Favorite Xmas Scene Theatre: 1941 (1979)
A week after the debut of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE came another big budget anticipated Christmas release, Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Influenced by ANIMAL HOUSE (John Landis appears as a dusty motorcycle courier), Spielberg wanted to try his own hand at broad raunchy comedy, with a script by proteges Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale with a story by John Milius. Ostensibly based on a true event about a Japanese submarine sighting off the coast off Los Angeles after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the film became the closet thing to a modern all-star IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD epic ever lensed, for bad or good. And judging by the film’s critical and commercial response, some might pick for bad. Even Spielberg acknowledges it’s a mess, but O’ What A Glorious Mess. This is one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled for a movie, from John Belushi to Christopher Lee to Warren Oates to John Candy to Toshiro Mifune to Robert Stack to Dan Ackroyd and beyond (Mickey Rourke, even Lenny and Squiggy plus James Caan). In many ways, it’s Spielberg’s chance to direct legendary character actors like Oates, Lee, Mifune, not to mention Slim Pickens, Elisha Cook Jr. and Dick Miller (somewhere in there) and give them his special cinematic sheen.
Sadly, the manic yelling and shouting that comprise most of the gags highlight the lack of real comedic material, although there are a few laugh-out moments, including the great Joe Flaherty and his shoulder mouse stealing every moment as the USO dance club emcee (“Come back next week and we’ll bring in some negroes for a race riot”); Warren Oates asking for a burst of machine-gun fire (“Nyah nyah nyah nyah!!!”); and the spindly Jerry Lewis-esque Eddie Deezen, who makes us guffaw every time he speaks. Oddly, Ackroyd is terrific here, and Belushi is wasted (in more ways than one from set reports) in a shapeless part as pilot Wild Bill Kelso — amazing too that their one scene together was cut. But Belushi does have a grand final moment.
Overall, 1941 is a visual treat, William Fraker’s expert 70 mm cinematography giving everything his soft-focus glow while A.D. Flowers and Greg Jein’s miniature work is nothing less than spectacular, and the dazzling aerial dogfight down Hollywood Boulevard is a culmination of 60 years of studio special effects — superior in every way to any CGI. I think Spielberg incorporates spfx better than any American director. Although ANIMAL HOUSE hi-jinks weren’t his forte, there’s still things to treasure here, particularly John Williams wonderful, rollicking march. Since Steven Spielberg intended 1941 to be a musical, this jitterbug duel between Treat Williams, Bobby Di Cicco, Dianne Kay and Wendie Jo Sperber remains a beautifully choreographed sequence that ranks as one of the classic dance numbers ever committed to film. Take it away, boys and girls…