The Airplane! cast strike up a tune.
[UPDATE, 27/7/16: I recently came across an article on Elmer Bernstein by Ron Sadoff in Music and the Moving Image (available here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/musimoviimag.6.3.0023), insights from which have now been incorporated into the penultimate paragraph.]
[UPDATE 2, 10/06/17: Having now found that the full soundtrack album is available on Spotify, I have included links at appropriate points. Non-Spotify users can find most of the score’s various moments and motifs in the Symphonic Suite arrangement available on YouTube.]
‘By rights you should hate Airplane!,’ writes Stuart Heritage in a 2010 Guardian run-off of the all-time greatest comedy films, ‘simply because its influence stretches to every single woeful parody film made in the last three decades.’ Whilst its gag-centric, plot-light approach has certainly been repeated ad nauseam to cover just about every cinematic genre and sub-genre imaginable (a development aided and abetted by directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker – collectively known as ZAZ – in subsequent projects), it has aged better and continues to tower far above any of its inferior imitators for various reasons. Aside from its memorable lines and sheer density of gags, one such reason is its use of actors previously famed for more earnest or “serious” work, most famously Leslie Nielsen, but also Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Barbara Billingsley and Peter Graves. Moreover, far from conforming to the film’s overcharged silliness, the comedy of these performances lies precisely in the actors’ gravitas and straightness of face, in stark contrast to the manic events that take place around them.
Rex Kramer (Robert Stack, l.) and Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) in the control tower.
Part of this effect lies in the fact that Airplane!, as well as spoofing numerous films of the airborne disaster genre popular at the time, borrows much of its plot, and indeed dialogue, from the 1957 film Zero Hour!, the rights to which were owned and granted to the filmmakers by Airplane!‘s distributor, Paramount Studios. Retaining a certain faithfulness to this film in terms of spirit as well as structure and playing up the seriousness with which its scenario would once have been dealt reinforces the sense that it is, in fact, the overwrought and preposterous narrative not only of the original, but of other similar films, that provides Airplane!‘s real comedic meat, to which its hailstorm of verbal and visual gags is merely the sauce and dressing. It speaks volumes, for example, that Dr. Rumack’s line stressing the importance of ‘finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner’ stems not from the minds of ZAZ, but from Zero Hour!‘s actual script.