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Zero Hour!

Year: 1957
Production Co: Bartlett-Champion Productions
Studio: Paramount
Director: Hall Bartlett
Writer: Arthur Hailey/Hall Bartlett/John C. Champion
Cast: Dana Andrews, Sterling Hayden, Linda Darnell, Geoffrey Toone, Peggy King, Ray Ferrell

If you know enough about the history of one of Hollywood's most impactful comedies, you know almost everything about this movie. If not, you might be wondering why a forgotten drama thriller from the late 1950s is so important.

Two brothers and their best friend from Madison, Wisconsin who wanted to make movies for a living recorded late night TV to see what cheesy TV ads they could parody in their anthology movie. One of the movies they captured was Zero Hour!. Instead of fast forwarding through it to the ads like they usually did, they couldn't take their eyes off it.

The script they wrote was virtually a carbon copy of the story, characters and premise, only with jokes. Instead of 'what was it we had for dinner tonight?', 'we had a choice, steak or fish,', 'yes I remember, I had steak,' spoken between Geoffrey Toone as Dr Baird and Peggy King as stewardess Janet Turner, the conversation in the new script – as spoken between Leslie Nielsen's Dr Rumack and Julie Hagerty's stewardess Elaine Dickinson – ends with Neilsen deadpanning 'yes, I remember, I had lasagne.'

1980's Airplane! was a remake of Zero Hour! to the extent that Paramount had to buy the rights to the film so Abrahams and the Zuckers could make it. Narratively and thematically they're indivisible, one just has gags in it.

In and of itself, Zero Hour! is nothing special. Hollywood tough guy Dana Andrews plays Ted Striker, an ex navy pilot who lost his squadron in a raid over German territory during the Second World War and still suffers crippling PTSD from the incident.

His wife Ellen (Linda Darnell) has had enough, taking their son Joey (Ray Ferrell) across Canada for a new life ('I came home early and found your note, I guess you meant for me to read it later').

Ted is determined not to lose his family, buying a ticket on the flight they're on to try to convince Ellen to give him one more chance. But fate steps in when food poisoning lays waste to the flight crew and Ted, the only one on board with flying experience, has to overcome his fears, land in Vancouver despite the large passenger plane being nothing like the single engine fighters he's used to ('it's an entirely different kind of flying... altogether') and do it all with the bad weather closing in.

No nonsense operators on the ground have to talk Ted in (and yes, one of them picked the wrong week to quit smoking) and with a bit of luck and a lot of guts, he might just bring everyone home alive.

If you watch Zero Hour! in a vacuum, it won't stay with you long, just another overcooked, very theatrical drama from the postwar period where the men are all stoic and forthright with cigarettes in hand and the women are all shot with frosted lenses, tears dancing on the edges of their eyelids.

But if you know and love Airplane! as much as any right minded movie fan should this is a goldmine, the equivalent of the movie matinee serials that inspired Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There's nothing funny about it or in it, but you'll burst out laughing every time you recognise a line, scene or cliché that found its way completely intact into Airplane!

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