The tail of a plane slices through dark clouds like a shark fin breaking through the moonlit surf in Jaws . . . and so begins the hilarious Airplane! (known as Flying High in some non-US releases), a spoof of Zero Hour (1957).
Trans-American Flight 209 takes off from Los Angeles to Chicago with multiple nutcases on board, while in the terminal the voice for the white-zone parking has a fight with the voice for the red-zone parking.
Once all the loonies board the plane, everyone establishes a character identity through some kind of sight gag.
There’s a singing nun, a girl who needs a heart transplant in six hours, a gay pilot with a hunger for the little boys who visit his cockpit, some religious zealots, a doctor whose nose grows like Pinocchio when he lies, and other assorted fraternity-house inventions.
When they all get food poisoning from the fish course and a terrible storm appears, it’s up to Elaine the stewardess to fly the plane in the noble Karen Black tradition, with the aid of her boyfriend, Ted Striker – an ex-fighter pilot who is now afraid of planes.
Back in the control tower, a similar group of loons are calling the shots by radio, led by Robert Stack (who removes his sunglasses to reveal a smaller pair of sunglasses underneath).
While the air controllers play computer basketball on radar screens, Dr Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) takes a look at his dying passengers and sighs “Haven’t seen anything like this since the Anita Bryant concert”.
In flashback, we see substitute pilot Striker so rattled by the shell-shocked officer in his hospital ward who thinks he’s Ethel Merman (the officer rises up in bed to sing Everything’s Coming Up Roses and it’s Ethel Merman herself in drag) that he gives up flying and hosts Tupperware parties for the natives in Africa.
A group of press photographers move into the chaotic control tower back in Chicago. “Okay, boys, let’s take some pictures,” says one of the cameramen and the others pinch all the pictures from the wall and leave.
Airplane! was the brainchild of three comedy writers from Milwaukee (Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker) who began their careers with Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), and graduated to the Naked Gun series.
The movie – made for a mere $3.5 million – was a smash hit and made over $80 million in the US alone. It also led to a 1982 sequel, appropriately titled Airplane II: The Sequel, that was built around a disastrous flight involving a Space Shuttle.
Airplane! also went on to a long life in cable and on home video. It continues to be popular today, as catchphrases like “Don’t call me Shirley!” and “Looks like I picked the wrong time to quit . . . ” have become a permanent part of hipster lingo.