Screening Review: AIRPLANE! At The TCM Classic Film Festival

BC got to see AIRPLANE! on the big screen with a thousand people.

My DVD collection is grouped by genre (horror gets its own dedicated rack, of course), and if you were to look closely at it you'd see that the smallest section is the "Comedy" one. Not that I dislike comedies, but I rarely find any that make me laugh on repeated viewings, rendering owning them kind of pointless as that shelf space could be used for more action or drama films I will be watching again and again. One of those exceptions is Airplane!, the ZAZ classic that is often ranked near or at the top of any respectable "best comedies of all time" list, and one I've been watching over and over ever since I was 8 or 9 years old. Some gags don't land quite as well as they did when I was a younger man, but in a way that's kind of the genius thing about the movie - it excels in all brands of humor, so that if you get a bit too old for say, a pile of shit hitting a fan after someone says "The shit will hit the fan," then you can enjoy something a little more subtle, like the joke that the complete list of Jewish sports legends can only fill up a leaflet (that one definitely went over my head when I was younger).

But in all those years, I'm pretty sure I never watched it with more than one person, and even the most overwatched comedy can be funny again with a big crowd. Indeed, I've seen National Lampoon's Vacation (and Christmas) probably more than any other films in history thanks to repeated viewings as a kid, but seeing them with crowds at revival screenings made it feel like the first time again, with the infectious laughter of the crowd breathing new life into those lines I can recite in my sleep. Thus, I made sure to get down to the TCM Film Festival early enough to get a good seat for their screening of Airplane!, featuring 2/3s of ZAZ (Jerry Zucker was originally supposed to attend, but was forced to bow out due to a schedule change) and star Robert Hays for a Q&A before the movie. Showing at the "Big Chinese" theater (which has over 1000 seats), I couldn't really ask for a better venue around here to enjoy my first crowd viewing of this classic comedy, and I applaud their decision to house it there over one of the more prestigious screenings so that there was a good chance that anyone who wanted to see it could be there.

I hadn't seen the film in about seven or eight years, and it was my first time seeing it theatrically, allowing me to catch details I never noticed before, like the beached catfish near Hays' and Julie Hagerty's heads during the From Here To Eternity spoof, not to mention picking up on more jokes than I could as a kid. In addition to the Jewish sports one I mentioned earlier, I never got that the nun was singing the song from Poseidon Adventure (which co-starred Leslie Nielsen himself) in reference to the many disaster films that served as the inspiration for this one. It was also a bit tragic to see how far the Zuckers have fallen when it comes to spoofing material; David was involved with the last three Scary Movies, all of which are just a series of gags and people mugging for the camera as much as possible, but in Airplane! not only are relatively few movies spoofed in that "let's make fun of a classic scene in a movie that has nothing to do with our main focus" way (basically just Eternity and Saturday Night Fever), but everyone is playing it straight.

In fact, a large part of the Q&A was devoted to the casting process, how both the studio and the actors they wanted simply didn't get that they wanted everyone to be serious to make it funny, rather than hire the hot actors from SNL or whatever (they never named names, but with that specific mention I couldn't help but wonder if Chevy's name ever came up for the Hays role - of all the original SNL guys, he would be the obvious choice for a "funny but romantic" lead). Three of the four of the veteran actors - Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Peter Graves - needed to be convinced to take their roles (we can thank Jeff and Beau for Lloyd signing on, apparently), and Nielsen was rejected by their casting people as they were under the impression that he was a washout. It's hard to believe now, but this was pretty much the first comedy for all of them, something that almost seems impossible to people in my generation, especially in Nielsen and Bridges' case as they would become staples in comedy for the rest of their careers (another, less enjoyable realization - all four of them are now dead). Could anyone but Robert Stack do as amazing a job with the monologue at the end ("You know what it's like to be kicked? In the head? With an iron boot?!?")? I think not, and if Nielsen wasn't cast we might have been deprived of Police Squad and the subsequent Naked Gun films, which would be unforgivable.

They also claimed that the original test screenings were disastrous, mostly due to a rather laugh-free second half, which was a shock to me as the final half hour or so is pretty much where all my favorite jokes are. Stack's bits are all priceless (the scene where he beats the shit out of a bunch of religious zealots and solicitors is pure bliss), and he doesn't even enter the story until the 2nd act. It's also where my favorite line comes in, courtesy of none other than Jonathan "Mike from Breaking Bad" Banks, sporting a full head of hair: "He's all over the place! Nine hundred feet up to 1300 feet... what an asshole!" Not to mention the single greatest credits stinger in movie history, when we return to the airport at the beginning to see that Striker's would-be passenger is still waiting in the cab, meter still running. "I'll give him another 20 minutes, but that's it!". I'd actually be curious to see that original cut (said to be around 110 minutes; it runs just under 90 now), as I've certainly seen a number of solid comedies be lessened by longer cuts (Pineapple Express and 40 Year Old Virgin come to mind), so I wonder if Airplane! would have suffered that same fate originally.

Not surprising at all: the movie is still hilarious, and still very much revered. Folks were laughing the second the movie began, just in anticipation for the Jaws gag about to appear, and the cheers for lines like "Do you like movies about gladiators?" were just as loud as the laughs. It's rare to see this sort of silliness be treated with the same sort of appreciation that greeted other movies in the festival; the next day I saw Three Days Of The Condor in the same theater and it had the same sort of respectable applause for its classic moments and first appearances of acting legends like Max Von Sydow and Cliff Robertson that greeted the cameo for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar here. I don't think we'll be seeing The Hangover or whatever get this sort of treatment in 25 years, nor would the theater be packed to hear a Q&A with Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips. Kudos to the TCM organizers for selecting it, and on that note I should stress that this was a remarkably well-run festival from what I saw - the programs all began on time (though the Q&As were BEFORE the movies, which is a bit odd) and the line process was stress-free. They also left plenty of time in between programs to grab food, which is always a plus. I wish I could have gone more (Airplane!, Condor, and The Seventh Seal were all I could fit into my schedule), but now that I know how well done it is I'll be sure to block off more time for next year's. When I quit doing Horror Movie A Day I vowed to fill in some embarrassing gaps in my film education - I could have made huge progress if I was in attendance for all four full days. But no matter what, there's no way I'd miss out the chance to hear a thousand people laughing at "I take it black. Like my men."