This double feature recommendation comes with a strong suggestion for viewing order. You absolutely should watch Zero Hour! first, because once you’ve seen Airplane!, you will have a hard time taking the former film seriously again. And that would be too bad, because it’s a perfectly solid drama/thriller.
Written by Arthur Hailey of Airport fame, 1957’s Zero Hour! stars Dana Andrews as former squadron leader Ted Stryker. I’ve written before about this period in Andrews’ career, during which he labored in B-movies as he struggled with alcoholism (not incidentally, his co-star here, Linda Darnell was in the same boat). Yet he managed to class up these productions with good performances, a strong jaw and leading man looks (albeit a bit drink-ravaged). Perhaps because he himself was a man whose career and life were on a downslope, he is particularly good in Zero Hour! at making the audience sympathetic with Ted Stryker. Following one terrible misjudgment during the war, Ted has been haunted by self-doubt. He has lost the respect of his wife (Linda Darnell) but is consoled by the fact that his son still looks up to him (Raymond Ferrell).
And then, before you can say “contrived plot development”, the Stryker family ends up on an airplane on which many passengers are sickened by bad food. The plane’s captain also falls ill and can no longer fly (The captain is played by Crazylegs Hirsch…a famous athlete playing an airline pilot..I wonder if someone could ever find a way to make fun of that?). A serious, silver haired physician (Geoffrey Toone) who happens to be on board intones somberly that if the passengers are not hospitalized soon, they will die. Meanwhile, the weather is worsening, becoming reminiscent of the horrible conditions during Ted’s failed World War mission. Can Ted shake off his fears, land the plane, and at the same time save his son, who is among the ill? He will have at least some help: on the ground, the hard-headed, no nonsense Capt. Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden, as alcohol-soaked at this point in his career as Andrews) has taken command at the airport and is prepared to bring the plane in safely.
OK, it’s a bit of a potboiler, but the acting is fine, the effects are good for the period, and the story is genuinely exciting. And this film is probably the high point of Hall Bartlett’s uneven career as a director; he gets everyone to play things super straight, which you could pull off with a 1950s audience in a way you never could with a modern one.
Which brings me to the 1980 film Airplane! Three very, very funny guys (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker) saw Zero Hour! late at night and apparently laughed all the way through. They then created a movie that is hilarious in its own right and also deserves admiration for being one of the best parodies of a prior movie ever made. If you have just watched Zero Hour!, Airplane! is even MORE funny, if that’s possible. Indeed, some of the most laugh-inducing lines in Airplane! appear as dead serious lines in Zero Hour! (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking…”).
The whole cast of Airplane! have great comic timing and perfect deadpan deliveries when needed. Special props to the actors who made their careers playing super-serious guys and spend this film mocking themselves with great success (Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges). Plaudits also go to the two jive talking guys for their creativity (they wrote their own lines), and the fight arrangers for staging the best fistfight in the history of cinema.