Abrahams & the Zuckers Week, Day 2: Airplane!

Speaking of "uplifting activity recently," did you know that this season, among all the mess that's going on around the world, Paramount has started a new Paramount Presents label, giving new, superior blu-ray editions to some of their biggest catalog titles?  And one of the titles we've already gotten is, hey, Jim Abrahams and David & Jerry Zucker's Airplane!  They've given it a new 4k remaster, fancy new packaging and fresh special features.  So let's see just how much better it is.
You might be surprised to know that Airplane!, as we know it now, was originally intended to play as the centerpiece to another Kentucky Fried Theater-style movie, where it would essentially be a short parody film surrounded by more sketches.  But I think history has shown they made the right choice.  Even though nobody watches Airplane! to get caught up in the drama of a commercial flight in danger of crash landing, having a central narrative to hang everything on does keep the viewer engaged.  With constantly rotating sketches, any joke that falls flat feels like dead air.  Here, the ride is at least smoother until the next bit, that'll hopefully be funnier.  And of course if Airplane! is known for anything, it's known for being packed to the brim with non-stop gags, so it's never a long wait.
Part of what makes Airplane! work so well is that it really nails its target.  It's full of great character actors who were in so many of these dry 70s films as legit straight men, not comic actors.  Veterans like Robert Stack, Peter Graves, James Hong, Barbara Billingsley, Lloyd Bridges... and of course Leslie Nielsen wound up becoming a comedy icon after his pitch perfect performance here.  Then, of course, they packed the film with outrageous cameos and great comics in tiny roles all around them, including David Leisure, Jimmie Walker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ethel Merman, plus their own Kentucky Fried people, like Stephen Stucker and, of course, themselves.  What's more, their two leads, Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty, turned out to be brilliant discoveries.  And while I can't of course vouch for the veracity of every line and sight gag in a feature film that's carrying a record number of them, the writing overall holds up surprisingly well, especially compared to the litany of similar films it inspired, even most of those by its own creators.
Paramount initially released Airplane! as a pretty nice, anamorphic widescreen DVD in 2000.  There have been plenty of repackagings and arbitrary reissues over the years, but the next version with an actually updated disc was the 2005 'Don't Call Me Shirley' special edition with additional extras.  In 2011, Paramount put it out on blu, and that's been our sole option until now.  Again, there have been reissues, double-features and alternate packaging, but it's always been the same old blu.  Until this summer, thanks to the new Paramount Presents line, which has restored the film in 4k for their new latest 40th Anniversary Edition, available in standard packaging or steelbook.  As you can see in the scan above, I chose the latter.
1) 2005 US Paramount DVD; 2) 2011 US Paramount BD; 3) 2020 US Paramount BD.
For whatever reason, Paramount perpetually insists on releasing Airplane! in 1.78:1, even though it surely should be matted to 1.85:1.  But oh well, whatever.  It's been that way since the earliest DVD... although with a smidgen of pillar-boxing in the overscan areas, the DVDs have technically been 1.77:1.  But while the framing stays virtually the same (The DVD actually shows slivers more around some of its edges, but a bit less along the top), the picture quality keeps on improving from generation to generation.  It goes without saying that the DVD is softer than the blus, but let's say it anyway, because it really looks fuzzy by comparison.  The BD is sharper and pulls out more detail (look at Graves' hair in the second set of shots, for example) that was washed out of the standard def transfer.  It looks lightly tweaked, perhaps with some kind of unsharpening tool, but honestly, by 2011 standards, it was quite good, not a blu calling for an upgrade.  But as the age of 4k rolled around, we began to see how much better blus could look, and now it's Airplane!'s turn.  Grain is much more natural and the entire experience feels more film-like, as opposed to the waxiness of the DVD and tinniness of the old blu.  Whatever digital tinkering they did in 2011 is gone, and the colors are deeper and more authentic.  Black levels, too.  It's just a more attractive, satisfying watch.

One drawback of these new editions, I suppose, is revisionist audio.  The original 2000 DVD gave the film a new 5.1 remix, and part of the benefit of the 'Don't Call Me Shirley' DVD was they inclusion of the original stereo mix, along with the 5.1.  It also had optional English and Spanish subtitles and a French dub.  Well, for whatever reason, the blu-rays have dumped the stereo track, only giving us the 5.1.  They bumped it up to DTS-HD (on both the 2011 and 2020 editions), but that's all we get, at least for English.  The 2011 also had French, Portuguese and Spanish dubs with English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, while the 2020 has a German dub with English, HoH, French, German and Japanese subs.
Special features complicate matters, too.  The 2000 DVD started with an excellent audio commentary by the Zuckers, Abrahams, and producer Jon Davidson.  It also had the trailer.  The 'Don't Call Me Shirley' edition added a "Long Haul" branching option, where you could watch the film with pop-up videos interviewing the cast and crew.  It was pretty fantastic, talking to nearly everybody, from the biggest stars to the non-professional bit players, as well as showing otherwise unavailable deleted scenes and outtakes.  But "Long Haul" was right, it turns the movie into a 4-hour viewing experience.  It also came in a slip cover and included an option to get your own inflatable Otto autopilot.  And the initial blu just ported all of the extras over in SD to their HD disc.

I was wondering how Paramount Presents would treat the Long Haul footage, and disappointingly but unsurprisingly, they dropped it.  And it's a shame, because it's terrific, although the "haul" was tiresome, especially if you'd just watched the film normally first.  But here's the thing I found.  You could easily just rip the disc (DVD or blu; it's all SD either way), stick the interviews files into an editor like Windows Movie Maker, and it plays wonderfully as a roughly 75-minute documentary.  Even without the context of the feature, and each clip just playing in the order they're found on the disc, it's very enjoyable and coherent.  I ripped it to a blank disc and called it "The Direct Flight."  😉
The Long Haul documentary
And I'm especially glad for that DVDR now that the 40th Anniversary Edition let it go.  I've just slipped it into the left-hand side of my nifty new steelbook, because to me it's really essential.  The other extras are great, but don't include all the great material found here.  But, to be fair, I have to point out that the 2020 blu came up with some new special features.  There's a roughly 35 minute Q&A recorded at a screening with Abrahams and the Zuckers, which is good though a bit redundant.  There's also a new, retrospective featurette with Abrahams and the Zuckers, which is nice but completely redundant.  I'm happy to get them, but they don't hold a candle to the Long Haul.  Also, just a final, niggling disappointment, they dropped the trailer, which is a shame, because it had a funny Jaws bit unique to the trailer.
But none of that changes the fact that this is good news.  The new transfer is great and hey, I'm happy to take those new extras even if they're not amazing.  I'm a little disappointed we still didn't get the original audio track, but it's a sweet upgrade either way (especially since it's not like the 2011 BD had it).  I'd just say that, in addition to getting this, you should still hang onto or track down an older edition with the Long Haul.  The good news there is the market has been flooded with them, so they're easy to find and super cheap.  And this new Paramount Presents line itself is good news.  I just love to see a major studio show renewed interest in their catalog titles; I hope this is an indication of the future, not a brief blip on the radar.  But either way, I'm grabbing what I can right now in the moment.

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