Several Great Comedy Climaxes in Airplanes

Today is National Aviation Day, a perfect time to publish a long germinating post about slapstick comedy films with climaxes or other crucial scenes in airplanes. For the sake of sanity, we restrict ourselves pretty much to slapstick (and not, say, a heroic action finish to a comedy). Just click on the links to learn more about the films and their stars!

A Dash Through the Clouds (1912) 

Large canvas mayhem was Mack Sennett’s specialty, as was hitching his wagon to the latest novelty to sell tickets. Three years after the Wrights brothers’ first flight he hired real life aviator Philip Parmalee to play Fred Mace’s rival for Mabel Normand’s affections in this Biograph comedy. Though Sennett practically invented slapstick, there’s very little of it in this film — stunt flying and related special effects were largely in cinema’s future at this early date. Sadly, Pamalee died about a month after this comedy was filmed — in a plane crash.

When Love Took Wings (1915)

In this Fatty Arbuckle comedy, our hero (Arbuckle) battles several rivals for the hand of real-life wife Minta Durfee. At the climax he resorts to kidnapping her, flying away with her in a bi-plane, and throwing bombs down on the guys pursuing him (including Keystone Kops) in automobiles and on bicycles.

Numerous Larry Semon Comedies (ca. 1917-27)

Larry Semon was the king of epic, expensive gags as well as the Rajah of Repetition. Thus it should come as no surprise that a) he would employ lots of airplane destruction for his comic climaxes, or b) he would do that a lot. Later comedy tribute films of the 1960s often implied that planes were a big factor in silent comedy climaxes, but in reality there were not. Not only was it expensive, but it was also contrary to the philosophies of most of the major comedians. Chaplin, for example, preferred intimate comedy that was about character and behavior. Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton both loved large scale thrill comedy, so it’s a little surprising that neither of them went airborn during the silent age. But they also both did their own stunts, and thus they (or their insurance companies) probably decided that hanging off of airplanes and flying them under bridges and into barns was too far to go for a laugh. But Larry Semon, who was their rival at the box office for many years, had no such compunctions, mostly because he did NOT do his owns stunts — he employed stunt men for that. Some purists dislike the fact, but I don’t care a jot. I love Semon’s comedies, which he literally went broke giving to the world. He spent big dough on airplane gags in films such as The Bell Hop (1921), The Barnyard (1923), The Wizard of Oz (1925), The Cloud Hopper (1925) and The Stunt Man (1927). Posterity may be glad of his sacrifice.

Feet First (1930)

That said, Harold Lloyd’s first full talkie does give us an aeronautical scene, and already we are in stock contrast to the silent days. In the silent days, stuff was real. The balance of just about all of the remaining films we’ll be talked are faked on sound stages, in mock airplanes that never leave the ground. Progress of a kind, though not in terms of spectacle. In Feet First, Lloyd returned to his thrill comedy roots. Hidden in a mail sack, he is delivered by airplane to the top of a skyscraper, where he gets to revive a lot of the comedy he had done in silent pictures. Thus a plane brings him to the setting of his climax; though it’s not the setting itself.

Three Stooges comedies

Just a couple of Three Stooges comedies I’ll mention. Plane Nuts (1933) was a musical MGM short that coupled them with their original leader, Ted Healy. A decade later the trio starred in Dizzy Pilots (1943), in which they play The Wrong Brothers, whose mission is to test an experimental plane called The Buzzard, whose large size is clearly meant as a parody of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose.

The Hitch Hiker (1934)

Just one hilarious airplane gag in this Harry Langdon short for Educational which I’ll mention. Harry has a cold.  His continual coughs and sneezes and the smelly mustard plaster he puts on are so annoying to fellow passenger Vernon Dent that Dent puts a parachute on Harry and throws him off the airplane.

Riding on Air (1937)

The plot of this Joe E. Brown comedy is way too convoluted to lay out here, but the climax does indeed involve Elmer (Joe) piloting an airplane, parachuting out after a hair-raising air battle, and getting the girl.

Flying Deuces (1939)

The climax of this Laurel and Hardy classic, most of which is set in Paris and in a French foreign legion unit in desert North Africa, is indeed a bunch of zany shenanigans in the cockpit of an airplane, with the boys, who do not know how to fly one, at the controls. The scene is what gives this film its title, which is a play on “Flying Aces”.

The Great Dictator (1940)

As we said, Chaplin didn’t bother with airplanes during his silent period, but his first talkie includes a memorable comedy scene set in one, where he and Reginald Gardiner are flying in a World War I bi-plane which they do not realize is upside down.

Never Give a Sucker An Even Break (1941)

W.C. Fields had memorably flown an autogyro in International House (1933), but that was just a sight gag. But Never Give a Sucker an Even Break has that great scene where Fields’ whiskey falls off the back of the plane and Fields’ dives after it! Priorities, priorities. He could have let it go, but life without liquor is not worth living!

Keep ’em Flying (1941) 

The requisite Abbott and Costello air force comedy, the inevitable sequel to Buck Privates and In the Navy. Naturally, Lou will find himself at the wheel of a plane he does not know how to fly.

A Night in Casablanca (1947) 

This was not the Marx Brothers’ usual bailiwick, but they did end A Night in Casablanca with the three of them in an airplane cockpit with Harpo at the wheel. Go West was the only one of their previous features that had employed a similar comedy-action scene as the climax. I don’t think such scenes are anyone’s finest moment — it’s even farther from such in the case of the normally brilliant Marx Brothers.

Clipped Wings (1953)

The Bowery Boys were always remaking Abbott and Costello pictures, and here they do Keep ‘Em Flying, with the obligatory “guys-aloft-in-an-out-of-control-airplane” scene as climax. The boys just happen to land in the spy’s hideout in the end, saving the day. The poster art makes me wonder if Stanley Kubrick stole the Slim Pickens bomb-busting scene from Dr. Strangelove from the Bowery Boys!

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

This comedy classic actually has TWO comedy airplane scenes cross cut with many others. In one thread, Sid Caesar and Edie Adams are piloted by Ben Blue in a creaky, disintegrating bi-plane. In another, Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney are forced to take over the stick when drunken amateur pilot Jim Backus blacks out.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) 

An entire movie of bi-plane and other early airplane comedy, featuring Terry-Thomas and others. It’s bloated and not terribly funny — a missed opportunity.

1941 (1979) 

John Belushi plays fighter pilot Wild Bill Kelso looking for Japanese planes to fight in the skies over Southern California in the days after Pearl Harbor, causing much mayhem. In another subplot, Nancy Allen plays a girl who gets horny whenever she is in an airplane, causing Tim Matheson to keep luring her into airplanes. There are climaxes and then there are climaxes. And on that elevated note, we leave you.

For more on slapstick film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,