Saturday, March 20, 2010

'Zero Hour' is Airplane! Altogether!

Surely most if not all of you have heard of the 1980 comedy Airplane!  (Yes, the reference was intentional. And yes, I can hear the responses already.)

Well, as it turns out, there is another very similar movie that is almost as funny - only it wasn't meant to be. It's the 1957 film Zero Hour! And no, I'm not full of hyperbole - that title, too, comes with its very own exclamation point! 

Many Airplane! aficionados, myself included, know that Airplane! was based on Zero Hour! - which was also about a former pilot drafted to fly and land a plane when the crew and several passengers fall ill to food poisoning.

What I didn't know, until I just now watched it, was just how much Airplane! was based on Zero Hour! No, scratch that. Airplane! wasn't based on Zero Hour! Airplane! IS Zero Hour! - with jokes!

The Airplane! script doesn't merely borrow the plot of the earlier movie - it out and out steals it. I recorded Zero Hour! off of TCM, and was astonished to find that pretty much every "straight" line of dialogue in Airplane! was lifted DIRECTLY from the Zero Hour! script. Several dialogue passes in Zero Hour! match Airplane! almost verbatim - right down to lines as mundane as "Our survival hinges on one thing - finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn't have fish for dinner. "

The main character, played by Dana Andrews, is even named Ted Stryker (spelled with a sometimes vowel in Zero Hour! and with an always vowel in Airplane!) - although the twist here is Stryker is  the father of the kid who gets to go to the cockpit, but minus nudity, gladiator or Turkish prison references. 

The matches are so close, I'm astonished that Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker didn't mention Zero Hour! anywhere in the credits - not in the main titles or in the goofy end credits, where Charles Dickens does get his due as the "author of a Tale of Two Cities." 

It is a complete and total hoot to watch Zero Hour! and then fill in the comedic blanks - especially when Zero Hour! drops such gems as "It looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking." Yes, that line IS in Zero Hour! -  without the escalation to drinking or sniffing glue. And I'm sorry to report that there are no jive talkers in Zero Hour, but there is a hysterically silly "Elvis" shown on one of the TVs. 

And the strange connections don't stop with the dialogue. Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, a  Pro Football Hall of Famer, was cast as the pilot in Zero Hour! - which may have given Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker the idea of casting basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar as the co-pilot in their movie.

This one has nothing to do with Zero Hour! vs. Airplane! but I found it intriguing that the cinematographer of Airplane! was Joseph Biroc who also shot Blazing Saddles. I guess he specialized in zany, oft-quoted comedies that broke the fourth wall.

But here's my favorite connection between the two films. Just as Fail Safe was the serious nuclear war movie to Dr. Strangelove's nutty nuclear war movie, it could be said that Zero Hour! is the serious airline disaster film to Airplane's nutty one - and what's funny about that is, in Zero Hour! the Robert Stack part is played by none other than Sterling Hayden - who played General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. That's enough to make me lose a precious bodily fluid right there. 

I'm not sure who owns the home video rights to Zero Hour! but both it and Airplane! were both released by Paramount. It would be a trip if those were put together as a double DVD package. If Paramount did that, there would be several people, including me, who would like to buy the home video cheif a drink and shake his hand. So there. 

Watch Airplane! vs. Zero Hour (2) in Comedy  |  View More Free Videos Online at


SteveSchalchlin said...

Once you've seen Airplane, then Zero Hour becomes one of the funniest movies ever made, even though it didn't know it at the time. I think I laughed harder at Zero Hour than I ever did at Airplane, and I laughed pretty hard at Airplane the dozen or more times I watched it. Do they really not acknowledge it in the Airplane credits?

Anonymous said...

Good journey and experience!

flyingbeader said...

Just watched Zero Hour! last night & realized it was almost an exact copy even with the little boy's name of Joey. I kept waiting for Lloyd Bridges to sneak in sniffing glue. LOL!