Friday, June 22, 2007

"Stewardess, I think the man sitting next to me is a doctor."

With Zero Hour coming out on DVD, I wonder: does anyone else find it kind of shabby that Airplane! didn't give any credit to the writers of Zero Hour?

It's often said that Airplane! is a parody of the 1957 film, but it's actually a remake, and a very faithful remake at that: Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker followed Zero Hour almost scene for scene, and a majority of the dialogue comes directly from the three writers of the original script. (Zero Hour was based on a CBC television drama written by Arthur Hailey, Flight Into Danger; the movie script is credited to Hailey and the film's producer and director.) Airplane! is, in essence, a longer, more expensive version of an old staple from live comedy, which is taking the script of a "serious" movie or play and playing it for laughs. But as Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker have acknowledged, it also helped them because they didn't have any experience with story structure; by using the story and dialogue of Zero Hour, they had a decently-structured plot that they could pump full of jokes. When they had to actually create a story and characters from scratch, in Top Secret!, it was a huge flop (I love Top Secret!, but I'm not surprised it failed, because there's no story for the audience to hang onto). I think, on that basis, that Paramount should have given credit to Arthur Hailey and the other writers, because their work isn't just being spoofed in Airplane! -- their work helped make it successful.

Here are side-by-side comparisons of a few bits from Zero Hour with their remakes in Airplane!


Anonymous said...

I don't know how ZERO HOUR!'s co-screenwriters John Champion and Hall Bartlett (also the film's director) felt about it, but I once read that Arthur Hailey waived any formal credit for AIRPLANE! Whether this had to do with the fact it was a comedy/spoof of his work, or that because he had long ago sold film rights to FLIGHT INTO DANGER he would gain in no way financially from the "remake" is unclear. [Hailey's early novel version of the story, "Runway Zero-Eight," written with Phillip Castle, went out of print some years before AIRPLANE! was produced.]

It is worth noting, I suppose, that Hailey's reputation (literary and in general) by 1980 had likely been harmed by Universal's increasingly silly sequels to AIRPORT, all of which very prominently credited the author. None of the AIRPORT sequels had anything to do with Hailey's novel (other than that his character "Joe Patroni," played by George Kennedy, appears somewhere in each film) -- and unless the author's sale of the movie rights to his book to Universal had then-extraordinary riders attached, it's unlikely that he was compensated for any of the later films. It also goes without saying, I guess, that none of the sequels' stories (or characters) were anywhere near so carefully or meticulously constructed as a typical Hailey book. [Hailey was no great artist or even a wonderful novelist, but he was at heart a craftsman and storyteller; George Seaton's adaptation of the original AIRPORT may be flatfooted, but it works to a degree because the underlying material still hangs together.]

After the release of THE CONCORDE... AIRPORT '79 -- a film that is actually more absurd than AIRPLANE!, though not as funny -- Arthur Hailey had probably tired of seeing his good name associated with ridiculous air-travel movies. Given a choice, it makes sense that he would have preferred for his authorship of the roots of the ZAZ team's comedy to remain anonymous. [In later years it was reported that he enjoyed the movie -- and why not, as you point out, his story is still all there.]

In 1977, while promoting KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, Jim Abrahams told reporters that he and the Zuckers were planning a comic remake of THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY. I've often wondered whether Abrahams was doing a little misdirection back then -- talking up reworking the Ernest K. Gann story (out of reach thanks to Batjac) while the team was actually working on the Hailey story.

Interestingly, when the Zucker brothers produced the Pat Proft/Dennis Dugan Marx Bros.-manque BRAIN DONORS, the authors of its obvious source material, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, was formally credited (deep in the movie's end titles) as "suggested by."

John McElwee said...

Never considered that "Zero Hour" was the much-needed well-constructed blueprint for "Airplane!" until your very thoughtful posting showed me the way. Excellent work, and I thank you for opening my eyes!