The character of Lt. Frank Drebin may not have found his roots in The Naked Gun, but he certainly shot up after it. If you want to witness his origins, you’ll have to travel back to 1980, when his name was not Frank Drebin but Rumack, and he wasn’t a police officer but a very competent doctor, who not only knew how to battle food poisoning but also how to engage in heavy non sequitur. Rumack became so popular among the fans of Airplane! (1980) that Leslie Nielsen adopted his characteristics for Frank, who established himself as the blueprint for every comedic character Nielsen performed till his death in 2010.
And the characters were many, from as many movies, most of which were little more than frail attempts at paying spiritual homage to The Naked Gun. Nielsen starred in the two inevitable sequels (both of which, though not as illogically witty as this one, were just as amusing), followed in quick succession by a string of nonsensical farces like Spy Hard (1996), Wrongfully Accused (1998), a number of the Scary Movie instalments, and the worst, 2001: A Space Travesty (2000), which was among the most miscalculated disasters ever committed to celluloid and contained Nielsen’s most resilient performance, not least because he played a character so ingrained into his acting abilities.
But the best has to be Frank Drebin, who careens through the plot of Naked Gun. Any other police officer would be down on the ground, huffing and puffing, on the verge of surrender by the end of this movie; Frank is not only up and about, he also manages to shake the love of his life out of a terrible trance and walk out of the movie with her in his embrace, not before sending an injured colleague (O.J. Simpson), fresh out of the hospital, down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair and somersaulting over a barricade. This is funny not because the poor man is somersaulting, but because no one in the scene seems to notice that he is.
This is the kind of manic energy The Naked Gun relishes. Its key to success is its ignorance of any sort of coherent cause and effect. Most of it centres around Frank, who wanders from scene to scene, causing all sorts of trouble, blurting offence and insensitivity, without knowledge or care. He is so casual, so unknowing, that he can’t really be blamed for all that goes horribly wrong so quickly. Consider the scene in Vincent Ludwig’s office, where a routine search in the dead of night turns into a terrible inferno, and Frank leaves the fiasco accused of “sexual assault with a concrete dildo”. All the parts are in place, and the scene builds up with the dread of a classic Film Noir. There is even time for an American Express plug — Frank tries to break into Vincent’s office with a credit card and only succeeds when he pulls out his AmEx. But then observe the way the scene gradually descends into comedic mayhem. Let’s walk through it. Frank opens a desk drawer and exclaims “Bingo”. His find is a bingo card. He approaches the security camera console and accidentally activates an automated piano. Then, in a rare moment of skill, he snatches a piece of paper from under a house of cards without rattling it. So far so good. He reads what’s on the paper. It’s something important. Vincent might be a bad guy. Frank can’t see too good in the dark. He flicks open his lighter for a better look. Before you can say “smart move” the paper is alight, then the curtains, then the carpet. And then the automated piano comes to life again. The tune makes the scene farcical. Frank stumbles around and knocks over a cabinet of antique vases. He has time to catch them in rhythm with the music, one he catches behind his back. He tries to rescue a priceless painting from the lips of the fire but falls over and impales it on a cactus. He leaves via the window, some thirty floors up, and traces the edge of the building to a buxom lady’s apartment, where he inadvertently gropes her full chest and collapses into her room holding the severed concrete penis of one of the building’s statues. By the time the movie cuts to the next scene, it’s business as usual for Frank.
The Naked Gun builds itself on scenes like this. It is goofy and stupid in the most obvious ways, and yet it finds room to be ridiculously funny. It accelerates otherwise mundane scenarios and underlines the quieter moments with non sequitur, exercised not only by Nielsen but by most of the cast. Priscilla Presley presents a subtle, efficient comedic touch as Jane, Frank’s squeeze; her appearances are never scene-stealing, but the composure with which she responds to, and sometimes counters Frank steals her away from the trap of overacting. In fact, some could argue that she underacts. Ricardo Montalban, made famous by his sinister turn as Khan from the Star Trek movies, is sufficiently evil as Vincent Ludwig, but he too knows that the movie requires less evil and more flexibility, so he adjusts accordingly. All the characters are pitched at the right level by director David Zucker and their respective actors, the right level of insanity, so it’s remarkably unchallenging for us to connect with them, to laugh at them.
Zucker was once part of the comedy trio made up of himself, his brother Jerry, and Jim Abrahams. Together they helmed a great number of comedies throughout the 80s but have since disbanded to direct their own likeminded films. Jerry Zucker made Rat Race (2001), a film unseen by me. Abrahams took charge of both the Hot Shots! films and did about as well with them as he could. David, the most prolific, directed the best of the Scary Movies, finding a place in them for Nielsen to once again revive his bumbling tendencies. None of their movies match The Naked Gun in terms of scope and unadulterated innocence. Frank is a walking disaster; thankfully Nielsen transforms him into a man we can love. He’s not an easy character to play, certainly not one easy to play convincingly, but observe Nielsen’s wrinkles and pursed lips. Observe his eyes as he scans a room before destroying it. Observe the way he responds to straightforward questions with mismatched answers. He is conducting a deadpan acting masterclass. Here’s an example:
Jane: “I hear police work is dangerous.”
Frank: “It is. That’s why I carry a big gun.”
Jane: “Aren’t you afraid it might go off accidentally?”
Frank: “I used to have that problem.”
Jane: “What did you do about it?”
Frank: “I just think about baseball.”
It doesn’t take a novelist to write dialogue like this, but it works so well for the movie, which focuses much of its spoken humour on such exchanges. And then of course there are the sight gags and the slapstick that come hard and relentlessly fast.
Everything overflows during the climax at an Angels’ game, where Queen Elizabeth II is the guest of honour but is none too pleased about being so. What delightful raucousness this sequence is. It is great testament to Frank’s skill that despite being cut from the force, losing his girl, and facing arrest, he still manages to singlehandedly make a mockery of The Star-Spangled Banner, the police department and the entire game of baseball. He is an unstoppable force. Kinda like a superhero for the slapstick comedy crowd.