Wednesday, August 08, 2007

DAY 8: 1941 (1979)

“Madness. It’s the only word to describe it.” --Gen. Stillwell, 1941

In the life of every filmmaker there is at least one movie that haunts them for the rest their career, at least one movie that seems to represent massive miscalculation and failure on the part of the director, at least one movie that is considered a major "flop" and perhaps even their "worst film." Nobody is immune to this phenomenon. Even the greatest of directors is capable of making a bad movie (or simply a movie that doesn't appeal to the masses). Some directors have several works of this nature and while Spielberg has produced his fair share of disappointing films (from either an artistic or commercial standpoint) there seems to be one film that, in the eyes of many, dogs him as his biggest folly. That film is 1941. As Spielberg himself said, “I will spend the rest of my life disowning this movie.”

Almost thirty years after 1941 crashed and burned at the theatre, one can't help but wonder if the reputation is deserved. Is it as bad as it has been called? Is it the monumentally embarrassing turkey that many have said it is? Does it merit all of the ill will and venomous criticisms that have been aimed at it over the years or does it in fact seem to improve with age? Do more people "get" it now than got it back in '79? Is it, in fact, not really a "bad" movie but simply a misunderstood movie?

Well, that depends.

As with many poorly-received films, it has achieved a certain level of cult status. There are indeed hordes of people who love the movie and decry any attempt to label it as Spielberg's worst film. Certainly 1941 is not without its charms. There are several amusing elements in it and the technical aspects of the film are extremely well done. It is also perhaps fair to hypothesize that had 1941 been made by another director it might have been met more sympathetically by critics and audiences (since several of those involved in the film chalk up its overwhelmingly negative reception to people simply “gunning” for Spielberg, more or less waiting for him to misstep). Of course, it’s also possible that if 1941 had been made by another director it would have been a better movie, because in the end (regardless of how many people have affection for it) 1941 is still a colossal mess and the passage of time has, alas, still not revealed it to be anything other than that.

The screenplay for 1941, originally entitled The Night the Japs Attacked, was written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (the team responsible for the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars and the later Back to the Future trilogy) and tells the fictional story of an evening in 1941 (a time when, because of the then recent bombing of Pearl Harbor, the country was at the height of its wartime paranoia) when a Japanese submarine attacks Hollywood and the numerous mishaps, misunderstandings, foolishness, confusion and just general mayhem that accompanies it. Interestingly, its premise stems from an actual event that occurred during WWII where air raid sirens were sounded in Los Angeles, the city blacked out for several hours and frightened Americans fired thousands of rounds of ammunition into the air at something that they couldn’t see. Whether anyone was actually up there or not it is still unknown, but Gale and Zemeckis saw this as a rather revealing episode about the irrational fear and hysteria that gripped America at that time and decided to use it as the basis for a black comedy. Spielberg read the script and liked it so much that he wanted to direct it as his next film. Certainly the subject matter of WWII was appealing to him but most likely Spielberg was intrigued by the prospect of doing something he had never done before: a comedy. Also, as he later proclaimed, he “didn’t really have anything better to do at the time.” Probably not the best reason to start production on a big-budget movie.

In 1941 Spielberg’s episodic tendencies come to a head. The film is little more than a collection of isolated vignettes with virtually no structure to connect them. Looked at one way the film could be said to have almost no story. Looked at another way the film could be said to contain too many stories, since there are at least thirty different characters with about twelve different subplots all operating simultaneously and occasionally intersecting. Spielberg’s frenetic cutting between them is awkward and clumsy and seems to illustrate his ability to work better with one or two storylines at a time. 1941 also demonstrates Spielberg’s discomfort at working only in the genre of comedy. While there is much humor to be found in Spielberg’s other films (Jaws is, I think, particularly hilarious), it is usually in place to help counter-balance another strong emotion (such as fear or awe) and it is always rooted in a strong, dramatic backbone; a story that is more about people than it is about effects. 1941, on the other hand, is a film more concerned with gags, many of them big and loud (Pauline Kael likened watching the film to being "trapped inside a pinball machine for two hours") and only a few of them actually funny.

In an attempt to compensate for his lack of experience and confidence doing comedy, Spielberg cast a lot of “funny” people in the movie (talented comic actors like Jon Belushi, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd) hoping that perhaps they’ll make the movie funnier. However, unless one gives comedians something to work with, then they end up being just there; they're merely present in the movie without contributing anything substantial to it. In fact, many of the so-called "funny" people in the film come off as merely annoying (particularly Belushi's crazy maverick pilot "Wild" Bill Kelso) and it is the more serious "straight" actors (Toshiro Mifune, Robert Stack and Christopher Lee) that actually provide some laughs. Robert Stack's General Stilwell is particularly good. The sequence where he smiles like a little kid while watching Disney's Dumbo (an actual historical event and one of the few truly hilarious moments in the film) is a real gem. To some extent, Stillwell is the deepest and most interesting (certainly the sanest) character in 1941. He almost exists in his own separate movie and one can only imagine what a film made solely about Stilwell (with the great Robert Stack in the lead role) could've been like.

Admittedly, the cast of 1941 is pretty extraordinary (Warren Oates, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Eddie Deezen, Slim Pickens, Treat Williams, Penny Marshall, Nancy Allen, Dub Taylor, etc) but as is proved by Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, a great cast does not a great movie make. The characters in 1941 aren’t really characters so much as they are character "types" (the young boy, the girlfriend, the overprotective father, etc). Indeed they come off more as caricatures then actual people. It's almost as if someone had restricted the filmmakers/actors to allowing each character to have one personality trait only (Dan Aykroyd can't stand seeing Americans fighting Americans, Bobby Di Cicco wants to dance, Treat Williams hates eggs, Wendy Jo Sperber likes Treat Williams, Murray Hamilton is afraid of heights, etc). Perhaps if Spielberg had cut the number of characters by at least half and given each of them slightly more depth, and a bit more to do, the film wouldn't have felt as disjointed and chaotic as it did.

Among other things, the film suffers from a case of "too many cooks in the kitchen." It seems as if every possible idea for a joke was considered valid and so everything went into the soup and the final film, as a result, went "into the pot." 1941 is like one of those huge, lumbering animals that just keeps going and going, not knowing when to stop (neither in length nor in scope): the characters just get louder and angrier (there's a lot of screaming in this movie), the explosions get bigger and more frequent and the running length, clocking in at around two hours at the time of its original release, has now grown to become a two-and-a-half hour "collector's edition" for DVD. One particular scene in the film serves as a good example of the "going too far" syndrome that seemed to plague 1941's production. At one point in the story Slim Pickens' character Hollis Wood (a name which provides an amusing little "Who's on first?" exchange since the Japanese are searching for Hollywood) is kidnapped and taken aboard the Japanese sub. As they search through his pockets pulling out common everyday items (an homage to Dr. Strangelove), they find a Cracker Jack box with a tiny compass inside it. Since the compass on their own ship is broken they start to rejoice. This is a very funny idea and merits a good laugh. Although it is absurd it still has that delicacy and "lightness" of touch that good comedy is supposed to have. Immediately, Slim Pickens grabs the compass and swallows it to prevent the enemy from finding Hollywood and "bombing John Wayne's house." This is perhaps not as funny as the "Cracker Jack box" gag but it is still moderately amusing. Very shortly, however, the Japanese are standing guard by Slim Pickens, as he sits on a toilet, awaiting a bowel movement so they can retrieve the compass. Pickens tells them he needs privacy and proceeds to fake them out by making loud grunting noises as they listen at the door. At this point the situation has ceased being funny and has simply become crude, obnoxious and over-the-top. Again, Spielberg and company didn't know quite when to stop and they pushed the scenario too far until all the humor drained away from it. What began as a cute and clever idea eventually ended in a scene that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. As Toshiro Mifune's character aptly laments: "This has not been honorable."

One last sequence serves as an indicator of how "out of his element" Spielberg was. At the film's finale, as all the characters gather at the home of Ned Beatty's character Ward Douglas, Ward makes a speech about not letting the enemy ruin Christmas. He proceeds to hang a wreath on the front door and after the first strike of the hammer, the entire house starts to slide away from Ward and his wreath (although the door and its frame remain stationary) towards the cliff and eventually crash into the rocks below. It is a spectacular moment and could have been quite satisfying if it were not merely one more in a seemingly neverending array of loud, violent gags. Had Spielberg built up to it with a series of escalating mishaps rather than "blowing the wad" so early on it might have provided the thrilling capper to the whole thing that it seems it was supposed to. And yet, what is truly puzzling about the scene--what seems to demonstrate that Spielberg didn't know what he was doing--is that in the conception and execution of this moment nobody seemed to ask: "Why doesn't Ward hear the house rumbling?" The noise that the house makes as it pulls away from him is tremendously loud and no amount of hammering could possibly cover it. Not only does this kind of question remind us why this level of enormously "grad-scale" slapstick comedy seemed to work better in silent cinema but it makes us wonder why Spielberg wouldn't address such a glaring inconsistency. Perhaps it didn't occur to him or perhaps he just felt that Ward doesn't hear it because "that's what happens in these kind of movies." Either way, had Spielberg applied the same kind of logic, reason and realism (or even plausibility) to 1941 that he did in Duel, Jaws and Close Encounters, the events would've seemed less incomprehensible (especially since Spielberg could have easily solved the problem by establishing early on that Beatty's character was simply hard of hearing).

Some have actually derided the film for being racist (an accusation that will be levelled at Spielberg again for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) in its portrayal of the Japanese and in it's handling of the prejudicial dynamics that existed between American white soldiers and black soldiers in that period (as seen in the contentious relationship between John Candy and Frank McRae). While one could make the argument that the film is actually addressing these racist realities by depicting them in their most extreme and absurd light (in a manner similar to All in the Family or Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles) it seems pretty clear to me that the film is not really dealing with them at all. They are just subjects serving as more potential fodder for comedy in a film that takes absolutely nothing seriously. In a way, to be offended by it is to give the movie too much credit. Having said that, the frequent appearance of epithets like "Jap," "Kraut," "Slant" and even "yellow bastards" (without any sense of weight, purpose or context to their use) certainly don't help to allay people's concerns.

To be as fair as I can to the film, there are several excellent aspects of 1941 that deserve mentioning. Without a doubt the miniature work is top shelf. As the panicked response of the people of L.A. reaches idiotic heights, we are treated to some amazing effects shots (including one spectacular sequence where a fully-lit ferris wheel rolls down a pier and splashes into the ocean). Cinematographer Bill Fraker shot the effects through fog to increase their apparent size and texture and it makes for some very visually stunning shots. Unfortunately, in an attempt to ensure that the look of the effects shots matched with the regular photography, Fraker employed fog in just about every scene in the film giving 1941 a dark, dour aesthetic (as if everything were seen through a sort of murkey "haze") that makes it hard at times to tell what's going on and which seems incongruous with the intended comic tone of the story.

Something should be said about the music score as well. As always, John Williams provides something that is solid, tuneful and memorable. His "1941 March" (meant to represent Belushi's energetic character) is a rousing and self-consciously patriotic anthem that would surely have become a classic had it been associated with a more successful movie. Furthermore, Williams composed a thrilling Big Band-style number similar to Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" (appropriately titled "Swing, Swing, Swing") that plays during what is probably the film's greatest set piece: a marvelously choreographed jitterbug contest that again displays Spielberg's gift for staging hugely elaborate sequences. In fact, Spielberg has admitted that at one point he considered making 1941 into a full-blown, old-fashioned Hollywood musical (to this day Spielberg has confessed a desire to direct a musical of some sort) and the effectiveness of the jitterbug scene is another reminder of what 1941 could have been had Spielberg the courage to follow his convictions.

Invariably, when a hundred different darts are thrown at once at a dartboard, some of them are bound to hit the bull's eye. Naturally there are a few gags in 1941 that work, including the aforementioned Stilwell/Dumbo scene and a sequence where a tank crashes through a paint factory--getting covered in brightly colored paint in the process--only to crash subsequently through a turpentine factory and emerge immaculately clean. One of the funniest jokes actually comes about as a result of Spielberg being willing to poke fun at himself.

In the film's opening scene, a young woman goes skinny-dipping in the water and as she swims out farther and farther from the shore John Williams' familiar shark theme is heard. At this point the audience notices (if they haven't already) that the young girl is Susan Backlinie, the actress who played the first victim in Jaws. As the music gets scarier and scarier bubbles begin to form in the water around the girl until a giant periscope emerges lifting her high into the air as a Japanese submarine surfaces beneath her. If the rest of the film had been as clever as this opening, 1941 might actually have worked.

In the end, what could have been a clever and intriguing satirical comedy in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or Mike Nichols' Catch-22 eventually turned into something more along the lines of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World : a film which, let’s be honest here, despite it’s intent to be the “comedy to end all comedies,” isn’t really that funny but is instead rather tedious (some folks have even dubbed 1941 "Animal House Goes to War," a nickname which I am not in a position to comment on as I haven't yet seen Animal House). Like Kramer, spectacle had always been a major component of Spielberg’s work but in previous films like Jaws and Close Encounters the spectacle didn’t make the movie. There was more to the cinematic experience than just the "ride." Spielberg has since claimed that he never really had a vision for the 1941 and, as brilliant as I think Spielberg is, I can't help but feel that he was the wrong director for this picture. Had Zemeckis directed his own material the film could've turned out much stronger (it would surely have been a "purer" translation of the original script penned by the "two Bobs," which Zemeckis has said was conceived as a much darker, more cynical piece). Perhaps even a director like Joe Dante could have brought the necessary organization to the mad-cap Hellzapoppin' sensibilities of the film. In either case, 1941 still might not have ended up being a superior movie but it might have a better chance at it. As the years have passed, Spielberg has acknowledged the film as a failure but he has also said that he learned a great deal from the experience. At the time he really thought he was "made of teflon," infallible and untouchable. The poor reception of 1941 brought him back down to Earth, humbles him and reminded him to be more discriminating in his choice of scripts and more disciplined in his approach to whatever material he did choose to work with.

In some ways 1941 holds a special place in my "31 Days of Spielberg" project because it was a discussion about this film at Dennis Cozzalio's Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule that first prompted me to undertake this task. Still, I was not looking forward to watching 1941 again (I have tried on three separate occasions to view the film in its entirety, each attempt proving unsuccessful) and I was even less thrilled about the prospect of writing on it since I have long considered it to be easily Spielberg's worst film (beating out even the major disappointments that were Always, Hook and Lost World) and I knew my friend Dennis, whom I love and respect very much, had a great deal of affection for it. I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn, when I reviewed it recently, that I didn't hate the movie nearly as much as I thought I would. I still think it's an awful film but the anger I felt toward it previously seems to have subsided somewhat. Now, whether that was evidence that I was actually starting to like it--that it was beginning to "grow on me"--or whether I was slowly acquiring an immunity to its atrociousness--like building up a "tolerance" to an unhealthy drug--I don't know. Either way, I have concluded that as fond of Spielberg as I may be, it's not a bad idea to rewatch his "failure" every now and again to remind myself that the man does not walk on water.

TOMORROW: A hero is born


Joe Valdez said...

I agree that 1941 is the worst film to date from the most successful filmmaker of all time. I don't hate it either, but the fact that Spielberg has been amusingly candid over the years about how bad this film is makes me wonder what the people who think this is a misunderstood classic are watching.

Of all of Spielberg's skills, directing scenes that are natural or funny was not and still isn't in his wheelhouse.

To compensate, Spielberg tried to make a movie he was comfortable with: a World War II action film. The dogfight sequences with model airplanes buzzing over Hollywood are probably the best bits in the entire flick, but this was far from the intelligent satire the script had been intended as.

Very cool headed and even tempered review, Damian.

Cinephile said...

Interesting post. Thanks so much for doing this-- I just learned about it over at SLIFR, and posted about it at my own blog. I can't wait to catch up on what I've missed, and look forward to the great analysis still to come. Great blog!

tb said...

Boy, I think you are WAY too hard on 1941. But then, I really like "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," too. A lot of it pretty silly, but for every moment that just doesn't work there are plenty of them that do. Any movie that can sport that amazing dance contest, the Robert Stack/Dumbo scene, those great kids at Ward's house, the paint/turpentine tank crash, etc. is AOK with me. LOVE the glorious pre-CGI miniature work, too. It all looks the gigantic train set in my neighbor Tommy Young's basement when I was a kid.

Ted Pigeon said...

Come on, 1941 isn't that bad. I think it's fun in a goofy kind of way. Some of the set pieces are nicely done, namely the bar brawl sequence. For all of its flaws, the movie has energy that helps keep it from sinking. It's definitely one of Spielberg's worst movies, but that doesn't make it bad. Strange though; it's right between Jaws/Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Art/E.T.. When I think about it like that, it's hard to even imagine that it was directed by Spielberg.

The Shamus (formerly TLRHB) said...

Thank you, Ted. '1941' is sort of fun, in that "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World" overstuffed blockbuster way. And it helps if you're really fond of the actors, as I am.

Damian, I'm late in congratulating you on this undertaking. I'm enjoying it immensely, and when you're done, you should see if some university press would be interested in publishing it.

Steve said...

It's hard to believe that anyone would consider "1941" worse than "Always" or "Hook," given that it has several wonderful sequences (including, as you note, the jitterbug number) whereas those movies are duds through and through. I do like "1941," for all its problems, but then I have to admit that I chuckled at your description of the escalating Slim Pickens sequence in the sub, which you hold out as an overly prolonged gag. That kind of escalating gag is a trademark of Zemeckis and Gale, whose screenplay you only mention in passing but who are key to understanding the movie. "1941" is very much in their style. I remember similar complaints about crudity and overextended gags being leveled at their brilliant "Used Cars," particularly as regards the death sequence of Jack Warden's decent old codger. And the idea of compressing an entire culture into a single movie also formed the basis of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" ('60s Beatlemania) and "Back to the Future" ('50s teen culture). It isn't just anti-Jap hysteria they're parodying here. It's the whole WWII homefront.

It's worth noting that "funny" is highly subjective, and "being trapped inside a pinball machine for two hours" is a descriptive phrase, not necessarily a pejorative one. Also, Spielberg isn't necessarily the final and absolute authority on the quality of his own work. Just because he's disavowed it (and, frankly, I've seen him go back and forth on it in interviews) doesn't mean that it really is his worst film. Both "1941" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (which he's similarly disavowed) show a manic, mechanistic, heartless side of Spielberg that I think makes him very uncomfortable--but which some of us (including Kael) love. It's worth noting that "Jaws" contains a lot of that side of Speilberg too.

Yes, the movie is shallow and manic and a loosely connected series of gags – but then, so are the best Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields comedies. If you don't like that sort of thing, you aren't going to like the movie. But, taken on its own terms, "1941" is a pretty amazing contraption.

Damian said...

I had a feeling that of all the essays I wrote, 1941 would probably be the one to spark the most controversy (you're usually on pretty safe ground praising films like Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders). It is interesting to me that as time has gone on the film has developed a rather strong and vocal following of people who really love it as well as a large number of people who, while not necessarily admiring it, feel it is unfairly bashed.

Please understand that my intent was not to offend anybody with this post. This is just my opinion and you are more than welcome to take it or leave it. I love Spielberg but I do not love this movie. Regardless of how many people may like it (and I don't want to take anything away from those who do) I still do not think it is a good movie. I'll elaborate on this later but whether or not 1941 is superior to the those other films often regarded by many as his "worst" movies (Always and Hook) is certainly debatable. Yet there are enough elements of substance--and by that I don't just mean fun/interesting scenes but something deeper--in both of those works to salvage them from being just a complete and utter waste of time in my eyes.

1941 doesn't have that. I'm sorry. I just don't see it. I like a good comedy as much as the next person (and W.C. Fields and the Marx brothers are excellent examples of that; I love those guys) but I don't think 1941 or It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World are good comedies (incidentally, while there's a part of me that is sympathetic to the idea that funny is relative, there's another part of me that feels that "being funny" and "making people laugh" are two different things and perhaps the latter is subjective but the former is not, just as I would hypothesize being really "scary" and "making people scream" are two very different things).

Am I being too harsh on the movie? Perhaps, but I can't help it. I think it's lousy. I've tried to like it and I haven't succeeded. I also tried to temper the passion of my analysis to be as fair and even-handed as possible. Maybe I failed in that regard an for that I am sorry, but I don't apologize for disliking 1941. Meanwhile, I happen to be of the opinion that a lot of people tend to be too harsh on some of Spielberg's other films which I don't feel deserve it. That's why I'm doing this project: to give me an opportunity to say my piece, to make my arguments. If you agree, great. If you disagree, that's fine. I just want to stimulate conversation. That's all. I know Spielberg is a filmmaker worth discussing and even his worst movie (whatever it may be) is worth talking about.

Ted Pigeon said...

Disagree sparks discourse, so it's always nice to engage a perpsective differing from my own. You're certainly not in the minority in your dislike of the film, but what seems to me part of a quiet majority. I'm not coming down on you for disliking the movie. Your analysis of the film certainly supports your thesis. And you're right about comedy; everybody has varying sensibilities when ti comes to humor. As for the controversy, I think you'll likely find more near the end of the month when you're writing about A.I., Saving Private Ryan, Munich and War of the Worlds

Edward Copeland said...

1941 is overblown, but it does have its moments and honestly I'd rather sit through it again than Hook, Always or Jurassic Park.

Ted Pigeon said...

Jurassic Park is just too special to me to disike it for its flaws. I saw it when I was ten years old, and let's just say it resounded in my imagination for another fourteen years. I find myself incapable of seeing it in a negative light.

RC said...

steve, man, why did you have to dis hook? :-) there's a part of me that loves that movie.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Boy, do I ever feel like I’m late for the party. Damian, I couldn’t resist the temptation to read this piece this morning, so I printed it out (as I have all eight parts now) and set it beside my computer monitor so I could read it on the fly, thus minimizing the opportunity for someone to accuse me of not working! But I haven’t had a chance to participate until now. Please forgive me for this overly verbose response, but you caught me on a night when I had no homework, so here we go.

Well, my appreciation for 1941 is perhaps somewhat overdocumented, especially considering its relative importance in film history, or even in the landscape of Spielberg’s career. But there will always be a special place in my heart for a movie that makes me feel as jolly as this one does. Damian, of course you’re right that, of all the things movies can do, making us laugh is maybe the most difficult and probably the most subjective too. Which is one of the reasons why I’m always dumbfounded when someone who doesn’t like 1941 for its gigantism and cacophony will turn around and try to tell me how hilarious The Blues Brothers is. Then again, I happen to think Mars Attacks!, a movie very much in accordance with the brash blockbuster prescription of 1941 (and one that shares its acidic view of American society), is pretty brilliant too, even if it suffered at the hands of studio scissors.

But certainly no one is berating or putting down the proprietor of this blog for his reaction to this movie, especially when your own thoughts have obviously come with a great deal of consideration. You lucidly make the case against the movie that I’ve heard, in one form or another, ever since I first saw it on the big screen. Hell, I even made some of the same points based on my first two viewings. But then I came around…  Seriously, though, screw apologies. You’ve got a right to your view, and it doesn’t hurt at all that you express it as well as you do. And, as Ted says, if you think this movie gets people going, just wait till you take on A.I., Saving Private Ryan, Munich and War of the Worlds. I’d even add, based on answers submitted to Professor Irwin Corey’s quiz, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to that little rogue’s gallery. Medic!

Before I go, just a few comments on other comments, if I may:

JOE VALDEZ says: “Of all of Spielberg's skills, directing scenes that are natural or funny was not and still isn't in his wheelhouse.” Joe, even if I factor out the rollicking good time that 1941 offers, I would have to say that our introduction to the world of the suburban kids of E.T. and that almost magically natural and hilarious scene between Elliot, his brother and their precocious buddies, and the teasingly authoritarian (and sexual) presence of Dee Wallace as Mom, displays every quality you claim, in reference to 1941, aren’t among the director’s talents. That scene is so full of life and comic observation that it borders on the Altmanesque, and there are other scenes in the movie that display this kind of pulse. I really think that, when we’re talking Spielberg’s ability with comedy, we are talking about matters of scale. Because, as Damian observed, it’s a rare Spielberg movie that evinces the lack of a sense of humor. (Some of those post-‘90s movies, however, are another story.) And if it’s a matter of scale + mania, then it seems to me a very thin line (the line of subjectivity?) that separates 1941 from the marginally more respected (and respectable) Temple of Doom, or the ghastly, overstuffed Hook.

I think STEVE most acutely sums up my own feelings about the movie. In fact, Damian, when I was reading your piece and came to the description of Slim Pickens being force-fed castor oil in an attempt to accelerate the bowel movement that will produce the swallowed compass, I must admit felt a momentary tinge of embarrassment. But then I remembered the shot of the door opening and Pickens getting his first glimpse of the impatient Japanese sailors—“You ain’t gettin’ shit outta me!”—and I started laughing despite myself. That whole sequence doesn’t play like a gag that overstays its welcome to me either— in fact, I think Mifune’s line is a brilliant capper to the scatology of the sequence, one that satirizes the obviousness of the comment as well as the officer’s very sober, very Japanese reaction. (And, of course, it plays directly into the hands of those who don’t like the movie!) And, as Steve says, “That kind of escalating gag is a trademark of Zemeckis and Gale, whose screenplay you only mention in passing but who are key to understanding the movie. 1941 is very much in their style. I remember similar complaints about crudity and overextended gags being leveled at their brilliant Used Cars.”

It’s tempting to wonder what Zemeckis might have made of his own script as a director. Would he have had the skill and audacity to mount a production of this scale so early in his directing career? Maybe not. (Used Cars is low-down, scuzzy, ground-level perfection as is.) I think it’s the combination of Spielberg’s visual genius with Zemeckis & Gale’s nasty, kitchen-sink fearlessness and politically incorrect willingness to poke holes in not just the paranoia of the moment but, as Steve observes, indeed the very fabric of what would come to be known as the Greatest Generation, that makes 1941 necessarily uneven, but also such a rich, go-for-broke treat. (John Williams’ top-drawer score, his post-Star Wars best, in my opinion, sells the hell out of the movie’s twinkling madness too.)

Finally, before Steve gets the idea that I’m ready to crown him king or something, I have to say that I greatly appreciated his observations that “‘being trapped inside a pinball machine for two hours’ is a descriptive phrase, not necessarily a pejorative one” and also that “Spielberg isn't necessarily the final and absolute authority on the quality of his own work.”

As regards the former, the quote came from Kael’s capsule review (I think the only time she ever addressed the movie on its own in print) from 5001 Nights at the Movies, a review which was, with some reservations, quite a positive notice. She wrote that in 1941 Spielberg displayed “talent without sensibility,” but eventually concluded that the picture was “an amazing, orgiastic comedy.” It stands to reason, then, that she enjoyed being inside that pinball machine more than most.

As for the latter, Spielberg’s point of view on 1941 is the result of his experience in having made it, a point of view that no one else in the film’s potential audience can reasonably share. To take his pronouncements about any of his films as exclusive and authoritative would be to deny the myriad honest responses of the billions of viewers who are not Steven Spielberg. He’s perhaps more credible than Eli Roth trying to spin his movie into a more “respectable” realm, but ultimately, what Spielberg thinks of 1941 is certainly of interest, but by no means definitive, any more than it would be if he decided that Always was the pinnacle of his career and set about trying to convince everyone of it.

Finally, does anyone else think it’s funny that, as Damian observes, a movie as loaded with screaming and shouting as 1941 should highlight each of its players in the end credits by replaying the moments in the film when they’re in full-on scream mode? The movie is well aware of its own tendency toward overkill, and makes fun of itself for it. By this point, if you’re not on 1941’s wavelength, you may well run away screaming yourself. Me, I have to fight the urge to press “play” and start all over again!

P.S. The Shamus is right. You need to hit the streets with this series on September 1. Thanks for such an ambitious, provocative and intelligent series, Damian.

Damian said...

Well, Dennis, I knew you and I weren't going to see eye-to-eye on 1941, but I guess I'm pleased to see that you have a group of bretheren here that share your regard for this film (now I actually feel like I'm in the minority for disliking it). Maybe as times goes, like you, my feelings toward it will change but (as I point out in my post) whether it'll a genuine case of discovering a film, which I previously though was bad, is actually good or whether it would simply be a case of "building up a tolerance" to something that I really shouldn't (because I do happen to think that the more crap one watches, it easier it gets), I don't know. We'll see.

At any rate, I'm glad you're enjoying "31 Days of Spielberg" so far (I am too) and maybe you and I will agree one of these films at some point. :)


P.S. Not to toot my own horn or anything like that, but I thought my observation about the rumbling house at the film's climax was actually fairly astute.

Steve said...

Thanks for the kind words Dennis. Damian, I should have specified from the outset that I certainly don't begrudge you or anyone else for disliking 1941. I remember that the movie split even my teenage friends at the time. Like all good reviews, your post was clarifying; it's easy to pinpoint our areas of honest disagreement.

What's always been interesting to me is why Spielberg has felt compelled to disavow the movie. Altman always made of point of saying that he loved all his films, even those that the critics hated. Spielberg, by contrast, blows with the wind -- waxing enthusiastic on the DVD commentary track but ready to bash it the minute an interviewer mentions the bad reviews. Same thing with Temple of Doom. I guess that's just his neurotic, eager-to-please side. But I much prefer Altman's attitude, and I'd love to see Spielberg embrace the 1941 side of himself again some day.

estiv said...

Damian, I'll second those praising your even-handedness in evaluating this film. Very good work. One suggestion: I would strongly recommend that you watch Animal House, as I think that you are underestimating its influence on 1941. Spielberg at the time expressed his admiration for AH, and of course he cast Belushi as well. AH (and its progenitors, the original National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live) has suffered the fate of any extremely influential cultural phenomenon (cf. the Beatles): its influence is so pervasive that it is hard to remember, or if you are too young to remember then to reconstruct, how big an impact it had at the time. What was thought of as ordinary movie comedy from about 1980 to 1995 was largely AH-derived. I'd guess that Spielberg, in his teflon mode, looked at it and thought, "I could do that." Wrong. Still, I come down on the side of seeing 1941 as deeply flawed but worth watching.

guano said...

Great blog! "1941" is definitely one of my guilty pleasures. Of course I recognize its fatal flaws (meticulously spelled out in your excellent essay) but I still find myself compelled to watch it whenever I stumble across it on cable TV (particularly when presented in the original 2.35:1 scope ratio as it was on HDNET the other night). Need I add that I'm also a fan of "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" (admiration for each film seems to go hand in hand with the other).

When "1941" was first released, I was on the verge of my 15th birthday and really eager to see this "comedy spectacular." For months, moviegoers had been teased with the trailer for the film (the title "1941" rising from the ground in stone with a great rumble, then each digit explodes loudly followed by a brief clip of Belushi in the cockpit of his P-40 laughing to himself in sinister fashion) and advance word had already pretty much gauranteed a stinking turkey - but I was jazzed by the casting and was an ardent fan of "Jaws" and CE3K. I saw it on opening night and about half-way through I was keenly aware that the film was clearly not as "funny" as intended - but something about the wreckless mayhem depicted on-screen appealed to me. And I loved seeing the huge star-studded cast in action - particularly relishing the menacing presence of Christopher Lee's Nazi exchange officer. I saw the film 3 times while it was still in theaters (including once at the discount house several months after its failed initial release) and then again several years later as part of a John Belushi triple-feature at the old Hollywood Theater on Manhattan's Eighth Avenue.

The film always seemed to suffer from (among its other faults) severe and choppy editing. I recall reading at the time that Speilberg scrambled to shear 20 minutes from its running time after a disasterous preview. The scenes with Belushi at the gas-station diner seem particularly butchered and many odd bits of business seem to have been omitted even while their after-effects are clearly visible (Bobby DeCicco's inexplicably smoldering zoot-suit coat-tails, for example, or that Eddie Deezen and Murray Hamilton abruptly switch places atop the Ferris Wheel mid-film). I, for one, was happy when the extended cut on DVD restored some of the continuity, but it seems that much is still missing. I would actually welcome further restoration - though I seriously doubt Spielberg would ever revisit this failure for such a re-issue.

And just to add a small note of historical context... When "1941" first played in December of '79, there was an American hostage situation of major significance going on in Iraq. When Beatty delivered his speech at the end of the film about how the characters had put aside their differences and pulled through in the "true spirit of America", the audience broke into spontaneous applause and cheers. And it wasn't just because the movie was nearly over!

Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...

Sorry. here's a response.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, and Beatty (though it doesn't really matter to me) not hearing the hose sliding away from him could be explained by the fact that he's fired an anti-aircraft gun not once but several times. He'd probably be considerably deafened (then again, he doesn't act like it, does he? Or is he pretending and reading peoples' lips?).

Damian said...


Great response. Good job. :)

Oh, and Beatty... not hearing the hose sliding away from him could be explained by the fact that he's fired an anti-aircraft gun not once but several times.

See, that's the thing... This was just a case in point, but the movie is filled with moments like this: moments that could make sense if the filmmakers had put just a tad more effort into making them appear plausible or logical (even though on the surface they don't make a lick of sense). If Beatty's character had been established earlier on as being hard-of hearing (with one single line of dialogue or bit of pantomime) or it was made clear that the firing of the gun as temporarily deafened him, it wouldn't have bothered me. The fact that Spielberg didnt even feel the need to explain it (either because it never occurred to him or simply because he didn't care; an attitude that he doesn't has on most of his other films) demonstrates to me that he was entirely "out of his element" on this film.

Noel Vera said...

Out of his element, out of his depth, out of his comfort zone, sure. From where I'm standing that's the only way great things, flawed things (but you never get it perfect when you're doing something new) are created.

Anonymous said...

two things i loved about this film were john belushi drinking a coke in his plane and the kids at the end telling their dad that he's ruined christmas.

scorethefilm said...

Well, I've always been of the opinion that many of the people who hate, loathe, etc this movie just don't "get it". Sure, not everyone is going to like it but this film is notoriously dumped on by just about everyone and I think Spielberg is weak for wanting to distance himself from it for whatever reasons.

I just wrote about this on my movie blog yesterday and, since I didn't want to spend two hours trying to write about a film I absolutely adore (because I could easily gush for hours on it) I spent two hours getting some of my favorite lines and screencaps instead.

Spielberg has had some missteps in his career but this is not one of them. It's a highly unique comedy that's a throwback to a different era of cinema that hasn't existed for a long time and I think that this film has its place, just not last place.

It'd be easy to pick at the logic of the motivations and actions of the characters and situations but that would be missing the point. And while I completely disagree with many of your points of contention, thank you for at least not dumping on it without trying to back up the reasons why like so many do (I'm sure I've been guilty of that on my movie blog but, gee whiz, sometimes it's easy to get so frustrated that you'd rather not get into it.)

Good post, Damian.


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