Kicking Back With Jersey Joe: “Don’t Call Me Shirley” [Celebrating 30 Years of AIRPLANE] Jul02

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Kicking Back With Jersey Joe: “Don’t Call Me Shirley” [Celebrating 30 Years of AIRPLANE]


a blogumn by Jersey Joe

It’s one of the greatest satirical movies ever made!  With big name stars and a whole list of imitators in the years after; no movie has dealt out the laughs the same way the original Airplane and the sequel Airplane II did.  Now, the original Airplane turns 30 and the laughs are just as good in 2010, as they were in 1980!  But, what I want to know is do you like movies about gladiators?  Because, that’s not really important right now…

The original Airplane movie landed in theatres on July 2, 1980. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the movie during its original theatrical run.  I vaguely remember seeing it advertised outside a downtown movie house, but it wasn’t until years later that I would first watch it on television — back in the days when TV stations aired big name flicks under the title Million Dollar Movies.

Airplane is a humorous take on the late 70’s Hollywood big budget disaster films.  After a decade of such films as Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and When Time Ran Out, this film was a completely different take on the disaster film genre.  While a disaster is at the heart of the plot, it’s the comedy and one liners mixed in that really make this movie special.

And talk about a cast!  Big name stars, mixed in with relative unknowns, and big cameos!  Robert Hayes stars as Ted Striker, an ex-fighter pilot with a drinking problem, who’s still getting over that flight over Macho Grande.  Julie Hagerty as his ex-girlfriend stewardess.  Leslie Nielson with his comedic timing; hits it out of the ballpark with his role as passenger Dr. Alan Rumack (and don’t call him Shirley).  Peter Graves is the bumbling Captain Oveur (who asks a child if he ever saw a grown man, naked), Robert Stack as Captain Rex Cramer, and Lloyd Bridges round out the starring cast as McCrosky.

The writer/producers, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker had cast big name stars who had never done comedy before this film.  They wanted a real performance and not a silly actor, trying to ham it up for the camera.  Some of the cast were reluctant to sign on to the project, for fear that it would ruin their careers.  Jerry Zucker recently told The New York Times that Peter Graves thought the original script “was tasteless trash.”  Lloyd Bridges was not initially interested in his role, but changed his mind thanks to pressure from his kids.

Here are some of my most memorable scenes from the film:

My favorite scene.  The crew’s names are similar to the words they are saying, leaving them confused during takeoff.  Captain Overeur, First Officer Roger, and pilot Victor.  What’s your vector, Victor?  Huh?

Leslie Nielson’s classic “don’t call me Shirley” line.  This ended up getting parodied in an episode of The Office.  This one line was ranked number 79 on the American Film Institute’s 100 best movie quotes.  I also love the “all together now” line at the end.

Lloyd Bridges as McCrosky and his wrong week quotes are brilliant.  As the movie goes on, he finds more things to regret quitting, until he finally passes out from sniffing glue.  His over-the-top facial expression is just priceless!

Robert Stack and his sunglass gag, another one of those little comedic bits that makes this movie special.  Sometimes, I almost forget about Stack doing the funny roles (here and in Baseketballl) after all of those seasons on Unsolved Mysteries.

The radar range and crew on instruments gags!

The jive scene is way over the top!  Did you recognize that’s actress Barbara Billingsley, the good natured housewife June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver?

This is just a small sample of the laughs that this movie packs.  It also packed a punch at the box office!  Airplanee cost a mere $3.5 million to make, but earned $83 million in North America and another $40 million in rentals, making it the highest grossing comedy movie at the time.  It made back the entire budget in the opening weekend and inspired a whole slew of comedy flicks such as Ghostbusters, The Naked Gun, and the Scary Movie franchises.  Our 1980’s would have been a lot less funnier without all those flicks.

Despite being shot in the late 1970’s and being released in 1980, most of the jokes are still spot on and work for today’s comedy expectations.  A younger audience, say born after the movie’s release, may miss a joke here or there, but they won’t miss the site gags that each scene is packed full of.

Other notable actors that appeared in the film are basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (who has a brilliant exchange with a little kid, who exposes his as Kareem Abdul-Jabarr and gets on his back about a few missed shots.)  Funnyman Jimmy Walker makes a quick cameo as a serviceman who checks the hood of the plane, and Ethel Merman makes her last film appearance as a shell-shocked soldier, convinced he is Ethel Merman.  Some of the films writers, directors and families make appearances as well.

To capitalize on the success, the sequel appropriately titled, Airplane II: The Sequel, hit the box office on December 10, 1982, with a science-fiction theme.  This time it was a futuristic flight heading for a base on the moon.  Again, another brilliant film packed full of gags and one liners that’s just as good as the original.  A fake trailer for Airplane III appears after the credits with a great gag from actor William Shatner.

I can honestly watch either one of these films at any time.  They both repeat on cable at random times, but for me the best way to experience this again is on DVD.  It’s uncut and also contains a few deleted scenes.  There are some great bonus features with the producers that offer a load of insight into the comedy and shooting.  I love a good comedy flick and this is the granddaddy of them all!  Oh, and did you know?  There’s a sale at Penny’s!  But, that’s not important right now.

THE 411:


Original Release: July 2, 1980

Length: 87 minutes

Rating: PG

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

Availability: airs at random times on cable television.  Also available on DVD with a retail price of $12.49.


JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: If you’ve never seen this before, go and rent it now.  If you have seen this before, it should be in your home DVD library, but it’s not for the kids.