‘Airplane!’ is still funny in ‘Don’t Call Me Shirley! Edition’ DVD

Julie Hagerty (right) co-stars in 'Airplane!'
Julie Hagerty (right) co-stars in ‘Airplane!’

Regardless of the up and down successes of their following movies, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker created a bonafide classic with Airplane!. This unique comedy was starkly different than any other that had come before it, loaded with gags in nearly ever frame. So loaded that if you don’t laugh at one gag, just wait, because another will arrive in about five seconds.

Airplane! was also unique because it was a parody. It poked fun at the overload of airplane- and airport-centric films that were abundant in the 1970s. But what makes this film original, along with this trio’s other comedies, is how the actors never waver in being honest and sincere. Like when Leslie Nielson delivers the famous, “Don’t call me ‘Shirley’” line, he does it with a straight face. There’s no winking or goofy looks, the humor is in the dialogue and the delivery, right where it belongs.

The film is about a doomed airplane and its passengers. The main character is Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a troubled Air Force pilot who suffers from post-traumatic stress due to a deadly mission during the war. His girlfriend is a stewardess on the flight (Julie Hagerty), who tells him prior to taking off that she’s leaving him. He quickly buys a ticket to be on the plane with her, hoping to change her mind. But in mid flight, the crew and passengers begin to get sick due to some bad fish, and Striker must get back behind the throttle to save himself and the rest of the fully-loaded plane.

The story may sound kind of dramatic, and that’s because it’s largely based upon the 1957 film, Zero Hour (Yes, there really was a film where bad fish endangered the flight). However, elements of other films, such as Airport 1975, are also used and parodied. I actually didn’t know a lot of this about Airplane!. I always knew it was a parody, but not of a specific film (Zero Hour), or that many of the shots were framed to specifically match that 1957 movie.

That was a large part of the fun I had in watching Airplane!. Through the commentary and snippets of behind-the-scenes interviews and deleted scenes, I learned a lot about the making of the film and what went into developing the jokes. I remember hearing once that Pete Rose was originally meant to play the role that ultimately went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but I didn’t know that David Letterman had screen tested to play the role of Ted Striker. It’s always fun when you can go back to a movie you’ve seen so many times and gain an new insight into it. It’s like watching it for the first time.

It’s also funny to think that a movie like this was shopped around to numerous studios, all of which turned it down. But that’s often the story with films like this, because they are so different and original at the time.

At first, I wasn’t all that happy with the manner in which Airplane!: “Don’t Call Me Shirley!” Edition was set up. All the behind-the-scenes information is packed into the movie itself, so to access them you have to watch the movie. There’s the commentary, which features producer Jon Davison, along with Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker. This is pretty fun to listen to, largely because most of the stories they tell take place in the first half of the film. They are then largely quiet during the second half, something they joyously poke fun at themselves about. Then there’s the Long Haul Version of the film, which includes deleted scenes, interviews and more. If you watch the film in this format, a little icon appears on screen and then takes you into a brief featurette. Then there’s the Trivia Track, where little bits of information pop up on screen as you watch. Some of the information in these different options are similar, but all of them are fun.

My problem with it is just that you’re forced to watch the movie in order to see them all. You can’t view the interviews and deleted scenes separately. This isn’t terrible, but can get a little frustrating, especially if you’re not in the mood to sit and watch the film two or three times in a row.

Either way, between the information you’re given and the beautiful presentation of the film, I can’t say that the Airplane!: “Don’t Call Me Shirley!” Edition is a waste of time, because it’s far from it. It’s one of the best editions of a classic comedy I’ve seen, and I was more than happy to give it a double viewing just to watch the bonus material.

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