A friend posted on Facebook a meme featuring a scene from the 1980 comedic film Airplane! I informed my friend that a film made in 1957, a serious drama, was the inspiration behind the comedic film. My friend didn’t know this and I began to wonder, how many other Airplane! fans don’t know about Zero Hour!? Thus, the inspiration behind my classic movie pick for this week.
Arthur Hailey, the writer behind the best-selling novels Airport and Hotel, prior to being a writer, was a Canadian businessman. In the mid-1950’s, while flying home from a business trip, he began to imagine a story. What if on a plane in mid-flight, the passengers and the pilots fall violently ill due to food poisoning, and only one passenger who isn’t ill, a former RAF(Royal Air Force) pilot, who is now afraid to pilot planes, is the only hope for a safe landing? Hailey put his imaginative idea down on paper and successfully sold the story to the CBC-Canadian Broadcasting Company.
The CBC, in it’s beginnings, was simply broadcasting American and British televsion programs and movies to their fellow Canadians, but the fledgling corporation wanted to try and air original programs, set in Canada. Hailey’s story fit the corporation’s new plan and it aired as a tv movie on April 3rd, 1956 and an estimated 2 million Canadians tuned in to watch Flight Into Danger, starring James Doohan, best known as Scottie from Star Trek. The BBC took notice of the ratings hit this telefilm produced, aired it and drew in 10 million viewers. That brought in the Yanks and Flight Into Danger was aired by the Alcoa Hour on NBC with MacDonald Carey as the heroic former pilot who has to land the plane. After these three broadcasting corporations had aired Hailey’s original telefilm idea, he sold the film rights to an independent producer, Hall Bartlett who renamed the telefilm’s title to Zero Hour! and he, along with Arthur Hailey and John C. Champion wrote a new screenplay.
With Barlett set to also direct, it was time to find the cast. Dana Andrews was hired to play the former pilot, Ted Stryker. Linda Darnell was selected to play his wife, Ellen and child actor Ray Ferrell played their son, Joey. Geoffrey Toone played the good doctor, Peggy King played the stewardess, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch(an actual NFL star at the time) played the co-pilot, and Sterling Hayden was hired to play Capt. Treleaven, who has to guide the hapless plane to the ground.
The background of Ted Stryker’s character is a bit different from the character in Airplane! In Zero Hour!, he’s a Canadian who served in the RAF as a pilot during WW II. Near the end of the war, he was in charge of a mission, leading his group of flyers on a bombing raid of Wiesbaden, Germany. The weather is bad, heavy with fog, but Ted doesn’t call off the mission and 6 of his pilots die when their planes crash into the German countryside. Ever since that awful day, Ted has suffered from ptsd: loads of guilt for not calling off the mission and he’s had trouble holding down jobs. He has flown back to his home in Eastern Canada to tell his wife Ellen that a war buddy has agreed to give him a job at the Mid-Canadian Aircraft Company, LTD. in Winnipeg. Ted’s good news turns to bitterness as he finds a “Dear John” letter from Ellen saying she has had it with him and that she is taking their son, Joey and leaving Ted. Ted rushes to the airport and locates Ellen’s flight to Vancouver and is able to get a ticket for the same flight.
If you have seen the movie Airplane!, you know the rest of the story. The creators of Airplane!, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, saw Zero Hour! on tv late one night and they got the idea to make a spoof of this drama. They were able to buy the film’s rights and the rest is comedic film history. Some kind soul has posted to Youtube a selection of scenes from Zero Hour! and comparing them to the more famous scenes from Airplane!
Zero Hour!, from time to time does air on Turner Classic Movies, so check their schedule for it. The film is available at Amazon to buy, in a dvd format, but the price is high! Probably due to it’s elevated “cult” film status among movie fans. It’s also available through TCM’s Shop, but in a dvd set with two other cult film classics, Hot Rods to Hell(which also stars Dana Andrews, ironically!) and Skyjacked. If you love the film Airplane!, seek out Zero Hour! to see where the inspiration for the latter film began!