When Steven Spielberg’s 1941 opened in December 1979, it was mostly savaged by the critics though a few rose to its defense like Pauline Kael who wrote, “…the film overall is an amazing, orgiastic comedy, with the pop culture of an era compacted into a day and a night. There are such surprising slapstick payoffs that the film’s commercial failure in this country didn’t make much sense.” When I caught up with 1941 in a repertory screening in 1982, I had to concur with Kael that Spielberg’s comic epic was unfairly maligned and great fun if you just go with the chaotic flow of it.
The film began to take shape after Spielberg directed two blockbuster hits in a row – Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He found the ideal project that appealed to his love of uninhibited, anarchic comedy and violent slapstick in the style of a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon. The script, written by recent USC graduates Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, was titled The Night the Japs Attacked (which was then changed to The Night the Japanese Attacked after complaints from Japanese-Americans in the film industry) and was inspired by a real incident that occurred on February 23, 1942, when a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara and fired on a Richfield oil refinery, setting off widespread panic in Los Angeles.
Budgeted at a cost of $20 million, Spielberg’s new project with the working title of The Rising Sun, would soon balloon into a runaway production nightmare that became one of the most expensive movies made up until that time. It also still remains his mostly critically lambasted effort though the overinflated 1991 fantasy, Hook, comes close.
1941 began innocently enough with Spielberg’s desire to make a comedy. “I’ve always been a frustrated comedian,” he revealed in an interview to a British journalist at the time. “I’ve wanted to do what Woody Allen’s been doing for a long time now. People laugh when I tell them that. But I really started my career making short joke movies.” He also admitted that “I always wanted to do a comedy like Hellzapoppin’ , which I must have watched 100 times on television late-night movies when I was a kid.”
When Spielberg first read Zemeckis and Gale’s screenplay, he was immediately smitten by “its highly illiterate nature,” according to Joseph McBride in Steven Spielberg: A Biography. “It appeared to have been written by two guys whose only excursions into literature had been classic comics. My initial instincts were not far off: I subsequently learned that the sole writing experiences of the authors had been spray-painting the walls of public buildings with profanity and ethnic slurs. I continued to read their first-draft screenplay at a local junk-burger dive in the San Fernando Valley. Moments of the script were so funny that I vomited from laughter. It was this feeling of nausea that I felt moved to translate into cinematic imagery.”
1941 opens on the day of December 13, 1941, and incorporates the Japanese submarine incident into a dizzying number of subplots which build to a massive paranoid freak-out comparable to the effect that Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (1953) had on its listeners. Among the many plot threads are a gonzo pilot named ‘Wild Bill’ Kelso who crash lands his plane in the La Brea Tar Pitts, a rivalry between enlisted men and zoot-suited locals which begins at a canteen dance and spills over into the streets, a coastal defense commander who tries to minimize his stress by attending a screening of Walt Disney’s Dumbo, a Santa Monica couple whose beautiful seaside home is selected by the army as a strategic artillery base, and a pair of night watchmen (one is a ventriloquist) at an amusement park.
During the casting process, Spielberg felt that John Belushi would be perfect in the role of the Japanese sub commander, a decision that was probably influenced by Belushi’s Toshiro Mifune samurai parody in skits on TV’s Saturday Night Live. After meeting the actor, however, he decided he was more ideally suited to play the barnstorming ‘Wild Bill’ Kelso and, in a strange twist of fate, Spielberg was actually able to get Toshiro Mifune for the role of Commander Akiro Mitamura, whose shelling of a California oil field sets the plot in motion.
Regarding his performance, Belushi told Spielberg, “We’ll work it out on the set…I’m best there. I’m fast. I like to improvise. I won’t let you down.” What the director didn’t know at the time was that Belushi already had a serious drug problem and once filming began, it began to show up in his work. In one incident, cited in Steven Spielberg: A Biography, “Belushi arrived on the set an hour and a half late, “so drugged up that he nearly rolled out of the car onto the ground.” Angrily confronting Belushi in the star’s trailer, Spielberg told him, “You can do this to anyone else, but you can’t do it to me. For $350,000 [Belushi’s salary] you’re going to show up.”
At the other extreme of Belushi was Robert Stack, a seasoned Hollywood professional and probably the only character in 1941 who retains his dignity during the ensuing chaos. Originally Spielberg wanted John Wayne to play the role of Major General Joseph W. Stilwell, a real officer who was actually stationed in California at the time the movie is set. Wayne, however, was offended by the movie’s irreverent tone and tried to discourage Spielberg from making it.
Needless to say, Stack won the part and during the actor’s big scene in the movie theatre, Spielberg actually had the actor play it while watching Dumbo. “As I was watching the scene in Dumbo,” Stack recalled, “tears were starting to come. This guy was shooting me with a massive camera and all that incredible equipment, but he didn’t get overpowered with the camera. Steven shot that in one take! I couldn’t believe it. He has incredible confidence. I’ve never done anything like that before, without coverage or protection. I thought, ‘This guy knows what he wants. That’s class!'”
Part of the reason 1941 ran over budget and schedule was due to the construction of elaborate miniature sets, time-consuming special effects and the staging of some of the film’s most important sequences which required detailed choreography such as the riot on Hollywood Boulevard involving hundreds of extras in period costumes and multiple car crashes. “For the film’s ending, Spielberg had an actual full-sized house built at a cost of $260,000 and dropped off a beachfront hillside, with seven cameras capturing its descent. The spectacularly detailed miniatures built by Close Encounters model maker Gregory Jein included a panoramic aerial view of the San Fernando Valley; the Hollywood Boulevard canyon where the dogfight occurs; and Ocean Park in Santa Monica, where a Ferris wheel blasted free by Japanese shells rolls into the ocean.” (source: Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride).
Spielberg’s film knowledge and love of classic movies is evident throughout 1941 with its numerous homages and in-jokes. He even hired legendary animator Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Daffy Duck) as a creative consultant on the film and the screenplay is clearly inspired by The Three Stooges’ brand of infantile humor. You can see parallels to Norman Jewison’s Cold War satire, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) and Stanley Kramer’s similar ode to comical destruction, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). There are also references to Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Quiet Man (1952), Mack Sennett comedies and even Spielberg’s own Jaws: the actress (Susan Backlinie) who was attacked by the shark in the opening sequence of that film appears here as a swimmer who is frightened by the surfacing Japanese sub.
Like Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1941 is also brimming with cameos by famous character actors, fellow directors and comics. Slim Pickens, Lionel Stander, Elisha Cook, Jr., Dub Taylor, Christopher Lee (as a Nazi officer) and Roger Corman regular Dick Miller all show up briefly as do directors John Landis, Penny Marshall and Sam Fuller, who with customary cigar-in-mouth plays the commanding officer of the Southern California Interceptor Command. Joining Belushi is fellow Saturday Night Live player Dan Aykroyd plus two members from Second City TV (John Candy & Joe Flaherty), Michael McKean (who later appeared in the films of Christopher Guest such as This Is Spinal Tap, 1984), and Eddie Deezen, who was memorably obnoxious in Robert Zemeckis’s feature debut, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978).
Prior to release, 1941 was subjected to numerous sneak previews; first one with Universal and Columbia executives who had mutual financial interests in the film and then various audiences ranging in age from twelve to forty-nine. The final outcome of this was that Spielberg had a lot of work to do before releasing the movie. “I jettisoned, repositioned and tightened scenes from the first forty-five minutes of 1941, the part of the film most viewers said caused the most consternation,” the director admitted (in Steven Spielberg: The Unauthorized Biography by John Baxter). He would later comment that Zemeckis would have been a better choice of director and that his version would have been darker, ending with the jitterbugging Wally Stephens (Bobby Di Cicco) aboard the Enola Gay and bombing Hiroshima in retribution for losing a USO dance contest.
1941 was greeted with one of the most hostile critical receptions of any movie made in the seventies. Part of the backlash was due to the unreasonably high expectations reviewers had for the film and a pervasive jealousy in the media for Spielberg’s past triumphs at such a relatively young age. The Washington Post labeled the film “pointless, tasteless, an artistic disgrace;” The Los Angeles Times referred to it as “the last major oil spill;” Playboy magazine called it “one of the most inept comedies of the decade,” and Stephen Farber of New West magazine deemed it “the most appalling piece of juvenilia yet foisted on the public.”
Some of the few critics to defend 1941 was Pauline Kael who said, “The movie gives you the feeling of a madly happy playroom,” and David Denby in New York magazine who wrote, “He’s made a celebration of the gung-ho silliness of old war movies, a celebration of the Betty Grable-Betty Hutton period of American pop culture. In this movie – America is still a very young country – foolish, violent, casually destructive, but not venal. That we joke about a moment of national crisis shows that we are still young – and sane.”
Most critics, however, took issue with the film’s Mad Magazine-like treatment that presented the famous Zoot Suit Riots of 1942 in Los Angeles (a series of violent clashes between servicemen and the Chicano community) as a comical plot device while ignoring the whole issue of Japanese-Americans being deported to internment camps at the same time. One can only imagine the response if Belushi had ended up playing the Japanese sub commander!
Although Spielberg was apt to agree with the majority view at the time that 1941 was a failure and that his forte was not comedy after all, he would remark years later that “1941 is a film I look at fondly, but when it was released it was like the critics thought I was Adolf Eichmann. They were that tough on me. Until then I thought I was immune to failure. But I couldn’t come down from the power high of making big films on large canvases. I threw everything in, and it killed the soup.” Spielberg, however, is mistaken if he thinks 1941 is his most unsuccessful film; it works infinitely better than, for example, Always (1989), his overproduced remake of the fantasy-romance A Guy Named Joe, and compared to his more ambitious literary and historical adaptations – The Color Purple (1985) and Amistad (1997), which received decidedly mixed critical reviews – it doesn’t feel like a homework assignment or something that was made to impress the Academy Award members. And despite the enormous cost of production, 1941 actually turned a profit, taking in a worldwide gross of $90 million dollars, which is more than you can say for some of Spielberg’s later pictures such as The Terminal (2004) and Munich (2005).
Seen today, 1941 can be enjoyed for many hilarious bits and pieces and for the dazzling technical virtuosity of several sequences that have a genuine emotional sweep to them, particularly the elaborate canteen dance number, set to Benny Goodman’s “Swing, Swing, Swing.” Several performances also shine through the madness such as Bobby Di Cicco’s smart-ass semi-delinquent character (why didn’t he become a bigger star?), Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary as an embattled married couple watching their dream home being destroyed and Wendie Jo Sperber’s frantic boy chaser which is like Betty Hutton on speed. 1941 even managed to garner three Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography by William A. Fraker, Best Visual Effects and Best Sound. Not bad for a movie that was once considered the nadir of Spielberg’s career.
*This is a revised and extended version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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