Saturday, March 6, 2010

And Don't Call Me Shirley

A big, big thank you to the fine folks at Turner Classic Movies for their double-feature programming on Friday: They had a slate of airliners-in-trouble movies. But to kick it off, they showed Airplane!, the 1980 comedy. This was followed immediately by a pristine HD screening of Zero Hour!, the 1957 thriller Airplane! was fashioned from.

I have seen Airplane! dozens of times, and I find it funny every time I see it. The very first time I saw it, a sold-out screening in auditorium 2 at the Del Mar, I laughed so hard my sides hurt afterward. So I can say I have always been curious to see the film it was based on. Apparently DavidZucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (the comedy trio commonly referred to as ZAZ) bought the rights to Zero Hour! outright, which allowed them to do whatever they wanted to to it. I imagine back in the late 1970s they were able to get the full rights for whatever they could find under the couch cushions and a stack of S&H Green Stamps. It was probably the last time in history anyone could do this cheaply: It was just before VHS and cable created demand for studio vault content, and for Paramount Zero Hour! was just taking up space.

So how was it? It was Airplane! played straight. The plot: Ted Stryker, a combat fighter pilot haunted by memories of the war, is forced to fly and land an airliner after the crew and half the passengers are taken down by food poisoning. It features Dana Andrews as Ted Stryker, Linda Darnell as his long-suffering wife, an uncomfortably dyspeptic-looking Sterling Hayden as Ted's former commander (the Robert Stack character from Airplane!), and a supporting cast of doughy, sweaty white guys. (The 1950s were the Golden Age of the Doughy Male.) There's even a Johnny in the control room, but instead of cracking wise ("How about some coffee, Johnny?" "No, thanks!") he actually fetches coffee.

Some nice person did all the hard work and posted a shot-by-shot comparison on YouTube:

Anyone who is interesting in writing comedy should see these film side-by-side. For one thing, ZAZ knew that even though they were making a broad comedy with machine-gun-fire gags throughout, they had the have the solid underpinnings of a compelling story to keep the audience in the game. If the narrative is strong, the nutty gags and random bits tend to catch the viewer more off guard. And people get a larger sense of overall satisfaction from narrative films: Like the debate on anthology versus serial television shows, stories with character continuity are just more effective. And as for the adaptation of Zero Hour!, the jury is still out for me: are ZAZ geniuses for taking a pedestrian thriller and re-purposing it into a hit comedy, or are they lazy for taking a pre-existing story and fluffing it up with jokes?

Another thread that is common to both films is poor Ted Stryker's haunting memories of the war. In Airplane! it's spoofed as a cliché: flashbacks of crashing planes, old-timey flying machines, etc. In Zero Hour!, Ted is absolutely debilitated by them: He has a hard time staying employed, and he boards the plane because his wife is fed up and leaving him. He obviously suffers from a severe case of what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But in 1957 (or 1980, for that matter) PTSD wasn't even defined. Zero Hour! thus becomes a rather scary case history of how the post-war, Greatest Generation handled PTSD: They didn't. Ted is repeatedly told he has to "forget" the war: his wife, a potential employer and Sterling Hayden all gang up on him in turn, essentially telling him to suck it up and deal with it. At least in Airplane! Ted got to spend some time in a military mental hospital with Ethel Merman.

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