On July 2, 1980, Paramount unveiled in theaters Airplane!, which would eventually become known as one of the great movie comedy satires. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Paramount should have an easy summer, just sitting back and collecting the huge profits that will be flying in daily on Airplane! This Howard W. Koch production, which was made for the amazingly low budget of $3.5 million, is hilarious and will undoubtedly soar into the stratosphere of the year’s big moneymakers.
The geniuses behind this inspired silliness are Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, who wrote, directed and executive produced the outrageous spoof, with Jon Davison on board as producer. These three crazy comics from Milwaukee first developed their peculiar brand of zany, media-oriented satire on stage in their Kentucky Fried Theatre, which kept Los Angeles audiences in stitches for four years. They then transferred pieces from this comedy revue to the screen in The Kentucky Fried Movie. These were just sketches, however, and Airplane! marks their first fully developed script. And hopefully it is just the beginning.
Airplane! is essentially an affectionate, albeit totally irreverent, tribute to the movies. Specifically, it is an outrageous satire of Paramount’s 1957 drama, Zero Hour, to which the plot bears a vague resemblance. But it also sends up almost every other airplane drama, disaster epic and turgid melodrama ever made, from Jaws (jetliner tail fins cutting through the upper level of a cloud bank to the strains of John Williams’ ominous Jaws theme) to From Here to Eternity (a passionate couple emerging from the pounding surf covered with slimy seaweed). There is also a wild takeoff of the Saturday Night Fever dance contest, set in a seedy waterfront disco.
The humor is an ingenious concoction of satire, spoof, burlesque, slapstick, raunchy dialogue and low-comedy sight gags. The jokes are directed at sex, politics, religion and almost everything else. The level of humor is not always consistent, but the filmmakers have thrown almost everything in with a shotgun approach and the routines work more often than not.
The direction is as wild and woolly as the script, but the team of Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker have a good eye for visual jocularity and they set the sight gags up for maximum effect. The facetiousness has also been kept to a tight 88-minute running time by Patrick Kennedy’s rapid-paced editing.
The performances are perfectly tuned to the visual antics, and the swollen dialogue is delivered with intense mock seriousness. Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty are ideally cast as the young lovers. Hagerty is the epitome of the simpering, wholesome stewardess heroine, and Hays is exceedingly personable in his underplayed comical portrayal of a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by the fact that he bungled a flight mission and who now must land the jetliner when the crew and many of the passengers are stricken with food poisoning.
Adding greatly to the zany fun are Peter Graves as the pilot; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the co-pilot; Leslie Nielsen as a doctor who is on board; Robert Stack as an ex-officer who never got along with Hays but who must talk him down in the plane; Lloyd Bridges as a harried control tower manager and Lorna Patterson as a stewardess. The performances are all humorously restrained, except for Stephen Stucker, whose outrageously flamboyant portrayal of a control tower employee occasionally gets out of hand and is not consistent with the other performances.
The large supporting cast is equally funny, and there are particularly amusing cameos by Ethel Merman, Howard Jarvis, Jimmie Walker and several other featured players.
The technical production, including Joseph Biroc’s photography and Ward Preston’s production design, is impressive, especially considering the budget — the film looks as good as several of the recent efforts that cost many times as much. Elmer Bernstein’s tongue-in-cheek music heightens the visual effects, which are nicely realized in Bruce Logan’s special effects photography and Richard O. Helmer’s miniatures — Ron Pennington, originally published on June 27, 1980