Why Does Spielberg’s ‘1941’ Work So Much Better 40 Years Later?
Dec. 14, 1979 is a day that will live in infamy as the release date for Steven Spielberg’s star-studded World War II-era comedy 1941. Savaged as too frenetic, loud and unfunny, the then-33-year-old director’s fourth theatrical film was depicted as a bigger bomb than all the combined ordnance set off during original conflict.
“There are too many characters who aren't immediately comic. There are too many simultaneous actions that necessitate a lot of cross-cutting [and] everything is too big,” wrote Vincent Canby for the New York Times. The chorus of negative reviews was joined by the Chicago Sun Times' Roger Ebert, who called Spielberg’s first – and to date, last – comedy an "assault on our eyes and ears, a nonstop series of climaxes, screams, explosions, double-takes [and] sight gags … that's finally just not very funny.”
Ebert also pointed out that we’re never given enough exposition or character development to make us care about what is happening to whom in the 24-hour period covered in the screenplay. Decades later, co-screenwriter Bob Gale sardonically recalled his favorite quote from the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, who said watching 1941 was like having your head stuck in a pinball machine for two hours.
In a way, these revered critics are right. 1941 is overstuffed and unfocused, featuring over-the-top performances with each character crazier than the next. There’s no central protagonist and no real dramatic build among the comedic chaos. Everything’s amped to 11, roaring along at supersonic speed like a rocket sled screeching across White Sands. There’s even a kitchen sink, but that’s destroyed when a homeowner flattens his own house with an anti-aircraft gun.
And that’s what makes it so glorious. God bless this mess of a comedy.
Fast forward to Los Angeles in 2015, where a restored edition of 1941 was the focus of a screening attended by Gale, stars Tim Matheson, Nancy Allen and others at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre. In the ensuing decades, Spielberg’s so-called elephantine misfire had acquired cult status, a rehabilitation kicked off by an extended version that was first shown on ABC-TV in 1983. This edition rectifies Ebert’s concerns about caring and coherence by restoring a lot of exposition and character development that was cut from the film’s initial theatrical release.
How did Spielberg’s misfire become an on-target comedy classic, and why does 1941 work better today than it did in the winter of 1979? A contemporary complaint was that there were too many entwining plots that didn’t allow characters to breathe. But this critique misses the point that 1941 is all about flat-out hysteria.
Watch the First Official Trailer for '1941'
“This isn’t the state of California. This is a state of insanity,” Robert Stack's Gen. Joseph Stillwell says in one of the film’s opening scenes. He has no idea how crazy things will become before the day in done.
1941 begins with one of its best gags, a parody of the opening scene from Spielberg’s Jaws. A young woman goes for a nude swim, and she’s played by the same actress, Susan Backlinie, who meets a grisly end in Jaws. Here, she merely gets stranded, clinging to the periscope of a surfacing Japanese submarine commanded by Toshiro Mifune, star of countless classics like Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. It’s one week after Pearl Harbor, and Mifune is determined to score an honorable victory by attacking Hollywood. The thing is, the sub and crew are lost and have no idea where Hollywood is.
Screenwriters Gale and Robert Zemeckis based their story on two February 1942 events, a haphazard attack by a Japanese submarine on an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, and the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, where spooked anti-aircraft crews lit up the night sky firing at absolutely nothing for several hours.
1941 makes sense if you see the plot as nothing more than an extended riff on people going bonkers with war fever. Capt. Loomis Birkhead and Stilwell's aide Donna Stratton, played by Matheson and Allen, spend the entire movie trying to have sex in an airplane, going to extraordinary lengths to become airborne. As P-40 Warhawk fighter pilot Capt. Wild Bill Kelso, John Belushi is a swaggering combination of overconfidence and incompetence. Fellow Saturday Night Live cast member Dan Aykroyd is marginally saner as quirky and personable tank crew commander Sgt. Frank Tree.
There’s more, almost too much more, including Ned Beatty as homeowner Ward Douglas demolishing his domicile while trying to get a clear shot at the submarine with an anti-aircraft gun; an impeccably choreographed jitterbug contest at a dancehall that devolves into a furious donnybrook between the Army, Navy and zoot-suited civilians; and Stack as Stillwell getting teary-eyed in a Hollywood movie theater watching Walt Disney’s Dumbo, as a full-fledged riot rages out on the boulevard. There’s even room for Christopher Lee as a Nazi officer aboard the Japanese submarine for reasons probably addressed in the screenplay, but it’s hard to remember amid the attention-deficit-disorder maelstrom that comprises the plot.
Growing appreciation for 1941 may be due in part to the film’s impressive special effects. A clifftop home toppling into the sea like a house of cards, an exploding pier, a runaway Ferris wheel and a dogfight over Hollywood Boulevard are all brought to the screen with showmanship and childlike glee, and the effects are all the more impressive because they’re practical gags executed on set with full-size props and miniatures, a refreshing sight in our CGI-glutted era.
Watch Kelso Save America in '1941'
Mostly, the film’s growing cult status can be attributed to context. Audiences today get 1941 in a way that critics from 1979 couldn’t. To give them their due, Ebert, Canby and company may have understood where Spielberg and his screenwriters were coming from. 1941’s breakneck pace and chain-reaction slapstick draws on the Three Stooges, Mad magazine, Bugs Bunny cartoons and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, producer/director Stanley Kramer’s similarly overstuffed, hyperactive and star-studded farce from 1963.
But while the past may have been clear to critics and moviegoers at the time, they couldn’t see the future, a scenario where 1941 serves as the template for big- and small-screen comedy to come. Go-for-broke live-action cartoons like The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack were right around the corner in 1980. The absurdist slapstick of Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedies like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski owe a debt to Spielberg’s war-fever farce.
On television, the antic and acidic Community, the assaultive skits of Mr. Show and the surreal cartoon logic of The Mighty Boosh are also the children of 1941. All of these ensemble pieces pale compared to the nonstop insanity in the ultimate one-damn-thing-after another comedy Airplane. In that 1980 farce, Stack reprised and refined his approach to comedy, proving that in noisy screwball satires the understated straight man often gets the funniest moments.
Speaking of Stack, he was not Spielberg’s first choice to play 1941's sole voice of sanity. Spielberg originally approached John Wayne to play Stillwell, but the Duke balked at the script, saying it was scurrilous and unpatriotic. Wayne was right. Like the Marx Brothers, Spielberg and his collaborators lampoon everything sacred without malice. And there is nothing more sacred in 1941 than patriotism.
In Gale and Zemeckis’ scenario, rousing tear-jerking speeches are simply set-ups for a pratfall or a pie in the face. Aykroyd’s Sgt. Tree breaks up a riot by appealing to the crowd’s reverence for Mickey Mouse, only to have all hell break loose anew with the news of an oncoming air raid. Beatty’s Ward nails a Christmas wreath to his door to symbolize the indomitable spirit of Americans, only to watch his efforts destroy the remnants of his home.
Perhaps this classic’s timelessness is due to its sunny yet insane outlook. 1941 is cheerfully anarchic with no political agenda. Spielberg is good natured, but he also has no respect. Hell, he even lets the Japanese win.