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Zero Hour!
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Zero Hour!

It all began on a midwinter flight from Western Canada to Toronto in early 1956. On board was a 35-year old British-born Canadian businessman returning home. As he sat there during the long, boring plane flight, he began to wonder. What would happen if the food on the plane were tainted? What if it made both pilots too ill to fly? Since he had been a Royal Air Force pilot during the war, what if he were forced to fly the gigantic commercial craft?

By the time the plane landed, the businessman, Arthur Hailey, had sketched out a rough plot. His story supposed that half the food on board had been tainted and that the only passenger who could land the plane was terrified of flying after a wartime trauma. By March, Hailey had fleshed his story into a television script called Flight Into Danger and sent it to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In 1956, the CBC was four-years old and struggling for a hit that would justify them as more than a local service for British and American television. Flight Into Danger was exactly what they needed. The story required only a handful of sets but was as riveting as any thriller. The CBC's drama supervisor bought the script for $600.

On April 3rd, Flight Into Danger aired on CBC's General Electric Theatre. James Doohan, later to become famous as "Scottie" on Star Trek, played the passenger-turned-reluctant-pilot with Corinne Conley as the stewardess who helps him land the plane and Zachary Scott as the man who has to talk him down by radio. Two million Canadians watched the show and when the British Broadcasting Company showed a kinescope copy of the live broadcast in England, another ten million tuned in.

After being restaged in the U.S. on the Alcoa Hour with MacDonald Carey in the lead, Hailey sold the film rights to his story to independent producer Hall Bartlett. Bartlett re-titled the story Zero Hour! (1957). The lead character, originally called Spencer, was renamed Ted Stryker and was played by Dana Andrews. Linda Darnell (My Darling Clementine, 1946, A Letter to Three Wives, 1949) starred as the wife who is leaving him and Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950, Dr. Strangelove, 1964) portrayed the navigator in the radio tower.

After Zero Hour!, producer-director Bartlett continued in a B-picture vein with the most notable exception being his 1973 adaptation of the cult novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Hailey's novels made an even bigger splash. Hotel in 1965 and particularly Airport in 1968 made him a multi-millionaire. Airport, another problems-in-the-sky story, was filmed in 1970 and sparked the decade's biggest movie fad, the disaster film. Even Hailey's old script was dusted off as part of the craze, being remade in 1971 as a TV-movie called Terror in the Sky.

In 1974, at the height of the disaster film boom, three members of a Los Angeles comedy troupe called Kentucky Fried Theater saw Zero Hour! on a late-night broadcast. Recognizing the film as the perfect material to satirize, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker bought the film rights and began a six-year quest to bring their spoof to the screen. When it came out, Airplane! (1980) was thought to be a send-up of the Airport series. Right author but wrong title; Airplane! is an almost scene-by-scene remake of Zero Hour! The parody¿s success helped hasten the demise of the disaster film phenomenon, a movie-craze that had begun, by a circuitous route, in the mind of a bored Canadian businessman twenty-four years before.

Producer: Hall Bartlett, John C. Champion
Director: Hall Bartlett
Screenplay: Arthur Hailey, Hall Bartlett, John C. Champion
Cinematography: John F. Warren
Film Editing: John C. Fuller
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Ted Dale
Cast: Dana Andrews (Lt. Ted Stryker), Linda Darnell (Ellen Stryker), Sterling Hayden (Capt. Martin Treleaven), Elroy 'Crazylegs' Hirsch (Capt. Bill Wilson), Geoffrey Toone (Dr. Baird), Jerry Paris (Tony Decker), Peggy King (Janet Turner).
BW-81m. Closed captioning.

by Brian Cady

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