Saturday, 18 April 2015

Read an intriguing oral history of "Airplane!" and watch the trailer for "Zero Hour", the 1957 film on which it was entirely based

I've noticed that the concept of "a few years' ago" becomes increasingly elastic as one grows older. Hardly a day passes when I'm not surprised by the realisation that some event or other which I had imagined was an eye-blink behind me actually took place decades ago. Perspective changes with the passing years: It was only recently (i.e. about five years' ago) I realised that the "Modern" playlist I'd created in iTunes includes everything in my collection released since 1980, which, in pop music terms, was about ten generations back. It was also, coincidentlally, the year that saw the release of Airplane! - possibly the funniest film ever made. That's three and a half decades ago. We've all passed a lot of water since then, and I must have watched Airplane! 25 times in the meantime (it's one of those movies I can't not watch if I happen upon it on the Sky EPG), but, despite endless imitations and retreads, it's still so fresh I can't believe it's more than 15 years old.

These thoughts were occasioned by a tweet yesterday pointing me at a oral history of the film - i.e. extracts from a series of interviews recently conducted with the producers, cast and crew. It's utterly enthralling, and you can read it here. Despite multiple viewings, I've never bothered to discover the film's back-story, so I found the oral history revelatory. I won't bother repeating everything in the article, but here are a few facts I'd either never known, or had forgotten:
The plot for Airplane! follows that of Zero Hour so closely that the writer-directors, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, had to buy the rights to the old film to ensure they weren't sued. (They say that, because they were using a classically structured film as a template, Airplane! was the only one of their movies that had a proper plot.)
The film score was by one of the greatest of all Hollywood composers, Elmer Bernstein, who, having watched the film (and having laughed throughout), instantly understood what the directors meant by "a great B-movie score". (I featured some of Bernstein's earlier work in a recent post, here.)
They had to show Zero Hour to Leslie Nielsen one lunchtime before he grasped exactly what was required of him. (As we all know, his appearance as the doctor - "Don't call me Shirley" - turned him from a stone-faced B-movie has-been into the much-loved comedy star he should always have been.) 
While on the film, Nielsen had a special hand-held device made which replicated the sound of a human being breaking wind. He sold copies of his fart machine to everyone on the picture for $7 per device, and they eventually had to be confiscated before scenes were filmed because of the constant sound of people "blowing off".
Peter "Have you ever seen a grown man naked?" Graves was utterly appalled by the script - "This is the most disgusting piece of garbage I have ever read" - but his wife and daughter thought it was hilarious, and insisted he do it.
The idea of people lining up to slap a hysterical female passenger was proposed by Lee Bryant - the actress playing the part. The directors initially didn't want to do it because they were afraid she'd get hurt. The only actor who did (accidentally) hurt her was Leslie Nielsen, when he delivered his deeply satisfying second slap.
The only actor Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker absolutely insisted they had to have was Robert Stack (Eliott Ness in The Untouchables). The studio kept trying to foist established comic actors on them, but they held firm. Among those considered for parts were David Letterman, Dom Deluise and (as Ted Striker) Barry Manilow! The directors asked Charlton Heston to appear, but he declined. Sigourney Weaver auditioned for the goofy flight attendant role so delightfully played by Julie Hagerty. (Understandably, perhaps, Ms Weaver was unwilling to say the line: "I remember how you used to hold me...and how I used to sit on your face and wiggle.")
The two jive-talking black passengers (known as First and Second Jive Dude) had to make up their lines, because their part of the original script was basically gibberish. One of the actors even went out and bought books on Black English as an aid. 
Well, that's enough for now - the article is stuffed with similarly illuminating facts.
One of the refreshing aspects of the histroy is how readily the ingenue directors give credit to the studio, Paramount, for how well the film turned out.

I've just downloaded the whole of the film script to my Kindle - you can read it here.

I'll leave you with Elmer Bernstein's memorable soundtrack suite:


  1. This is a fascinating post which I very much enjoyed reading. Thank you.

    It beats me that actors like Dana Andrews can star in films like "Laura" and "The Best Years of Your Life" and not get an Oscar. Both masterpieces in my humble view.

  2. More film stuff. Oddly, TCM ran "Zero Hour!" this afternoon and are repeating it at 1115 to-morrow. In the final line of the film Sterling Hayden invites Dana Andrews for a drink after the ordeal is over which strikes a chord as both actors were alcoholics. Hayden married and divorced the same women three times which is disturbing. I have just discovered that Peter Graves was the younger brother of James Arness and that I saw Leslie Nielsen in his first ever film - the really excellent "Ransom!" [1956] with Glenn Ford [remade in 1996 with Mel Gibson - exclamation mark dropped]. Hayden, Graves {Aurness] and Nielsen all came from Scandinavian stock and [Do shut up and go away. Ed.]

    1. Thanks for the tip, SDG - it was on again this morning, I've recorded it, and look forward to watching it this evening. Synchronicity at work, obviously.

      Richard Ingrams once said that he enjoyed tuning in to News at Ten to find out how pissed Reggie Bosanquet was. I feel much the same about Dana Andrews films.

      Nick Nolte and Richard Widmark can be added to the list of eminent actors of Scandinavian origin - plus Renée Zellweger and Scarlett Johansson. Makes one proud.

  3. Can't comment on many Norwegians but Airplane is a timeless delight.
    It pops up on the box now and again and I still weep with laughter. This new-found knowledge of its origins will make my enjoyment much more cerebral.
    Thank you.