**Spoilers about George Gipp ahead**
The other day I was watching Airplane! with some friends. For the first time, I caught that the film includes a hilarious spoof of Knute Rockne’s “Win One for the Gipper” speech, that speech leaders of underdogs everywhere like to imitate. Popularized by Knute Rockne-All American (1940), the speech was given by the famous Notre Dame football coach when his team was losing against Army in 1928. In the speech he references his former player, George Gipp, the National Football Hall of Famer who died tragically in his mid-twenties. Pat O’Brien plays Rockne beautifully in the movie, capturing some of the cadence of his words, and using understated sadness where another would have gone for drama. Eight years after his famous player’s death, Rockne discusses Gipp’s last words with his losing team (in real life, and in the film):
“I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years,” says Rockne (O’Brien). “None of you ever knew George Gipp (Ronald Reagan). It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame… And the last thing he said to me: ‘Rock,’ he said ‘sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper…’ I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock,’ he said – ‘but I’ll know about it – and I’ll be happy.'”
Of course, the team wins, and history is made.
Ronald Reagan’s deathbed scene in the film, of course, meant he was associated with the name George Gipp, as different as they were. Gipp, phenomenally talented as a football player, was very modest about his accomplishments. He was an interesting man, too: actually preferred another sport, spent time gambling with out-of-towners who thought South Bend hicks could never beat them (afterward secretly giving his winnings to charity). Always, Gipp displayed an allergy to limelight.
Once I learned Gipp’s true story, I became horrified that Reagan’s presidency had turned Gipp’s legacy into a promotion campaign. Of course, Airplane! (1980) would capitalize on the humor of this discrepancy. The movie came out before Ronald Reagan’s first White House term, but the politician had made two runs for the Republican nomination before getting it in 1980; there are digs on his acting in the film. And then the perfect parody: In a moment when Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is despairing about his poor chances of landing the plane, with death certain for all if he doesn’t, in comes Dr. Rumack-Don’t-Call-Me-Shirley (Leslie Nielsen) to give Striker a hilarious pep talk. Almost word for word, it’s Rockne’s speech. Nielsen even captures the coach’s understated style. To give a football speech in such a moment is very tacky–in even more ways that most viewers might suspect: Rockne died in a plane crash. Screenwriters Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker capture inappropriate uses of Gipp’s name and of his coach’s tribute by using both inappropriately in their own film.
But I wasn’t thinking of any of those details as I watched. What I felt was a thrill, that delightful shock of recognition every classic film fan feels when she sees or hears a reference to an old favorite. And I didn’t think it was possible, but Airplane! is even funnier than I thought. How marvelous.