Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Overlook: 1941

by JB
Boy, did everyone (but me) hate this film when it was originally released in 1979. I think they were angry because it wasn’t Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

No, it wasn’t.

At the time of its original release, Roger Ebert gave 1941 two stars and wrote, “It's not fair to say Steven Spielberg's 1941 lacks ‘pacing.’ It's got it, all right, but all at the same pace: The movie relentlessly throws gags at us until we're dizzy. It's an attempt at that most tricky of genres, the blockbuster comedy, and it tries so hard to dazzle us that we want a break. It's a good-hearted, cheerfully disorganized mess […]”

The New York Times’ Vincent Canby hated the film. “Everything is too big,” he writes. “We don't laugh at a gigantic riot of servicemen in and around the Los Angeles United Service Organization Club. We are stunned by what appears to be the thousands of extras — enough to fill a Yugoslavian-made biblical epic […] In 1941, when a full-size, two-story house falls over a cliff, we groan at the effort[…] 1941 is less comic than cumbersome, as much fun as a 40-pound wristwatch.”

Actually, a man wearing a 40-pound wristwatch sounds hilarious. Funnier still? A BABY wearing a 40-pound wristwatch! Because babies can’t tell time.
The film’s reputation has not improved much since then. A few years ago, Nathan Rabin reviewed the film for The Onion AV Club and wrote, “1941 is a lovely film with a few standout sequences but it is has one big drawback: it's just not funny. In fact it's brutally, brutally unfunny and after a while, its size and ear-splitting volume become assaultive and dispiriting.” The AV Club’s Keith Phipps also weighed in: “When a ventriloquist's dummy (approximate cost: $40) has nearly all of a multimillion-dollar film's funniest moments, something has clearly gone wrong.”

To say these critics—all of whom I actually read, like, and admire—missed the point is an understatement almost as massive as the scale of 1941. Every example they throw at the film to besmirch its greatness I would use as evidence to prove its greatness. The size is the joke. The relentlessness is the joke. The dizziness and messiness is the joke. Canby suggests that Spielberg wants the audience to be stunned by the film’s scope—yes, he does. This is a film that grabs me, and pummels me, and refuses to let me go until I laugh. Well, guess what? I LIKE TO LAUGH. So I do. I laugh a lot at this movie. Thanks, 1941!
The Plot in Brief: Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor (an event always ripe for comedy), residents throughout Southern California panic because they think they will be bombed next next. During a single 24-hour period, the following events occur: 1) Sgt. Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd) and his gunnery unit are assigned to guard the coastal home of the Douglas family; 2) lone pilot “Wild Bill” Kelso (John Belushi), hopelessly lost, flies and flies in search of wayward Japanese planes; 3) Capt. Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson) attempts to lure lovely Donna Stratton (Nancy Allen) into a fighter plane for unsavory purposes; 4) Japanese Commander Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune) and German Captain von Kleinschmidt (Christopher Lee) patrol the waters of the Pacific Ocean and capture farmer Hollis “Holly” Wood (Slim Pickens); 5) amateur dancer Wally Stephens (Bobby DiCicco) intends to compete in a big dance competition at a local USO club; 6) Major General Joseph Stilwell (Robert Stack) insists there is no danger, and attends a screening of Walt Disney’s Dumbo; 7) Claude Crumn (Murray Hamilton) and Herbie Kazlminsky (Eddie Deezen) scan the skies for approaching enemy planes; and 7) Cpl. “Stretch” Sitarski (Treat Williams) hates eggs. All of these storylines intersect and intertwine as the film races to its ginormous finale.

I liken 1941 to one of my favorite comedies, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, another film in which all hell breaks loose and the size of the whole damn thing is the point. 1941 is an album of astounding images: an unmoored Ferris wheel careens down a pier and lands in the ocean, sailors and zoot-suited hipsters stage an epic brawl to the strains of swing music in a USO dance hall, a two-story house tumbles down a cliff, and an aerial dogfight swoops over Hollywood Boulevard—Buster Keaton would be proud.
Funny throwaway lines abound. At one point, Aykroyd’s character is hit on the head quite hard; he pulls a lady’s nylon stocking over his head, shoves two oranges over his eyes and two pencils into his mouth and commences to scream, “I’M A BUG. I’M A BUG!” When Penny Marshall’s Miss Fitzroy asks Dance MC Joe Flaherty his real name, he pauses and replies, seductively, “Raoul Lipschitz.”
Now, I know that comedy is subjective. I am not even suggesting that Spielberg has any affinity for comedy. He doesn’t. Still, one of the funnier throwaway gags in Raiders of the Lost Ark (the film Spielberg directed right after 1941)—the scene where the bad guy produces what the audience assumes will be an instrument of torture, but which turns out to be a folding hanger for his coat—was scripted and filmed for Christopher Lee’s character in 1941, but did not make the final cut.
Although critics should never approach a film by discussing its budget, I think many critics at the time were just doing that with 1941. Canby in particular seems to take personal issue with the film’s size, as if any cost overruns were coming out of his own pocket, or he was being charged a pro-rated ticket fee based on the film’s budget. This makes no sense. Critics get in free! However, if the film gave him a headache, I certainly can’t argue against that. Maybe he has a sensitive head.

Because 1941 followed on the heels of National Lampoon’s Animal House and because John Belushi’s image as Wild Bill Kelso was used so heavily to market the film, I think a majority of the film’s original audience (critics included) were disappointed that he isn’t in the film all that much. I believe Ebert pointed out that Belushi only has something like 27 lines of dialogue in the entire film. I also believe many people were disappointed that Belushi had no scenes with Aykroyd, as the two had been a sensation together during several seasons on Saturday Night Live.
But that’s okay—the rest of the huge cast makes up for it. Although Gene Siskel’s famous edict that a film should be more entertaining than having lunch with its cast might be true in the case of 1941, said lunch would require a mighty big banquet hall. My God, just look at this list: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Tim Matheson (all from Animal House); Nancy Allen, Wendie Jo Sperber, Bobby DiCicco, and Eddie Deezen (all from the previous film from screenwriters Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, I Wanna Hold Your Hand); Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, and Susan Backlinie (all from Spielberg’s Jaws); plus Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, John Candy, Patti Lupone, Slim Pickens, Michael McKean, David Lander, and Mickey Rourke in his film debut.

This film has so many star cameos that, though I have seen it at least a dozen times, I have never noticed James Caan, Sydney Lassick, or John Landis—although, based on sources, ALL of them appear in this film. I do know that when the USO fight breaks through a window, spilling the fight into the restaurant next door, the old man impassively eating pasta is also John Belushi.
Universal’s new 4K restoration Blu-ray disc is the best this film has ever looked and restores more footage than their previous “director’s cut” release. (That means there is more to love!) What keeps this film from looking really razor sharp, however, is Spielberg’s insistence on blowing smoke (literally) through (virtually) every scene, which gives much of the film a hazy, unfocused quality. On the great “making of” documentary included here, the cast members interviewed cannot agree on much regarding this misunderstood film, but they all remember hating all that stinky smoke.

Smoking is bad for you, babies. But a movie that’s willing to throw a house off a cliff just to make you laugh? One has to applaud that kind of effort. Don’t be a fuddy-duddy like Vince Canby—give in to the chaos of 1941.


  1. I haven't seen this in many a year, but you've convinced me, JB. I'm going to rewatch it.

  2. My brother in law and I have a big fued constantly brewing over this or Hook being a worse Spielberg movie. This article enforces my conviction that, flawed as it is, 1941 at least gives it its all to try to entertain. Thanks JB!

    1. Much as I'm not a 1941 fan, that's not even a question. Hook is almost as bad as Always.

    2. Most definitely Joseph. Much as I don't like Hook, there are still about 4 Spielberg movies I dislike more, Always being one of them. I think I probably stand alone, but my personal taste qualifies Empire of the Sun as his worst. Always is awful, but Empire drags on far too long for me. I'll take 2 hours with a tiny sliver of John Goodman over 2 1/2 with no enjoyable characters whatsoever any day.

    3. Hmmmm.....no, I like Empire a might bit better for good Malkovich and Bale performances. But I think your reasoning is pretty damn valid.

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  4. Sold! Thanks for the review and providing the click-through. I look forward to giving this one another shot. HOLLYWOOD!!!!

  5. Matt and Albert-- Please remember that my love for this film might say more about me than the film itself. Happy laughs...

  6. I watched this several years ago for some F This Movie-related reason (Netflix this Movie? Junesploitation? 30 Stars of Summer?) and I...can't remember if I liked it or not. I know I like seeing people from Jaws so that was in its favour. I also have a mad crush on pre-Robocop (sorry Lewis!) Nancy Allen so that's another plus...I'll have to give this another shot because, like you, and I know this is a special and unique bond we share JB (and someday, God willing, whether it be at a Chicago bar, or in your bedroom at 1am after I've emerged from my closet hiding place holding Patrick Bromley's severed head, we WILL be together), I too like to laugh. I still haven't cracked my copy of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World I purchased at your behest - I'm saving that for the next time I need a laugh - maybe we'll watch it together...

  7. RE: Patrick Bromley's severed head? Promises, promises...

  8. JB, you´re right. It´s a misunderstood gem.

    I loved this in 1979 at age 13 and I still love it today. Over the years I must have seen it maybe 15 times. The sheer spectacle, the silly jokes, the whole gigantic chaos created by Spielberg and his crew are still great today, not to mention John Williams fantastic score. And most jokes still work for me, which is something that really happens not very often when I watch a comedy.
    Maybe I have a different kind of humor but usually I don´t find very much to laugh at in movie comedies, so I mostly avoid watching them. On the other hand I laugh about lots of things other people don´t find the least bit funny. Maybe that´s why I like this so much.

    I would love to see 1941 one more time on a big screen.

  9. I LOVE this movie!
    In college, I convinced my dorm mates to watch it one weekend. They didn't hate it, but they all agreed the most enjoyable part was watching ME watch it :-)