Psychotronic Ketchup: Zero Hour! (1957)

Zero Hour!
Director: Hall Bartlett // Paramount, 1957 [DVD]

Cinema 4 Rating: 5

It wasn't until halfway through this film that I started to think of the title in more than just the traditional way, where the term serves to denote the beginning of a military operation or as announcement that the moment for action has arrived. Watching the sweat drip off the furrowed brow of the flustered but always determined Dana Andrews as he attempts to land a plane full of ptomaine-poisoned passengers, including the actual flight crew, I wondered if the studio or the author (Arthur Hailey, who would go on to tremendous fame as the creator of the Airport series of disaster books/films -- think of this one as a test flight, which Hailey actually based on his own teleplay of the year before) actually intended the title to take on the double meaning that it does. After all, they do cast their hero, Ted Stryker, a down-on-his-luck ex-fighter captain tormented by the death of most of his squadron in WWII, as a complete nebbish who can't keep a job for more than a few months, who is about to lose his wife and kid, and who cannot accept any responsibility whatsoever. Then, when the circumstances are right and all the planets are aligned perfectly against him, he gets another moment to shine, and he has to come through or else all will be lost (..."And this includes your son Joey, too!," he is reminded, more than once.) It truly becomes the "hour" for this "zero"...

This quandary surrounding the title is much like the uneasy certainty over whether the makers of this film are actually aware of just how campy this film plays to the audience. Acting styles from past eras always seem this way to modern eyes, though I am sure the actors were aware of the cheesy nature of the dialogue and storyline. But there is something else here at work, that is bigger than the filmmakers could ever have imagined when this film was produced. If the name of uneasy Capt. Ted Stryker gives you a nudge, or perhaps if I place the images of a boy named Joey palling about creepily with the pilots in the cockpit, or even the aforementioned plane full of near-death food poisoned passengers, maybe you will pick up on this circumstance of which I am hinting. If not, how about I mention an edgy, nicotine-addicted captain who alternately fights and talks Stryker down to the ground, but says "It looks like I picked the wrong week to give up cigarettes!" as he lights up another one? Bring anything to mind?

That's right. Zero Hour! is the chief and extremely camp source for the classic comedy Airplane!, and it is nearly all here: the face-slapping of the hysterical female passenger by the stewardess; the deadpan doctor who tries to keep everything in the back of the plane on an even keel; and even Johnny the office boy, who is asked "How about some coffee?" (though in this case, he actually does get the coffee, unlike the late Stephen Stucker, who merely blasts back "No, thank you!") OK, so there is no singing nun or dying girl from whom she can rip out the IV with her wayward guitar, or even a jive-translating Mrs. Cleaver, but Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (ZAZ) had to add some elements for originality. And they certainly switched some characters about, giving Stryker a past with a comely stewardess, taking away his wife, and making Joey just some kid on the plane. But, watching Zero Hour!, there are at least a couple dozen points where the dialogue causes the corresponding punchlines in Airplane!, or at least the immediate variants to that dialogue, to go rushing joyously through one's brain. If one is aware of the connection between the two films, though, then it blows past the walls of impartiality and makes it impossible to judge or enjoy the source film strictly on its decent B-movie merits.

ZAZ were brutal in their dissection of the older film (which they bought the rights to for the purpose of making their own film), but I didn't realize just how intricate their spoofing was until I picked up on the name of Hall of Fame footballer Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch in Zero Hour's credits. Seeing this, I immediately thought, "I hope he is playing part of the crew." Why? Because this would explain to me why ZAZ got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a rather stiff actor, to play co-pilot Roger Murdock. The result is that the co-pilot role in each film is filled by a world-famous athlete. Maybe it is mentioned on the commentary track somewhere on the Airplane! DVD -- I don't know; I rarely listen to commentaries, finding they can often destroy the mystique behind certain films, though I am sure this one would be fun -- but I am certain this is completely on purpose.

And quite the opposite of what Arthur Hailey and his compatriots probably expected or could ever imagine when they made this golden age disaster flick. Of course, what they made was just as funny, just in a different way...


I've been wanting to pick this up(and the rest of the camp collection) since I saw they were out there, now I'm doubly excited. We actually did a story on this and Airplane a week or two ago(it was part of our weekly video view... the morning is light on news sometimes).

As for commentaries, I don't watch them as much as I used to, and refuse to on some movies where I treasure the experience too much, but I do think they have their uses. I've discovered that usually more background info about the making of a certain film often increases my enjoyment of the finished product. I have several books and documentaries about David Lynch, and the more I know about him and his artistic style the more I enjoy his films.

However, if I see the commentary is nothing but 'this is how we shot and lit this' then I tend to turn it off.

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