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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Satire > Airplane! - "Don't Call Me Shirley!" Edition

Airplane! – “Don't Call Me Shirley” Edition


Picture: C+    Sound: C+    Extras: B    Film: B+



When I saw Airplane! in a theater in 1980 as a 9-year-old, I remember laughing my head off at certain moments.  I had already seen enough 1970s disaster movies to get the joke, and the deadpan, take-everything-literally style of comedy was like nothing I'd seen before.  Written and directed by the comedy team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker (who previously made the cult comedy Kentucky Fried Movie), Airplane! was the first of its kind, and became the fourth highest grossing film released in 1980 -- only The Empire Strikes Back, 9 to 5 and Stir Crazy made more money.  And while Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (we'll call them the ZAZ team for short), had nothing to do with Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), ZAZ would go on to collaborate on other zany spoof comedies such as the short-lived, but now-classic TV series Police Squad, which introduced Leslie Nielsen as the hilariously clumsy Detective Frank Drebin, who returned years later for three Naked Gun feature films.  ZAZ also did the 1984 box-office disappointment, Top Secret, while Abrahams went on to make two Hot Shots movies and Jane Austen’s Mafia by himself.  The latter film had the Austen name dropped due to some controversy we cannot go into here.


I just revisited Airplane! again in the form of Paramount's new special edition called the "Don't Call Me Shirley" edition (taken from one of the film's most famous lines), and while I didn't laugh as much as I did when I was 9, I still smiled throughout most of it, and came to admire some of the humor even more, some of which has become very politically incorrect in 25 years.


While Airplane! spoofs everything from Jaws to Saturday Night Fever to the Airport movies, the film it spoofs most is a forgotten straight-faced B-movie howler from 1957 called Zero Hour!  In fact, so much is taken from Zero Hour! that the ZAZ team paid for the rights of that film before making Airplane!  The plot structure is nearly identical to Zero Hour!, a movie it's hard to believe anybody ever took seriously after the ZAZ team get finished with it.  An ordinary cross-country flight with a mixed bag of passengers is put into jeopardy when the entire flight crew becomes incapacitated after eating bad fish.  A former pilot during "the war" named Ted Striker (Robert Hays) just happens to be aboard, and must overcome his post-traumatic stress disorder, and attempt to land the plane.  The head stewardess (Julie Hagerty) just happens to be Striker's old flame, and the guy instructing him from the ground (Robert Stack) just happens to be his former commanding officer during the war.


The plot, though, is relatively unimportant, working merely as a means to set up one wacky gag after another.  Some of the funniest bits include two black-male passengers who talk in a "jive" language all their own, which, it turns out, only Barbara Billingsley (Beaver Cleaver's mom) can understand; Hagerty being forced to manually blow up the inflatable automatic pilot, and doctor Leslie Nielsen thinking she's doing another kind of blowing; in a spoof of Airport '75, another stewardess (Lorna Patterson) sings a song while playing the guitar for a sick, bed-ridden girl traveling on the plane, but the guitar ends up knocking out the girl's intravenous tubes; and just Striker says "the sh!#'s going to hit the fan," a mass of brown fecal matter literally hits a fan back in the air-traffic controllers room.  The film is also noteworthy for casting veteran serious actors such as Stack, Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves to comic effect for the first time.


The anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image is a bit on the soft side, looking like the previous transfer on the older DVD.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is a mix of decent-sounding music and older sounding dialogue that sounds a generation down.  The presentation overall is not horrible, but not what it could have been for a new special edition.  Good thing there are extras.


The "Don't Call Me Shirley" edition is a must-have for fans of Airplane!, and tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the film.  The audio commentary on the new edition by the ZAZ team was recorded years ago for Paramount's basic widescreen DVD edition of the film, but new interviews with ZAZ as well as cast and crew have been added.  The only annoying aspect of the new edition is that you cannot play the interviews and deleted scenes separately.  You must watch them in what's called the "Long Haul Version" where the film gets interrupted every minute or two by cutting to recent interviews with cast and crew.  So be prepared to spend at least three hours watching the 87-minute film if you want to see all the interviews in one sitting.  You can also watch the movie with a newly added trivia track in which little tidbits of information regularly pop up on the screen.  But after listening to the ZAZ audio commentary and the more-recent interviews, the trivia track repeats a lot of information already heard.



-   Chuck O'Leary


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