Beaver’s mom,” June Cleaver, from the long-syndicated situation comedy “Leave It To Beaver.” The plane’s stewardess is unable to understand a couple of black passengers, one of whom is in visible pain. With her gray hair set in an expensive coif, Billingsley’s helpful passenger offers her assistance. “Oh stewardess, I speak jive.” She goes on to translate the men’s request for medical assistance before conversing with them on their own terms. It’s a comic bit that never gets old. Although the filmmakers attempted to replicate the film’s enormous box-office success with a sequel, and a host of other spoof movies, “Airplane!” soars high above them.
Rated PG. 88 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)