With the sad demise of Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen late last year, there was an opportunity to pause and consider the significance of the film that made him famous and why, having for so long been considered, at best, frivolous, it is now revered as a classic.
Leslie Nielsen was born in a cold rural part of Saskatchewan, Canada in 1929 of a Danish father and a Welsh mother, and enjoyed a career of two incredibly distinct components. Possessing a voice of luxuriant baritone, matinee idol good looks and stature, despite having been brought up far from the bright lights and sunshine of the Hollywood in which he would one day make his name- Nielsen was clearly cut for the film and television of the time.
Having first moved to New York on an acting scholarship, Nielsen found work relatively quickly, and his reputation grew swiftly enough that he was able to enjoy a comfortable living as a generic “leading” man for hire in radio television and small films. If it were not for being cast in a single film that wallowed in the glory of its own silliness, this is how he would have been remembered, had he been remembered at all.
So many chance occurrences combined to make Airplane! possible it seems a miracle that it was made at all. Three writers had recently enjoyed theatrical success with Kentucky Fried Theatre, a series of parodic comedy sketches that then went on to form the basis of a successful film, directed by John Landis. These writers- Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker- intended to record adverts to parody in their show and instead accidentally recorded the 1957 film, Zero Hour.
Zero Hour was then used as the basis for Airplane! Which, broadly speaking, was intended to parody an entire generation of “disaster movies.”
The film’s success was extraordinairy. Shot for only £3.5m it went on to gross near £90m- an absolutely staggering return at the time and, in relative terms, almost inconceivable now and its primary influence was to unleash the so-called sub-genre of “Spoof” upon an unsuspecting movie-going public. But what is most noteworthy is that, while Airplane! has subsequently achieved cult status, not one of the films that followed it and embraced the spoofing of other genres has achieved anything like the same commercial or critical success. This is even true of its writers; logically, therefore, it must be assumed that there are distinctions between Airplane! and its successors that make it such an enduring piece of satirical comedy.
If we look at the spoof sub-genre by title, it makes for underwhelming, even depressing reading: Naked Gun, Hot Shots, Scary Movie (and its sequels), Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.
And the incongruity with the relentlessly funny Airplane! is all the more marked by the fact that many of those films were either written by one or more of Airplane!s writers, or starred Leslie Nielsen or both.
However, even upon the most superficial of viewings- the qualities specific to the film are fairly obvious…
Firstly, in Airplane! far more than the subsequent films, the tone and structure mirror very closely the structure and tone of a conventional disaster film. The inherent hilarity of much of the comedy is that, to the characters and actors involved, their world is in no way supposed to be comedic- on the contrary it is played as straight as the movies which it was intended to parody. A perfect example of this was Nielsen’s now immortal signature joke:
-Surely you can’t be serious?
-I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.
Now, on paper, this may appear a silly and rather throw away joke, but yet it has become synonymous with verbal humour precisely because Nielsen’s immaculate straight-faced delivery underlies the fundamental absurdity of the way in which meaning is derived from verbalised language, and with the smallest shift in context, or in cadence can transform the emphasis or significance of the sentence.
Certainly, the makers of the film appear to demonstrate some sort of recognition of the significance of the film’s tone, even if- broadly speaking- they did not achieve, or strive to achieve, a similar quality of earnestness in any of their subsequent endeavours. Speaking in 2002, David Zucker said:
“The trick was to cast actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges. These were people, who up to that time, had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of that time were.”
What Zucker does not elucidate, however, is why such casting is so fundamentally humorous, and how it is indicative of the broader all-encompassing satire of Airplane!, nor does this statement identify the fact that its deployment of the conventions of what is broadly termed “alternative cinema” make it so subversive a movie.
Firstly, however it is the improbably well-crafted structure of the script that provides the bed-rock of so semantically and semiotically cognisant and transgressed a piece of work. For at its’ heart lies a very genuine human interest story- a former air force pilot, badly affected by his experiences during the war and thrust into a near impossible situation where he is compelled to act to save the day and win the girl. All this is known, and monumentally conventional, but it is well conceived and believably acted, for the reasons illustrated.
However, the performances betray only half the cause, as mentioned, the writers of Airplane! were heavily influenced by Zero Hour! What is less appreciated, however, is how heavily the comedy borrowed from the latter’s narrative and script; so much so, in fact, that the producers purchased the rights to the film, enabling them to employ large swathes of dialogue from the original. This approach enabled these first time feature film makers to employ the narrative craft of more experienced professionals.
The sum of all these elements was an opportunity to take an extremely tight structure and apply extremely inventive and surrealist humour at an almost relentless paced. Among the most startling aspects the film in retrospect is the speed, depth and variety of jokes employing a myriad of themes and techniques from world play to surrealism, from Brechtian tropes of alienation. To exaggerating themes and techniques and clichés that exist each and every day in films then and still. Few if any contemporary comedies, least of all in Hollywood, can match the sheer pace and variety of form of its humour- even fewer invite one to laugh heartily throughout.
The demise of Nielsen- who never again enjoyed the artistic success of Airplane!- but crafted a second career as the clown prince of spoofs, is likely to mean a DVD and Blu-ray re-release, and though this maybe cynical, it is never the less poignant. And when it is, it is worth revisiting, and its comic imperiousness may still take you aback. A remarkable success for a film regarded at its release as silly, but ended up being seminal.