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Case Number 08186

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Airplane! "Don't Call Me Shirley!" Edition

Paramount // 1980 // 87 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // December 13th, 2005

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All Rise...

Our Judge Dennis Prince has absolutely no fear of flying. Wait! That's not entirely true. He's mortified at the thought of air travel.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Airplane! (published October 25th, 2000) and Airplane! (Blu-ray) (published October 1st, 2011) are also available.

The Charge

Dr. Rumack: Can you fly this plane and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Dr. Rumack: I am serious…and don't call me Shirley.

Opening Statement

Just how far can you take gag before it induces vomiting? Seemingly, that's what Zucker Brothers, David and Jerry, wanted to find out when they teamed up with Jim Abrahams and taxied Airplane! onto the tarmac.

Would the humor work? Would the studio buy it? Was it possible that some egghead in the audience would leap from his seat and scream out, "Zero Hour!"

Air sickness bags at the ready; this is gonna be a bumpy ride.

Facts of the Case

After spending time in an Army hospital following a harrowing mission in the Air Force, Ted Striker (Robert Hays, Airplane II—The Sequel) has become a taxi driver and is attempting to put his life back together. He's obsessed with is former girlfriend, Elaine (Julie Hagerty, Airplane II—The Sequel). The perky stewardess has recently cut off their relationship due to Ted's inability to leave his past behind, not to mention his debilitating drinking problem (as he pours another screwdriver down the side of his face). As Elaine boards the Trans-American jumbo jet destined for Chicago, the persistent Ted follows along, unaware that he's in for the ride of his life ("What a pisser!").

All seems normal once the plane is in flight as the capable crew of Captain Oveur (Peter Graves (Airplane II—the Sequel), Co-Pilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the L.A. Lakers, though he'll deny it), and Navigator Victor Basta (Frank Ashmore, Airplane II—the Sequel) guide the Tylenol-shaped transport through the night skies. Following dinner, though, the passengers start complaining about profuse sweating, stomach cramps, and the in-flight movie. Luckily Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen, strangely not in Airplane II—the Sequel) has determined the cause of the rampant digestive distress to be the in-flight fish dinner.

Dr. Rumack: What was it we had for dinner tonight?
Elaine: Well, we had a choice—steak or fish.
Dr. Rumack: Yes, yes I remember…I had lasagna.

Soon the entire crew is reduced to sweating and semi-conscious heaps of flatulent flesh. Without somebody to pilot the plane, disaster is inevitable. Even the automatic pilot, Otto (he's a balloon, not an actor), can't land the bucket of bolts. Surely there must be someone on board who can navigate the plane safely to the ground.

Well, Ted…not Shirley.

The Evidence

Few among us need any plot synopsis of Airplane!, especially since what's been written up to this point makes the film seem far more exciting than it really is. Comedic skit wranglers Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams (not necessarily in alphabetical order) found cult success when they parlayed their "Kentucky Fried Theater" antics into the underground big-screen hit, Kentucky Fried Movie. The stumbled across the whole airplane-in-distress shtick while recording late-night TV, scanning the airwaves for material to buoy their next parody. What they found was a murky melodrama from 1957, Zero Hour, which told the harrowing tale of an airliner whose passengers and crew were stricken by food poisoning. The comedy team used this as their inspiration for a loosely-based yet entirely new yarn about, well, an airliner whose passengers and crew were stricken by food poisoning. Paramount Pictures owned rights to Zero Hour; given that the same studio was backing the three writers' newest creation, any legal infractions could be tidily avoided.

Airplane! became a farce of farcical heights. The plot was immaterial (and entire scenes and word-for-word dialogue were stolen…er…leveraged directly from Zero Hour) because the gag was the order of the day here. Originally intended to be a movie-within-a-movie and titled "Kentucky Fried Airplane" (a la "A Fistful of Yen" found within Kentucky Fried Movie) the two Zuckers and one Abraham determined they had enough spoof stuff to carry an entire feature-length picture this time around. The result was a box-office bonanza. Rife with rapid-fire sight, sound, and running situational gags, the picture literally launched high-powered hilarity as the newest film template. In short order, the film's irreverent and unapologetically severe silliness became the inspiration to successors and imitators like Top Secret!, Hot Shots!, and TV's Police Squad.

The film works not so much because of its humorous antics but because of the unflinching deadpan delivery by Hollywood veterans like Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen, and Howard Jarvis. Robert Hays, in his first leading role, underplays his role with precision as he deflects each and every verbal and visual volley tossed his way. Julie Hagerty, also in her first leading role, does likewise but with the added task of dutifully re-inflating Otto via his manual inflation tube.

This new Airplane! "Don't Call Me Shirley!" Edition celebrates the film's 25-year anniversary and still delivers a concourse full of laughs. Be aware, however, that some of the gags show their age (such as references to a popular coffee commercial of the day or with a nod to the minions of Hari-Krishna who were determined to bring peace to the world one airport at a time). There are also plenty of film-based spoofs including references to Airport, Airport '75, Saturday Night Fever, and From Here to Eternity, among others. The majority of the humor still works just fine and those who know the gags and punch lines will likely continue to revel in the straight-faced delivery of some of the screen's most absurd assertions.

"Striker, you listen and you listen close. Flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes."

While a decent DVD release came out of Paramount's home entertainment hangar in 2000, this new release boasts plenty of new extras, a shiny new outer sleeve, and a chance to inflate your own Otto. It all starts with a new anamorphic widescreen transfer, framed at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer itself looks generally clean and crisp though you will notice some low levels of graininess. The color palette is a bit muted but that seems to be a carryover from the original production design and not the result of a sloppily-managed transfer. The audio is presented in both a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix as well as a 2.0 Stereo Surround track. Either sounds fine but, naturally, the 5.1 track performs slightly better although it doesn't fully exploit the expanded soundstage. (The drone of the plane's propellers, however, never sounded better.)

There are plenty of extras on this release beginning with a running commentary featuring the Zuckers, Abrahams, joined by Producer Jon Davison. It's unclear whether this is the same commentary track that was included in the 2000 release, but it's a fun listen just the same. An advertised new feature here, though, is the "Long Haul" option that provides interspersed interviews and some deleted scenes that utilize seamless branching whenever the Trans-American logo appears on the screen. If that's not enough arcane content for you, there's also an optional Trivia Track that offers Pop-Up Video balloons with plenty of additional useless information and shameless nepotistic indulgences. The original theatrical trailer is also on board.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

"Cold got to be! You know? Shiiiiit."

No further comments.

Closing Statement

It's a zany outing, and it's still as much fun today as it was twenty-five years ago. The new material on the disc makes this a must-buy, must-upgrade matter for lovers of absurdist cinema. Oh, and lest they be overlooked, there are some cleverly designed animated menus, a fun flight card insert inside the DVD case, and a special offer to send away for your very own inflatable Otto. Actual location of the inflation tube may vary.

The Verdict

After an upside-down excursion like this, one that crosses the line of common decency and blatantly plagiarizes a previous work yet delivers loads of laughs, it's hard to tell whether this film's guilty or not.

"You can tell me…I'm a doctor"

Never mind.

Give us your feedback!

Did we give Airplane! "Don't Call Me Shirley!" Edition a fair trial? yes / no

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Scales of Justice

Video: 93
Audio: 91
Extras: 95
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Comedy
• Disaster

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary with Writers Jerry and David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Producer Jon Davison
• "Long Haul" Option Including New Interviews and Deleted Scenes
• Trivia Track
• Theatrical Trailer

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