Marking the 35th anniversary of the movie Airplane! David Mermelstein argues it was the best that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker made.
I say it was Top Secret, a cross between Casablanca and an Elvis movie. That aside, it’s interesting to learn the inspiration for Airplane! was not Airport, but another film.
…Even many diehard fans must assume that the movie’s prime inspiration is the similarly titled “Airport” (1970), in which a dejected Van Heflin detonates a bomb midair while Dean Martin, as the pilot, tries to steer a course between the onboard disaster and his wrecked marriage—the first in a series of films that intertwined both manmade and natural disasters with soap-opera subplots. But actually, the cinematic inspiration for “Airplane!” is the much older “Zero Hour!” (1957), co-written by Arthur Hailey, who later wrote the novel “Airport.”
Watching the films back-to-back—a surprisingly enlightening endeavor—one can’t help but be startled by the similarities, which go well beyond that exclamation point. The plots, minus the jokes, could be laid one atop the other in almost perfect symmetry. And several characters trace similar arcs—none more so than that troubled ex-fighter pilot, Ted Striker (Robert Hays) in “Airplane!” and Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) in “Zero Hour!” Even some of the shots are disturbingly alike—probably the most noticeable is the slow pan across the cockpit’s instrument panel, played for straight drama in the earlier film and for laughs in the later movie.
But for the complete surreal experience, listen closely to the dialogue. Lines like “You’re the only chance we’ve got” are rendered with deadly seriousness in “Zero Hour!” Yet they play equally effectively for yuks in “Airplane!” In “Zero Hour!” the line “How about some coffee, Johnny?” is a banality, but it becomes a running gag for Bridges in “Airplane!” when he repeatedly asks for a cup of joe to no avail. Still more amusing is what the creators of “Airplane!” did with “And I want every light you can get poured on that field”— turning it into a visual pun in which a truckload of lamps gets dumped on the runway. And brace yourself: “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking” did not originate with the creators of “Airplane!” Rather, Sterling Hayden tosses off the line as Andrews’s nemesis in “Zero Hour!”—without the suggestion of greater substance abuse, naturally. (For the record, the Zucker Brothers and Mr. Abrahams secured the rights to “Zero Hour!” before they made their film.)
Discovering the peculiar origins of “Airplane!”—seeing a too-earnest melodrama happily reborn as a groundbreaking comedy—doesn’t diminish our appreciation of the later film. Instead, it makes the achievement of Messrs. Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker all the more impressive. For in the best American tradition, they took old parts, rearranged them and created something new and enduring.