January 7, 2013

Zero Hour! (1957)
Starring Ted Stryker

"Joey, you ever been in a cockpit before?"
"No sir!  I've never been up in a plane before!"

Comments:   Okay now this writeup will be short but sweet.  Mainly because there is no way I can describe the beauty of Zero Hour! and do it justice without you actually seeing it for yourself.  

Oh and I know what you are thinking.  You are probably looking at this page and thinking "Mario!  A black and white movie from 1957?  Are you shitting me?  No way am I going to watch a black and white movie from 1957.  You forget, I am a teenager.  And teenagers don't watch black and white movies from 1957."

"How's it handling up there?"
"Sluggish, like a wet sponge."

Well all I can say is... remember in my Top Secret writeup how I mentioned the movie Airplane?  Remember how I said that Airplane is easily one of the funniest movies of the past 40 years?  Remember how I said that it shows up in virtually every single poll ever published which counts down the all time funniest comedy movies?


Airplane is by far one of the funniest movies of all time.  Airplane is by far one of the most beloved movies of all time.  Airplane is by far one of the most often quoted movies of all time.

Yet what most people don't know is that Airplane wasn't even an original movie.  Nope.  Most people think it was a ripoff of Airport, or of Airport '75, but those aren't technically the movie that Airplane is parodying.

No, if you want to see the movie that Airplane was REALLY parodying, you have to dig into the vaults of obscurity and track down a 1957 black and white movie called Zero Hour!

I swear to God, the first time I saw Zero Hour, I laughed so hard I practically fell out of my chair.

"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking."

You have seen Airplane, right?  Please say that you have.  If you have never seen Airplane, please go rent it right now and then come back to this entry.  

The reason Zero Hour! is so hilarious... and this is going to blow your mind if you have never heard it before... is that Zero Hour is the EXACT same movie as Airplane.  Seriously, it is 90% the exact same movie.  Right down to the fact that Airplane stole character names, scenes, camera angles, actor staging, and dialogue.  Hell, Airplane didn't just steal dialogue from Zero Hour, it practically lifted it right off of the page verbatim.  There are entire scenes in Zero Hour that were lifted out word for word and placed into Airplane.

The only difference is that in Zero Hour, the scenes are played perfectly straight.  It is just dialogue spoken as you would hear it in a disaster movie.

In Airplane, they took the exact same dialogue, and they added a little punchline at the end.  Such as the one below.  They basically just took the Zero Hour script and they added a smartass little punchline to the end of everything.

Ted Stryker:  "This plane has four engines.  It's an entirely different kind of flying, altogether."

Ted Stryker:  "This plane has four engines.  It's an entirely different kind of flying, altogether."
Dr. Rumack and Randi (all together):  "It's an entirely different kind of flying."

The first time I saw Zero Hour, it was one of the most surreal movie experiences I have ever had in my life.  Because the only way I can describe it is "Airplane, only without all the punchlines."  You just sit there and watch the movie.  And you recognize the dialogue.  And you wait for the punchlines that you are so familiar with.  But none of them ever come!  And after about five minutes of this it just starts to become hilarious.  Because the whole movie is just Airplane scene after Airplane scene after Airplane scene.  Just without any of the jokes.  It is all setups, no punchlines.  And I am amazed that so few people have ever heard of Zero Hour before.

"Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport. But there are some of us here, particularly me, who would like to buy you a drink and shake your hand."

Seriously, if you know Airplane at all (and pretty much anyone who is a fan of comedy should already know it inside and out), go track down a copy of Zero Hour.  You will not regret it.  I can't possibly describe how surreal it is to hear an air traffic controller say "So help me, we've got to talk him right down to the ground!" and not have a watermelon immediately come crashing down in the background behind him.  Watch Zero Hour for just ten minutes and you will be laughing your ass off.

It is one of the best keep secrets in American comedy movies.

Although this is one of the few Airplane scenes that wasn't stolen from Zero Hour.  This one came from Airport '75.

P.S.  By the way, I know that Zero Hour is a hard movie to track down, but hey, it turns out that somebody has already done most of the work for you.  Somebody over at Youtube has already put together a comparison of Airplane scenes vs Zero Hour scenes.  You can see how close they are and how Airplane just basically used the Zero Hour script.  This isn't all of the funny comparison moments though, there are a lot more than this.  These are just some of the highlights.

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Zero Hour!

"I guess I picked the wrong week to give up smoking."-  6 September 2003
Oh. My. Gawd. TCM had a ZAZ-fest recently, with THE NAKED GUN, TOP SECRET, AIRPLANE!, and...a certain movie that I've never come across before.

ZERO HOUR! is the first time I've watched a movie I've never seen before but could quote the dialogue along with. Examples:

"Sluggish, like a wet sponge."
"I just want to say 'good luck'."
"You're a member of this crew. Can you face some unpleasant facts?"
"Flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle."
"You ever been in a cockpit before?" "No sir, I've never been up in a plane before!"
"The survival of everyone on board depends on just one thing: finding someone on board who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."

Sound familiar? In addition to the verbatim dialogue (and the exclamation point in its title), AIRPLANE! contained many other similarities. The co-pilot played by a former Los Angeles pro-ball player. The female passenger in hysterics. Little Joey visiting the cockpit (where the pilot puts his arm around him with perhaps inappropriate affection before giving him a toy plane). The unmarried stewardess. A wife awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call telling her to come to the airport immediately. Ted Stryker flashing back to the war and recovering in a veterans' hospital. Newspaper headlines prognosticating disaster. Inclement weather. The plane landing while losing its wheels. I could go on, but, really, the only things missing were a jive-talking black duo and a crucial moment in which the heroine's bobby pin saves the day.

ZERO HOUR! was of course never intended to provoke laughs, but how can anyone watch this story now with a straight face? Try watching an old Leslie Nielsen drama without cracking up. It was actually a delight learning where the ZAZ boys got a lot of their material (and AMC occasionally runs AIRPORT 1975, which is where, if I remember correctly, the nun, sick little girl and singing stewardess originated).

If TCM ever runs ZERO HOUR! again, I implore every fan of AIRPLANE! to sit down for eighty minutes and watch it. It's an eye-popping experience, in a whole new way.

This poor movie - 18 May 2006
I defy anyone to watch this film on its own terms. You sit down in front of the TV with the best will in the world, and then Crazylegs Hirsch asks the little boy if he's ever been in a cockpit before, and suddenly you're rolling on the floor.

What's amazing is how many of the jokes in *Airplane* work even though they parody specific moments in this movie (which fairly few people had seen).

"How about some coffee, Johnny?" "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking." "He's a menace to himself and everything else in the air!" "Stewardess? I think the man sitting next to me is a doctor." "It's a different kind of flying altogether."

I do wonder why they dropped the Jerry Paris character, who seems like he would have been a rich subject for parody.

To die for - 18 July 2010
All I can say is, if you saw the comedy hit "Airplane," don't miss "Zero Hour!" on which much of "Airplane" was taken. Of course, this film was intended to be a drama. Thanks to "Airplane," it's almost as much of a comedy as its successor.

I doubt "Zero Hour" was a major Hollywood release - it's an independent production in black and white, and by 1957, Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell were no longer the stars they once had been at Twentieth Century Fox. Both suffered from severe alcoholism, and Darnell additionally committed the mortal sin in Hollywood in those days of turning 30. The two play husband and wife, and you know the story - meat or fish? And don't say fish.

I tried to decide if I would have liked this film on its own merits. I decided that it is over the top with some bad dialogue. The ending is suspenseful. The actors do what they can with some hokey moments.

Surely, the writers could have come up with a better script. And don't call me Shirley.

Zero Hour! - 30 December 2011
I have no excuse for not watching this sooner. You see, I'm a huge AIRPLANE! fan. I've seen it 30-40 (maybe more) times over the past three decades. When I was a kid, I knew it only as a funny movie, perhaps a parody of all those AIRPORT movies I'd never seen. Eventually I learned that it was a parody of this film, but even then I assumed it was only an inspiration, a jumping off point. Oh no. Almost everything in Zero Hour! is referenced in some way in its spoof. The plot is almost entirely the same (the largest differences being in the Ellen/Elaine character). Many of the lines ("Sluggish, like a wet sponge") and even whole passages of dialogue are lifted from it. Shots and musical cues are duplicated. Even things like Joey's outfit and the casting of a pro athlete in the co-pilot role are here. I'm sure almost everyone else who watched it in the past 30 years did so only because of the connection, and even at the time I doubt many people were familiar with it.

That is all to say, it is impossible for me to judge this movie as anything but the blueprint for one of my favorite comedies. In that capacity, it's absolutely hilarious. Every few seconds I was reminded of another terrific gag. But I can try to comment on the film on its own terms. Noir fans might be thrilled to see Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden in the lead roles, but only Hayden brings anything interesting to it. The plot is... gripping, I guess? It's hard to say when you're so familiar with it. There's some terrible use of stock footage, but otherwise it seems reasonably well put together. Oh, I give up. You owe it to yourself to see this if you love Airplane!, and if for some ungodly reason you've never seen Airplane!, watch this first. I have to imagine it can only make both films better.

* My Favorite Scene in Zero Hour!

If you know Airplane at all, it is almost impossible to hear this exchange from Zero Hour! and not laugh:

Dr. Baird:  Unless I can get all these people to a hospital quickly, I can't even be sure of saving their lives.
Janet:  I don't understand.  What is it?
Dr. Baird:  Why, something toxic in that food tonight.  Some kind of bacteria poisoning.

Zero Hour! at the IMDB

Zero Hour! at Wikipedia

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