Airplane! / Flying High! (1980)


Surprisingly this is the first Australian DVD we’ve come across in the collection, hence the two titles for this movie (and why it wasn’t watched during letter A). I’m always curious why some movie titles are changed, especially when both markets speak the same language. Why was Airplane! deemed an unacceptable title in Australia? Flying High! seems like it would have been the American name given the prevalence of pot smoking in the 1970s. But maybe vague drug references in a film’s title was a little too edgy for US audiences? This is a question I’d like answered, so please chime in if you know.

Having never seen Airplane! (cue a chorus of “Surely you can’t be serious!”) I assumed Leslie Nielson was the star. When he passed away a few years ago nearly every montage of his career began or ended (or both) with clips from this movie. Surprisingly he’s not really in it that much. It’s funny to think that one line in a spoof film would come to define Nielson’s career, but he seemed like the kind of guy who wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Airplane! is one of those rare comedy gems that holds up decades after its release. This too is a bit of a surprise, given that many of the references are dated. Jokes aside, airports themselves are completely different now than they were in 1980. My parents told me stories about Hare Krishnas hanging out by the baggage claim, but I’ve never in my life seen a religious zealot of any faith anywhere near an airport. Purchasing a last minute ticket and having no luggage with you would raise a million red flags now, and good luck getting anywhere near the security line without a ticket. I have a few memories of pre-9/11 air travel, but I’d be interested to watch this with someone young enough to be confused by some of these scenes.

However, this film stands the test of time thanks to a hilarious script and excellent cast. As someone who hates flying, I found this movie widely funny because I fully acknowledge how unfounded my fears really are. Add in the general annoyances of plane travel and you get a comedy that is relatable to anyone who has ever flown. What really seals the deal is that the actors are all fully committed to their roles. Everyone appears to be playing it straight, which is the perfect juxtaposition to the absurdity and slapstick. Throw in roles played by non-comedic actors (Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves) and a cameo by one of the biggest sports stars of the 70s (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and you’ve stumbled upon a formula that has been emulated to varying success ever since.

Rating: A

I’m happy to announce that this film is still hilarious. I was a little worried sitting down to watch Flying High! (Airplane! for you Yankees) that it would not be as funny anymore. Rest assured, this is not the case. The comedy in this film is timeless and still holds up very well even today, over 30 years after it was first released.

This film created the ‘spoof’ genre. Many movies have tried to copy this formula (Scary Movie??), but few have succeeded. Flying High! is the ‘story’ of a flight that falls into chaos when half of the passengers, including the captain (Peter Graves), get food poisoning from the in-flight meal. It is up to a stressed out former war pilot (Robert Hays) who is afraid to fly and his ex-lover flight attendant (Julie Hagerty) to land the plane safely. Meanwhile, the only doctor on board (Leslie Nielson) cares for the sick passengers.

The story of Flying High! is really not that important in the grand scheme of things. It is really just a device to get us up in the air with this quirky set of characters and letting the cast run riot. I’m sure much of this film was improvised, there is just too much going on here for it all to have been in the original script. Nielson is great as the doctor, he has one of the most iconic lines in film history (“Don’t call me Shirley”), and was able to follow up this role with another great spoof movie, The Naked Gun. I also have to mention my favourite joke of the film, the automatic pilot. This scene is so stupid, but even today it cracks me up. For those that don’t know, the auto pilot on this plane is a blow up doll with a goofy smile on his face. It is, by far, my favourite joke of the film. I always find it funny, no matter how often I’ve seen this movie.

The jokes in this film are quite crude, and would likely never have made it into a script today. Black people are mocked for the jive way they talk and drug abuse is mocked constantly. Both of these issues are unlikely to be seen as comedy fodder today, but they’re still funny. I enjoy watching films like this and Blazing Saddles. They were made during a time before political correctness was necessary, it is refreshing to see a film like this. I have always thought that nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy. It is very important to know your audience and understand what their limits are, but nothing should be taboo. This film is a great example of that. Nothing is off limits in Flying High!, and comedy is the winner.

Flying High! is one of funniest movies ever made, and still holds up today. Great comedians like Leslie Nielson and Lloyd Bridges are at the top of their game here. For nostalgic value alone, Flying High! is worth watching, the hilarious jokes are just a bonus.

Rating: A-

One thought on “Airplane! / Flying High! (1980)

  1. Pingback: Hot Shots! (1991) | From The Abyss to Zoolander

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