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…

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19 Responses to “Favorite Xmas Scene Theatre: 1941 (1979)”

  1. Way to take a glass-is-half-full approach to 1941. I’m not quite a Spielberg apologist, but I find things to like in most of what he’s done, even the more divisive films like Always, AI and Color Purple.

    1941 sadly is right there with Hook as my least favorite, but I’d have to give 1941 a bump up for all the reasons you mention here. It is a mess and probably a bad idea to start with, but then Jaws was probably a bad idea to start with and production-wise a mess in its own way and that one turned out ok.

    Besides being kind of shrill and not all that funny, 1941 suffers for what it could’ve been with the talent and budget assembled for it, and yet like in most Spielberg pictures, there are individual set-pieces that are head and shoulders above anything cranked out by someone like Michael Bay…who I’m sadly reminded is Executive Produced by Spielberg in the Transformers movies.

    Yeah, John Belushi was underused in this, but isn’t that really the great tragedy of his career? He was underused in all of his films, even Animal House if you ask me. From what I’ve heard of his talent, he was even underused on SNL.

  2. I guess if you compare a “bomb” like 1941 to today’s disasters, it still has more style and interest than say, WILD WILD WEST. I mean, that cast! But yeah, the film is shrill. It’s so intent on blowing you away that there are endless EXPLOSIONS under the closing credits.

    Belushi was ill-served in film, but I wonder if that was even his forte. John Candy is the persona and actor that Belushi wasn’t, but without the dark side.

  3. That’s the thing, 1941 kind of suffers compared to what it COULD have been. All the talent and money in the world couldn’t buy a few laughs which is what the movie really needed.

    Spielberg has all the comic sense of a boyscout. I wonder if Landis could’ve pulled it off.

    • Landis is much better at raunch, although the scenes between Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen are the sexiest of his filmography. And Allen is smoking in this.

  4. I’ve seen this at least 3 or 4 times trying, trying to like or even love it and I just can’t. I’ve seen the extended version, which, I think, is better than the theatrical release. There are, as you note, a number of good moments that just can’t overcome some of the more sordid bits (Slim Pickens on the sub is interminable). But, also, as you note, the cast is remarkable, not only for the classic actors, but the great crop of late ’70’s “Who’s Who” of (then) young actors & actresses (many never became the stars they maybe should have been). All that said, I keep checking on “1941” (DVD) on Amazon looking for just the right price (under $5.00 INCLUDING shipping) to bring it home and give it one more shot. Plus, I love L.A./Hollywood-set films. I’m a complete sucker for’em.

    • The extended does play better. And I wish the Pickens scene was funny but it’s not and unworthy of Mifune and Lee. Though Spielberg cut the “coat hangar torture” gag and used it next in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which this film could be seen as an apt segue. I think Spielberg’s humor best comes out from big choreography and little actor moments, as when Matheson questions aloud whether he can fly the plane as Nancy Allen waxes. It’s very Indy Jones. And the kids here are of course adorable. So is Stack watching DUMBO. Imagine if it were John Wayne as Spielberg wanted — The Duke told him not to make film as it was disrespectful to the soldiers…

  5. Yeah, I can’t really get into 1941 either despite the insane amount of awesome actors in this film. I would’ve loved to have seen Landis direct this instead and I’m sure he woulda squeezed something brilliant out of it. After all, he proved that he had the chops to orchestrate laughs and mayhem on a large scale with THE BLUES BROTHERS. Man, the car chase through the shopping mall still makes me cackle every time I see it. Never gets old. Nowadays, they’d probably CGI the entire thing with a green screen. Sheesh.

  6. I’m a big fan of THE BLUES BROTHERS, which feels like an apropos epic. It’s underrated in terms of its mythic qualities. Wish Landis could have released his longer Road Show cut with intermission…

  7. i m wondering what kind of movie 1941 could have been if it was shot by landis or even blake edwards. slapstick is hard to pull off, and spielberg had not idea what to do – i guess he just relied on his actors to do the stuff, hence the unbalanced result… this movie fight is impressive though, but ends too soon. give me good fight, i miss good, huge fights. when was the last good fight we got xian ?

    every spielberg flop has something good in it. i like hook’s score a lot. not much. but, hey, it tells a movie that never was…

    • Landis knows how to frame comedy and he knows how to do sweet crude comedy. It looks like Belushi was just allowed to riff off his Bluto world war ll style, too bad because he’s potentially a great character. I can see Milius writing him big. Edwards could pull it off but sometimes his big set pieces are not that dissimilair to Spielberg’s in terms of noisy crashes.

      Last good fight? Have to think…

  8. Allen IS smoking in this. Off topic, but CARRE was the first adult picture I ever saw (at 8 or 9, my parents had forgotten some of the stuff in it apparently). The huge flirt/sex/manipulation scene between Allen and Travolta in his car? I was never a “girls have cooties” boy anyway, but that moment would’ve been the cure if I had been.

    • I always thought Allen an underrated actress. She’s particularly lovable in BLOW OUT. And she held her own in ROBO-COP.

  9. I always thought her underrated too – though I thought she her naivete was a tad thick in BLOW OUT, a movie I love. It was nice to see her again briefly in OUT OF SIGHT too.

  10. of course, battles (ir gangs of new york or LOTR) do not count as fights.

    i wonder if the brief fight from Anchorman can be considered in the category… if that’s the case, should be the only good fight i saw recently…. *sigh*

    ah…. need more fghts….

    Allen – the philadelphia experiment anybody ? ;)

    • Individual fights within the battles in LOTR like Aragon against the Big Orc, and Legolas against all should count. Too much screen fighting in the past decade have been tired anime-MATRIX retreads. For good stuff, CROUCHING TIGER would count and I’d throw in KUNG FU HUSTLE if you want to go global.

      I’ll watch THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT tonight and get back to you.

  11. Still the best cinematic fight evah is in THEY LIVE. No CGI, no stunt men, just two guys going at it.

    • As Lex would say, YEP. GOOD FIGHT. Arguably the best American fight scene of the 80’s. And look how good Roddy Piper is in that film. Carpenter got a real, naturalistic performance from a wrestler.

      • He sure did. No matter what Piper does from now on he gets an automatic pass for THEY LIVE and maybe HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN which is pretty damn entertaining.

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