Contrary to what many people may think, the blockbuster sleeper comedy runaway hit of 1980, Airplane! is not merely a generic parody of the airplane disaster movie genre which had been such a big hit throughout the 1970’s. In fact, despite its wildly outrageous humor, Airplane! is very nearly a scene for scene—often a line-for-line—remake of a very serious early entry in that particular sub-genre. Zero Hour! (complete with the exclamation point!) is a 1957 film starring Dana Andrews as former pilot Ted Stryker who is called upon to land a passenger plane following food poisoning.
The 1980 comedy screenplay was co-written and—still unusual—co-directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and David’s brother Jerry. What is perhaps most astonishing for first-time viewers of Zero Hour! is how much dialogue from that film is lifted verbatim and remains intact in the parody. The success of this translation of melodramatic dialogue into satire is dependent upon arguably the most skillful use of irony in a Hollywood comedy since Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Like that film one could read much of the screenplay and mistake it for a drama; it is in the cinematic execution where the alchemical transformation takes place.
With a paltry budget of less than four million dollars (in comparison to the thirty-five million dollar budget of the very similarly-toned 1941 directed by Steven Spielberg just one earlier), Abrahams and the Zuckers went on to enjoy the fruits of that investment returning 130 million dollars in its initial release. (By contrast, Spielberg’s film did not even crack the 100 million dollar mark at the box office.) The dirty little secret to the film’s low budget was the judicious casting of recognizable actors who had fallen from from their once high ranking in the Hollywood hierarchy. Made at a time when their star factor was at its highest, no movie could ever have been made for just 3.5 million dollars with a cast that included Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Ethel Merman, and Jimmie Walker. Nielsen, Stack and Graves would all go to enjoy a career boost following the film’s release with Nielsen, becoming an even bigger star as a comic actor than he ever was as a macho leading man.