Saturday, September 6, 2014
(December 1979, U.S.)
Love the great Steven Spielberg all you want (as I do!), but even after thirty-five years, it may still be unclear just how to interpret 1941 in the overall span of his long career. Perhaps it was the inevitable failure that the poor man was destined to experience sandwiched in between two back-to-back smash blockbusters (JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND in back and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and E.T.-THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL in front). But perhaps failure is a rather unfair word to use. Fact is, 1941 was, indeed, a financial success, but was generally disregarded by fans and critics. Whatever the reasons may have been, it's managed to gain a cult-status following over the decades.
Reason is, perhaps, the first element to be explored as to why 1941 didn't work for many. Is it because an outrageous comedy about the events of World War II or war in general was not meant to work (hey - even John Wayne himself tried to talk Spielberg out of making the film because he felt World War II was not a joking matter)? Could be. But then again, if that were true, classic TV shows like HOGAN'S HEROES or M.A.S.H. never would have been successful. Is it because the simple act of acting loud and obnoxious was not meant to be truly funny? Could be. But then again, if that were true, Mel Brooks films and films like ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) never would have been successful. So what's the answer? Well, to repeat my first sentence of this post...love the great Steven Spielberg all you want, but even the best of us Spielberg aficionados (that means ME and you, too, Steven A.!) have to confess that despite all his great originality and creativity, the poor man just isn't all that funny. Not to say he hasn't try, though! Look at every single film Steven Spielberg has ever made and you'll find that every once in a while he's interjected a moment or a piece of dialogue that's meant to make us laugh even in the most extreme of serious or dramatic circumstances...
"I can do anything. I'm the chief of police." - Martin Brody (JAWS)
"I don't know. I'm making this up as I go." - Indiana Jones (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK)
"It wasn't like that, penis-breath!" - Elliot (E.T.)
Hell, even in SCHINDLER'S LIST, there's a brief moment when Oskar Schindler looks absolutely dumbfounded when the only secretary he's interviewing that has any real skills is totally unattractive. It's the most serious and heartbreaking of films, yet we're meant to laugh for just a moment because Spielberg decides he wants us to. Still, that doesn't mean he truly knows how to be funny, and even he's the first one to admit it! And so, if 1941 isn't necessarily that funny, what is the real reason to appreciate it and why is it part of my film collection and my blog? Well, in my opinion, 1941 may, at it's best, be one of the best cinematic exercises in perfect timing of popular celebrity culture. You're likely scratching your head wondering what the hell I mean by that. Let's give some serious consideration to the extensive cast of 1941 and the specific time period of the era in which they were famous in media entertainment and you may understand what I'm talking about. We have the popularity of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi (SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE), Tim Matheson (ANIMAL HOUSE), Ned Beatty (SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE), Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton (JAWS & JAWS 2), Nancy Allen (CARRIE), Treat Williams (HAIR) and even that cute blonde chick from EIGHT IS ENOUGH and the geeky guy with the glasses from GREASE. Perhaps it doesn't particularly matter that a loud, insane World War II story loosely based on the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 wasn't all that laugh-out-loud funny. Perhaps it was simply enough that it was loaded to the brim with a huge assortment of popular celebrity figures of the time for 1941 to be attractive to the common moviegoer. For myself...well, let me just say that everything seems a whole lot funnier when you're twelve years-old in 1979. But the time you're a full-grown adult with a more sophisticated sense of cinema (I hope!), you still have very strong memories of sitting in a movie theater and watching all insanity break loose on the screen as a city tears itself apart over the fear and paranoia of an imminent invasion by the Japanese and actually finding it funny. But like I said, I was twelve years-old and I have a real strong hold on the concept of personal nostalgia.
Deterring ourselves from the comedy element for a moment, I can honestly say that 1941 is still an impressive film visually, with it's night time aerial shots of war planes in action and even the ferris wheel and the amusement park sequence is a visual delight to enjoy. John Williams' gung-ho and half-crazy musical score is a far cry from the traditional action or sci-fi spectacle we've all gotten accustomed to, with a real stronghold to the great big band sounds of the 1940s. It's easy to hear how much fun he's having and you get caught up listening to it, particularly during the big USO dance sequence.
As previously mentioned, 1941 contains more screaming than many slasher films combined and it's meant to be funny, if you're willing to buy that. In all likelihood, you're not. However, if you look and listen well enough, you'll find enough moments where you can't help but laughing. For myself, that moment is when Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen are sitting atop the great ferris wheel and a ventriloquist dummy wearing a white sailor suit and wearing glasses suddenly appears and Murray Hamilton's jaw drops causing his cigarette to fall from his mouth. I can't help but crack up at that!
And so, my great fans of Steven Spielberg, I think we can finally conclude that despite it's cinematic history, 1941 may not be remembered as the great dud of the man's career. That honor, in my opinion, belongs to HOOK (EWW!)!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Raoul Lipschitz (reporting over the radio on a riot at the USO): "Ladies and gentlemen, every where I look...soldiers are fighting sailors, sailors are fighting Marines! Directly in front of me, I see a flying blond floozy! Everywhere I look...everywhere, pure pandemonium...pandemonium!"