On “1941″

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Today is the birthday of the great film director Steven Spielberg (1946). Having already dispensed infallible wisdom on the subject of Spielberg in my reviews of War Horse, The Adventures of Tin Tin and Lincoln,  I thought I would pick something relevant to my current work and talk about his 1979 film 1941.

I was 14 or so when this movie came out so you can guess how much I loved it at the time. A LOT. I was already such a fan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that I owned the soundtrack album and the novelization and the poster. (I was to get the soundtrack and the poster to 1941 too). To have Spielberg intersect with the Saturday Night Live/ National Lampoon people (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd/ John Landis/ Tim Matheson) was like an EVENT. I am filled with excitement just REMEMBERING how I felt about the experience back then. For a brief period (just a couple of years it occurs to me in retrospect) there was this expectation of anarchy and rebellion in American film comedy, with Belushi at the vanguard, but other players included Landis, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, etc. For a brief time there was an expectation of truly off-the-rails spectacle, lavish destruction, and epic rudeness. There seemed to be some kind of exhibitionistic ambition to it, something akin to the moment when Bluto says “Guess what I am now” and then spits food out of his mouth, but on a much vaster scale. When Belushi died, this Hindenburg of High (and low) Purpose seemed to go down in flames, kind of like this:

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The screen has been full of funny comedians since, but the comedies have been more modest in scope. No one pretends any more that there will be any sort of revolution in the social order. The comedies are more measured and less, well, reckless.

Which is a good and a bad thing. I usually write about why that is a bad thing. Today I will write about how it can be good. Recently after (eek) more than 30 years I went back and watched 1941 again when I was working on Chain of Fools. There are many interesting aspects to the film.

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It’s funny to see Spielberg so in thrall to Landis, whom he would come to dwarf many times over in power and prestige within just a couple years. The two were still roughly neck and neck in 1979, a couple of young directors with a few hit films under their belts. 1941 owes a lot to the previous year’s smash Animal House, with its impeccably realized period setting, its large scale orchestration of out-of-hand mayhem, and its flippant, disrespectful attitude towards all forms of authority and conformism. Belushi and Matheson are in the middle of both films. Landis himself even plays a small part in 1941.

It’s also interesting to see Spielberg, well known for his quotation and homage to directors like Hitchcock, Ford, and others here “do” his Definitive Comedy Statement, his (Big Bloated) Hollywood comic homage, much as Stanley Kramer, Blake Edwards and Peter Bogdonovich had earlier done their’s.

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But something’s the matter. And it’s a pretty large elephant in the room. It has to do with the perspective of the film-makers. Spielberg and the writers and producers and comedians on this film were all Baby Boomers. They’d never known anything but comfort and safety and privilege, relatively speaking. And they were at the crest of a social wave that was deeply critical of any American impulse having to do with law and order or national defense, largely because of Vietnam. “Assholes with guns”, and “paranoia” and so forth. That’s the only thing (I think) that can possibly explain (and I think I’m being generous here) a lapse in judgment this big.

For the subject of their comedy is American fear and the clumsy attempts to mobilize in the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor. Let me repeat: this is a comedy about how funny it is when people stumble around and run and scream and fall over things in the aftermath of a sneak attack by an aggressive foreign power on American soil, with thousands of wounded and dead.

Now: the kids who made this film grew up in the Cold War. They were accustomed to regarding any sort of concern about American security as “hysteria” and “paranoia”. But just so we’re clear, this wasn’t some abstract, potential threat cooked up by right wing militaristic loonies. (Feel free to make fun of THAT!) This was about an enemy that had proven its status as a real threat. And to make matters even less ambiguous, in 1941 the film-makers THEMSELVES depict a Japanese submarine off the coast of Los Angeles, where the film takes place. When precisely would this threat cease to be so hilarious? I guess you can stop holding your sides when you’re…holding your insides in.

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Okay, I am clearly a product of my own times. I have been conditioned by September 11 and the Boston Marathon, and much else besides. Would I have looked at this movie differently back in 2000, say? I don’t know. I would like to think I would have had more sense. Several older stars whom Spielberg had approached about the film cautioned him not to do it. The consensus was that “World War Two is not funny”. But the film-makers concluded that it was ancient history; who would look at it that way anymore? Boring ass old people, that’s who! Also: 1979, this was the very middle of the craze for “sick comedy”. The whole IDEA was to laugh at sacred cows, to open up whole areas of things to laugh at that had heretofore been sacrosanct. Saturday Night Live and the National Lampoon were on the cutting edge of that. But to a certain extent, such an attitude is the very definition of a decadent luxury. It’s the mentality of the school lunchroom. But let’s be fair, right? Spielberg has atoned many times over on the subject of World War II by now. I wonder if the thought process was spurred on by the wrong turn he made on this film.

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So, haha, there’s that, that the very core of the movie is a bad idea. What about the rest of it? Directorially, it has its moments. Even when I was a kid, I was very much impressed by the historical accuracy of the art direction in this film. It seemed to me that Spielberg got things right down to the smallest detail, and oddly this film was kind of a game-changer in that regard. (He would soon follow that up with Raiders of the Lost Ark). Go back and watch earlier movies set in this time period (e.g. The Way We Were); they were always half-assed in the extreme with regard to haircuts and fashions and so forth. By contrast, this film looks and feels like the year in which it is set. 

The movie’s best comic set pieces are at the lengthy climax at the end. There is a brilliantly choreographed brawl on the floor of a U.S.O. dance hall, staged and cut to the rhythm of big band music. There is lots of noisy carnage with tanks and airplanes and anti-aircraft artillery (ha ha!). And — the film’s most memorable shot — the disengagement of a ferris wheel from its axis, so that it goes rolling into the sea.

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One of the characters trapped on the ferris wheel on its harrowing ride is played by the hilarious Eddie Deezen, who I’m proud to say has become a pen pal on Facebook. He specializes in shlemiels; a sort of living amalgam of Jerry Lewis, Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan. The film would have been better served with more comedians (as opposed to actors) in the principal roles.

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Belushi’s lost fighter pilot Wild Bill Kelso is awesome, an inarticulate animal-man similar in conception to both Bluto and his Samurai character. He was the heart and soul of our reason for being there in the first place.

The film also marks Dan Aykroyd’s film debut. And I will say this: Spielberg is one of the few people who know how to use Aykroyd’s bizarre, unique comic gifts correctly. An artillery Sergeant who goes around spouting instructions and regulations he’s memorized out of a manual; that’s the sort of thing Aykroyd does well. A short showboating, comic turn in a Sturges style ensemble is perfect for him. (He was great in a cameo in Temple of Doom as well). Beyond this, he’s usually out of his depth in trying to carry a full length picture.

In addition to Aykroyd there are two other Canadian Second City alum in the cast: John Candy as a racist soldier, and Joe Flaherty as a Latin crooner named Raoul Lipschitz. And Dave L. Lander and Michael McKean (at the time best known as Lennie and Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley)are also in the cast. These guys are all great. They live in the right universe for some big, broad comedy.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast is filled with actors (as opposed to comedians). Now they are all really great solid acting professionals. Some of them even have great comedy chops — for a certain KIND of comedy. But this is a slapstick comedy. It’s about things falling on people’s heads, and people falling off roofs and ladders, and smashing through billboards, and getting hit in the face with flying food.  These are not tasks that ought to be assigned to Ned Beatty, Murray Hamilton, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Christopher Lee, Patti Lupone, Nancy Allen, etc etc etc etc.

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EVERYONE ON EARTH was in this flipping movie! Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor, Elisha Cook Jr, Lionel Stander, Dick Miller (from the original Little Shop of Horrors), Audrey Lander, MICKEY ROURKE!, and, introducing Japan’s greatest actor, Toshirô Mifune. I was alarmed to see that my own name wasn’t in the credits. I feel sort of left out.

Okay, I’m going to stop now. This post is getting as bloated as 1941!

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss  my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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