Thursday, September 24, 2009
The Point of No Return - Zero Hour! - 1957
“Zero Hour!” (1957) has a legacy that ironically may represent a great change in our culture with respect to humor. The movie is a drama, but its famous parody, “Airplane!” (1980) is an off-the-wall comedy that points to how ridicule has overtaken silliness and slapstick as comedic expression. To be sure, “Airplane!” is very silly, too, but the joke is on the writer and the actors of “Zero Hour!”
The writer was Arthur Hailey, who gave us the iconic “Airport” (1970), which was followed by several sequels. Movies about airplane disasters obviously tend to be formulaic, and this is the chief source of humor for “Airplane!” In almost any plane disaster movie we have the passenger who shrieks with panic and must be subdued, the ill passenger needing emergency medical treatment, the thwarted romance of some member of the flight crew, and maybe throw in a nun if you’ve got one. “Airplane!” most pointedly uses the same name for its main character (though changes the spelling), and blatantly throws in (as gently as a javelin) the astoundingly stupid line from “Zero Hour!” about finding someone who can fly the plane and who did not have fish for dinner.
Peel back the years to the 1950s and you have plane disaster movies that focused on another aspect, one that the 1970s movies did not have to worry about: the point of no return.
This aspect, and used as a line in “Zero Hour!”, “The High and the Mighty” (1954), and “No Highway in the Sky” (1951) - see previous post, was a factor in aviation at the time when propeller planes like DC4s and DC6s had a limited flying range, and once past the reckoned “point of no return” a plane in trouble could not turn around and return to its original taking off point without running out of fuel. It had to keep going no matter what the problem. This was most seriously creepy in “The High and the Mighty” in which the plane crossed the Pacific Ocean, and also happened in “No Highway in the Sky” in which the plane crossed the Atlantic.
There is another meaning to “the point of no return” of course that is allegorical, in that the characters must face not only the challenge of survival before them, but must face their own fears, shortcomings, sins, or a combination of all three, to earn new lives for themselves.
The notion of a “point of no return” seems archaic as flights serving full meals with china and cutlery, pilots that cheerfully greet visitors to the cockpit, and the tracking of air traffic not with computers, but by pinning little toy airplanes to a paper wall map.
“Zero Hour!” begins with a flashback, where Ted Stryker, played by Dana Andrews, a fighter pilot with the Canadian forces during World War II, leads his squadron into a disastrous raid in which some of them are killed. Long after the war Dana Andrews still carries the guilt on his shoulders, and with his wife, Linda Darnell, and son, moves from job to job and town to town, unable to settle down to anything. He shirks any responsibility like the plague.
Linda Darnell has had enough, takes their boy, and boards a plane to leave her husband. Andrews follows, gets a seat on the same plane. When it takes off, we see the sickening fear in his face as he relives another war flashback, and he takes himself to the restroom. He could still be his character Fred Derry from “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) whose famous post-traumatic stress incident was something he had to face before he could move on. There is a genuine quality of misery about Dana Andrews in this role, and certainly some other roles he played, that conveys some vague but deep, private hell.
The plane is full, but beyond brief cameo types of appearances, we don’t really get a back story on most of the other passengers. The only standout among them is Jerry Paris, who later became known as the neighbor on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. He has the floundering relationship with the stewardess, and once they have faced danger together, they will patch things up. He proves himself adept at entertaining children with a glove puppet like Señor Wences.
The matronly woman scornful of the whiskey-drinking Scotsman you might recognize as Hope Summers, who played Millie the store owner on the TV western “The Rifleman”.
More famous than any of these at the time was probably the pilot, played by Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, who had just finished his last season with the Los Angeles Rams, and who some years later would be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Crazylegs, with his blond wavy hair and cleft in his rugged chin, has that hero quality about him that reminds one of Dudley Do-right.
Mr. Andrews pleads with his wife to come back to him, but Miss Darnell lets him have it between the eyes with the weary request that he stop running and “make a stand somewhere.” She gently but firmly tells him, “I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.”
This is only one in a string of hard knocks Dana gets this awful day. The only good thing about this rotten day is he didn’t have fish for dinner.
The uniformed perky stewardess gives everyone a choice of halibut or lamb for their meal. Everybody who eats the fish, including the whiskey-drinking Scotsman, Dana Andrews’ little son, and both the pilot and co-pilot, are going to be violently ill. Infected with a deadly bacteria, the halibut is causing everybody severe bellyaches, and eventual unconsciousness. But Dana Andrews, who had the lamb, is left with a huge headache. He’s only one with flying experience. He has to fly the plane.
Sterling Hayden is brought in to give Dana Andrews instructions over the radio on how to fly this big plane and most importantly, how to land it. With his constant barking of orders, and his chain-smoking (he has the funniest line of the movie when he remarks, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop smoking,”) Hayden has kind of a maniacal quality to him that is just ripe for parody.
This trans-Canada flight has passed the point of no return. They must push on to Vancouver, but the airport is fogged in and they must wait until the weather clears. There are a lot of realistic shots of the plane in flight, close-ups on the control panel, and outdoor shots of the airport and tower where the plane will eventually come down.
The doctor, one of those professorial, noble types who speaks very proper stage English, is the one with the awful line, “The life of everybody on board depends on just one thing: finding somebody who can not only fly this plane but who didn’t have fish for dinner!”
He passes pills to the sick passengers and plugs Crazylegs with morphine. Though the morphine is intended to relieve his stomach pain, a guy loaded with narcotics probably shouldn’t be flying a plane, so one wonders about this doctor. But regardless, Crazylegs is down for the count, and neither he, nor his co-pilot who was such a pig he asked for two helpings of the halibut, are able to fly the plane.
Dana Andrews (Thank heavens for a meat eater!) is brought to the cockpit most unwillingly. This is not a case of a man deciding to save the day and prove to his wife he’s a hero. Dana would rather be having a root canal than fly this plane. What’s interesting is that he needs another pair of hands to work the radio, and his wife is drafted for the job. It’s a refreshing change not to have the woman sitting in terror and anticipation, twisting a hanky in her hands, but rather flying the plane with him. However Miss Darnell is unaccountably calm through the entire adventure. She shows very little of Mr. Andrews’ acute (and entirely appropriate) anxiety.
Pretty soon Dana and everybody in the tower control room are sweating buckets. Sterling Hayden has no confidence in Andrews, believing he will “fold up” under the pressure. Dana comes close to folding, but he slowly manages to get a grip on himself and the plane. There is a really scary sequence when they nearly crash into mountain peaks and they lose radio contact, and another very exciting sequence when he brings the plane in for a landing. Sterling Hayden wants him to keep the plane up in the air another couple of hours until the weather clears, but Dana makes a command decision to bring the plane down because the bellyachers are dying.
Some newspaper editor shows us two possible headlines, one announcing all dead, the other announcing all safe. It is succinctly gruesome.
The landing is horrific, but when the dust clears, we see Dana Andrews has regained his wife’s respect, and his own courage.
Another aspect to these airplane movies that eventually became so formulaic a couple of decades later is the illustration of our sense of interdependence on each other in times of crisis. How do come out of yourself and your own problems to help people who need your help? How do you help yourself if you’re the only one who can?
Dilemmas not necessarily worth laughing at. I make no complaints against “Airplane!”, but it belongs to another era. Parts of it are very funny, but its parody is based on sarcasm, a kind of self-superior mockery. Such “humor” is rampant these days. Check out the dismally arrogant tone of stand-up comedy, the 101 put-downs that comprise the average TV sitcom script. When did humor rely almost solely on sarcasm and ridicule rather than the original and creative, open-hearted silly playing out of human foibles? When did we cross that point of no return?
But this may be a very old debate. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the defensive Mr. Darcy observes, “The wisest and the best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”
“Certainly,'' Elizabeth Bennett retorts, “there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”
I can laugh at Sterling Hayden, but never Dana Andrews.