This week was the third anniversary of Leslie Nielsen’s death, which also marked the definite end of the most brilliant eras in movie spoof history. The period didn’t begin with his induction into the genre, and he certainly helped usher in a wave of weak entries (he even starred in the first movie written by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer), but he is still the actor most associated with these kinds of comedies, mainly due to his collaborations with the trio of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker.
Following his scene-stealing work in their classic Airplane!, they cast him as the lead on a short-lived TV series called Police Squad!. After it was quickly canceled, Nielsen spent time with serious parts in films and TV series before being brought back for the movie spin-off, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!.
Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the movie’s theatrical release. It opened at number one before going on to be among the top-ten grossers that debuted in 1988 (about half its take came following the new year). The success of this action movie parody led to sequels of diminishing quality, but the brand is in its entirety still one of the more celebrated comedy franchises. And this initial installment is still considered one of the top three favorite spoof movies of all time.
To adequately honor all its hilarity would be difficult here, as the gags and jokes in The Naked Gun are so abundant, not just one after the other but one on top of the other. And unlike a lot of its followers, the comedy here is consistently smartly written (even when seemingly dumb or cheap) and almost always perfectly executed. Join us in an attempt to pay tribute to the movie in a few selected scenes, and please share your own favorite moments that we’ve missed.
“Anyone Catch the License Plate?”
Classic cluelessness here from Lt. Frank Drebin (Nielsen) as his own car shifts into gear and nearly mows him down as it takes off outside the police station. He’s not aware at first that it’s his vehicle, but you can tell thanks to one of the actor/character’s greatest extended deadpan moments that he starts to get it by the end of the clip. Better than the humor inherent in his constant oblivious nature is his awkward embarrassment whenever he realizes his mistakes. It’s a more subtle form of comedy, and Nielsen was the master of it.
Student Driver Car Chase/Best Death Scene Of All Time
The big joke in this chase scene is done just long enough to be wholly satisfying while coming a bit close to being overdone. Frank flags down a car with which to follow a bad guy, but it’s a driver’s ed vehicle with an inexperienced student behind the wheel. Once he’s actually in the back seat, there’s not much more to do with the situation for comedy, but the final bit with the hoity-toity John Houseman (who’d died just before appearing in this, Scrooged and Woody Allen’s Another Woman) instructing his pupil on the most important gesture for a driver: flipping the bird. The chase could have continued much longer from there, but to what purpose? Fortunately, the filmmakers decided to just finish the scene off quickly with arguably the best death scene in a movie ever, which also gives us the most awesome “nothing to see here” visual gag.
Meeting of America’s Enemies
Today’s spoof movies have way too many timely celebrity impersonations, but that was once something the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films did really well: finding spot-on lookalikes of world leaders. In this opening bit, we see all of the ’80s most wanted, including Khomeini (Charles Gherardi, also in Back to the Future Part II), Khadafi (Robert LuJane), Arafat (David Katz), Idi Amin (Prince Hughes), and Gorbachev (David Lloyd Austin, who played the Soviet leader in other TV and film gigs, including Rocky IV), who of course gets the necessary birthmark gag. That’s not nearly as amusing as the Ayatollah having a bright orange mohawk. This sort of current event fantasy will be topped and then overdone with the Hot Shots! movies, and maybe to an extent (less current) Inglourious Basterds. This scene is split between two separate videos, the meeting and then Frank’s action hero moment.
“Everywhere I Look, Something Reminds Me Of Her”
Following the airport arrival scene that references The Rules of the Game, Frank and Ed (George Kennedy) drive back to Police Squad, and on the way they pass the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. When I was eleven years old seeing this movie, of course, I thought the gag about a real, large structure resembling boobies was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. Now it’s still funny, even if immature (it’s not like we ever stop noticing this sort of thing, though), but after twenty-five years and more movies under my belt, I also like that there’s a filming location here that’s also seen in Koyaanisqatsi. How about that, mentions of two cinematic masterpieces in a discussion of a Naked Gun scene.
O.J.’s Bad Luck
This would also be in competition for the best death scene if Nordberg (O.J. Simpson) actually died. Instead it’s the possibly best elongated near-death scene as the cop’s execution is ordered by Ricardo Montalban, he’s shot numerous times and then the real misfortune begins as he’s put through a number of plausible (window shut on his fingers) and unlikely (random bear trap) accidents before he falls overboard and into the ocean.
Simpson’s involvement in these movies was, at least for a while, enjoyed differently following the death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and his subsequent trial for their murder — sort of like schadenfreude. Aside from that, though, it’s just good physical comedy from the former football pro. The Z-A-Z team has done a good job of taking star athletes and making them funnymen in their films (sometimes as themselves, a la Reggie Jackson in this movie). He’s no Kareem Abdul Jabar in Airplane!, but Simpson does just fine. I especially enjoy his final bit rolling down the stadium steps.
Umpire Montage/ “I Love L.A.”
Between the bloopers on the Jumbotron (am I the only one who loves the tiger bit even more than the decapitation?) and this montage, the Z-A-Z team pretty much nailed the baseball spoofing quota for all time (regardless of whether we still enjoy Major League). Oh, maybe you don’t appreciate the DustBuster gag today (those things were still a huge deal at the time) and perhaps the sequence of Ed snacking is rather random, but you’ve got all you need in the coaching signals and the pitcher contraband and bat-to-the-face slapstick.
And on top of that, you have Frank doing the moonwalk followed by the only cool Randy Newman song ever to play over a movie montage. Also, Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles, who plays the same role in Austin Powers in Goldmember, European Vacation, and The Rutles: All You Need is Cash and on Saturday Night Live) doing the wave, because obviously Her Majesty doing anything at all besides sitting is humorous. The video below isn’t the best quality, so you might be better off watching this one followed by this one.
Now watch the whole movie to refresh your memory and tell us about the scenes you love.