Guilty Pleasures: 1941

To read critical reaction at the time of its 1979 release, 1941 is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing“. So why is it a Guilty pleasure?

The story, a screwball farce based on an actual suspected Japanese attack on L.A and its environs a week after Pearl Harbor, was written by emerging wunderkids Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. They had added input from John Milius, and Steven Spielberg, hot off Close Encounters, agreed to direct what is essentially a live action Looney Tunes movie.

It was originally entitled “The Night The Japs Attacked“, and references a surprising number of real incidents. They are tied together by young waiter Wally’s attempts to get together with Betty at a dance competition in a Hollywood Boulevard club. Along the way a bunch of wacky characters interact in his quest.

A Japanese sub, captained by Toshiro Mifune and carrying Christopher Lee as a German observer, is lost off the Californian coast. They kidnap a local (Slim Pickens) and try to get his wireless through the hatch -”We’ve got to figure out a way of making these things smaller“. They’re spotted and panic escalates. In the meantime, the voice of reason, General Stillwell (a deadpan Robert Stack) is watching Dumbo in the cinema (this really happened).

Tim Matheson tries to seduce Stillwell’s secretary( Nancy Allen), who only gets turned on when airborne. “No man has ever got to first base with her on the ground. But get her in the air, she’ll bat your balls out of the park”. They do get up there and get mistaken for an enemy bomber, and are shot at and chased by a crazy fighter pilot, Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi). They tangle above rioting Zoot suiters and service men in Hollywood Boulevard. Again, this riot really happened, but two years later.

There aren’t many good stand out funny lines, but there are a plethora of great slapstick sight gags and stunts. The film is trying to channel films like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World, and more specifically, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!

Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty) has an anti-aircraft gun placed in his cliff top home’s garden (again, based on reality). He takes pot shots at the sub, demolishing his own house in the process. “We’re not going to let a bunch of enemy killjoys ruin our Christmas”, he says, nailing a wreath to the door just before the house collapses around him, Buster Keaton style. At one point a tank crashes through a paint factory and is covered in paint, then crashes through a turpentine factory and emerges returned to it’s original state. It even has a ferris wheel with frozen observers (including a ventriloquist dummy), crash off a pier into the ocean.

John Wayne was Spielberg’s first choice to play Stillwell. He loved the idea until he read the script. Outraged by the farcical nature, he tried to talk Spielberg out of making it. Charlton Heston also turned it down, also perceiving it to be un-American. Robert Stack got it though, and plays it wonderfully straight, as he would to hilarious effect in the Airplane! movies a few years later.

The chaotic Jitterbug chase scene pre-cursors the night club fight in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. A gag that was supposed to be used featured Christopher Lee producing a sinister gadget that turned into a coat Hanger. Of course this appeared in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Out of this anarchic gag-fest more polished, witty routines emerged in later Spielberg movies.

Spielberg said the film was “basically written and directed as one would perform a demolition derby”. Subtle it ain’t. It’s unfairly held up as a Spielberg flop, and a rare dip in form, but I’d rather have this broad farce than the sentimental tosh of some of his later work (I’m looking at you, Hook!). After this long, wild shoot, he could finally get on with Raiders Of The Lost Ark. In many ways, 1941 was a learning curve, because on a tighter budget and tighter (self- inflicted) schedule, he was forced to reign in the excess and deliver a tight, punchy story, with well executed, not over drawn-out thrills.


Originally posted 2012-12-22 09:49:53. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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