It is hard to describe comedies. As you read the synopsis of Airplane! (1980) to follow, you could get the impression that it is an action-thriller. It has all the hallmarks of a more serious flick. Flying by itself is fraught with potential dangers, even after over a century of man taking to the skies, and in the best of conditions. Add in terrible weather, a sick child with not much more time to live, and a group of passengers needing medical assistance due to the bad fish they ate, and you have the ingredients for a film that produces more gasps than chuckles. Another problem with comedies is that usually they do not stand the test of time. While there are some extremely dated (and problematic) forms of humor here, it is still funny enough for repeat viewings. Now, how to describe it in a way that brings to light its hilarity. . . . I picked a heckuva to stop drinkin’.
I suppose Airplane! sets the tone early on when it opens with planes’ dorsal rudders moving through the clouds to the theme music to Jaws (1975). Hopefully I am able to weave in some more of the jokes in Airplane! while talking about its plot. We next see an airport where several of our principal characters are arriving. Among them are flight attendant Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), followed closely by her boyfriend and cab driver Ted Striker (Robert Hays). We see them separately because they are having problems in their relationship. He is been having trouble adjusting to life since the war, and one of the ways it manifests is in having a drinking problem. Not alcohol, mind you, but rather an inability to get fluids into his mouth (score another one). For Elaine, it takes the form of him not being the man she first met. Thus, when he is able to catch up with her, she tells him that she will not be coming back to him after this trip. Undeterred, he decides to buy a ticket for the flight that she is working. Shortly after take-off, the dinner served to the passengers produces food poisoning for everyone who opted for the fish. This includes the captain and pilot, Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves), and co-pilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabar). At first, Elaine is called upon to engage Otto, the inflatable auto-pilot, and some rather suggestive scenes take place between them. Seeing the need for more help, head air traffic controller Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) calls upon famed pilot Captain Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) to talk down the endangered commercial aircraft. What is still missing is an experienced pilot on the plane in order to bring about a successful landing. This is when Ted comes forward, having flown fighter planes during the war. There is one problem: Captain Kramer was Ted’s commanding officer, and the latter blames the former for the death of nearly the entire squadron. Meanwhile, a doctor is found aboard to treat those stricken with food poisoning, Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen). He is of great assistance, but he urges that they land as soon as possible. This is rendered all but impossible as thick fog and storms between Los Angeles and their Chicago destination make such a maneuver untenable. Between the foul weather and the bad memories brought up by interacting with Captain Kramer, Ted wants to give up on flying the plane. What brings him back to the cockpit is a pep talk given him by Dr. Rumack, which is more akin to what a coach would give his football team at halftime, complete with Notre Dame University-esque fight music (score one more). Thus buoyed, Ted is able to bring the plane in for a relatively successful touchdown in Chicago. Elaine sees the bravery he displayed and decides to forgive him his faults. With the passengers all deplaned, Otto emerges once more and takes off into the late-night sky.
When watching Airplane!, you have to listen carefully. There are many jokes that go by quickly, and every scene has at least a few of them. It is not quite a parody, though neither is it truly a situational comedy. Instead, the jokes are woven into the script, and the genius of the film comes from the fact that it never takes itself seriously. This is both a blessing and a curse for this Catholic. With nothing being sacred, it means that everything is a target. This works in some instances, such as the great puns that are sprinkled throughout the dialog. It does not work when it comes to the racial stereotypes on display, particularly as they pertain to Africans and African Americans. While it was made in the late 1970s when thinking on such matters was not as evolved, it is a little grating to the senses to see it today. This cuts both ways in matters of Faith. I think it is hilarious how Captain Kramer literally fights his way through the various religious cults peddling their philosophies in the terminal. On the other hand, I am not sure what to make of its depiction of nuns. There are two of them on the flight, conspicuous in their black and white habits. What I did not mind is them being depicted with a guitar and behaving mostly sweetly. What I did not like is seeing them reading a magazine titled “Boy’s Life,” while you also see a little boy reading one called “Nun’s Life.” I suppose it could be construed innocently enough given that this is before the Church abuse scandals began being reported fully. Still, it speaks to a stereotype that was developing even then, and like all such ideas they are ultimately unfair. I can also not imagine a nun slapping around a hysterical woman, but you see that in the film as well.
Then again, what else would you expect from a film like Airplane!? It is irreverent to the core. There is also a bit of overt sexuality, not only between Otto and Elaine, but also in suggesting that part of the plane is reserved for people having sex. This includes some brief nudity. With this and the overall content of the film, I would not recommend it to all audiences. Still, if you are parents and want something to laugh a bit to after the kids have gone to bed, then go for it. Surely it will entertain you, but don’t call me Shirley (one last score).