Few things in the realm of movie geekdom irk me like people who simply regurgitate what they've heard without including their own insights. This happens a lot with "legendary" bad movies like Ishtar (not that bad), Howard the Duck (pretty damn bad), and (most irritatingly) Steven Spileberg's 1941. One hears of a film's alleged reputation, and then their experience with the film is tainted with the knowledge that "I shouldn't like this movie." And man is that a screwed up way to watch a film.
Over the years I've written adamant defenses of films like Popeye, Friday the 13th, and Flash Gordon (sue me, I like 1980), but I don't love those flicks like I adore Spielberg's 1941. Yep, I said "adore." And yet, Mr. Spielberg seems to think so little of the film (and his experience making it), that he's never once gone back to full-bore comedy. Odd. Released in mid-December of 1979, which put it up against movies like Being There, Kramer vs. Kramer, Star Trek: The Motion Picture ... you know, Oscar bait movies ... the movie did solid if unspectacular business, which means it was to be forever labeled as a "bomb." Just because it didn't do as well as Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind*.
A virtually plotless collection of colorfully chaotic episodes that occur on one fateful night in Hollywood, 1941 poses the question of what would happen, farce-wise, if a Japanese submarine wandered into California waters. Virtually plotless, like I said, but I don't think a traditional three-act structure and a series of firm character arcs are what screenwriters Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis were going for. The 1941 I look at feels like an ever-escalating series of outrageous action scenes, populated by amusing caricatures, and brought to life with clever editing and some pretty stellar special effects.
Is 1941 loud? Is it a bit aimless and indulgent and contorted? Absolutely it is. On the other hand, the film also offers A) some pretty eye-popping spectacle, B) a real sense of weird energy, C) a truly excellent John Williams score (perhaps my favorite from the score master), and D) a bombastic ensemble that seems to be having a lot of fun on the screen. (On the screen is what I said. Behind the scenes I bet this shoot was a nightmare.)
So while I'm sure my own sense of childhood nostalgia plays into these opinions, I can still sit down with 1941 and "objectively" point out tons of little things that make me smile: the opening scene cameo from Susan Backline; the banter between Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen; the dummy on the ferris wheel; the tank that goes through a paint factory and then a turpentine plant ... for no reason other than a silly joke. I love the weird contributions from Christopher Lee, Slim Pickens, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, and Robert Stack. I love the jitterbug scene in the middle, the house destruction at the end, and just about every single stocatto syllable that pours out of Dan Aykroyd's mouth.
The 1941 DVD contains some excellent blurbs from some unhappy critics: Charles Champlain of the L.A. Times called it "an oil spill." Another L.A. critic compared the film to "being trapped in a pinball machine for two hours," which sounds like fun to me! Film critic Stephen Farber called it "puerile." Ouch. Good ol' David Denby seems to agree with me, only he did it back in 1979: "The movie is fun because Spielberg takes a fondly appreciative attitude toward the innocent righteousness of the time. He's made an homage to the gung-ho silliness of old war movies, a celebration of the Betty Grable-Betty Hutton period of American pop culture." Nice words, sir. Variety said "exceedingly entertaining." Conversely, The Hollywood Reporter called it "money badly spent."
Tell that to a generation of movie freaks who got to stay up late once in a while when the ridiculous insanity of 1941 played on network television. Usually over two consecutive nights.
Oh, and it was also nominated for three Oscars, so take that for what it's worth. (William Fraker's cinematography deserved that nomination!) And even if you sit down for the first time with 1941 and you don't dig the flick, you'll probably enjoy all the cute little Spielbergian camera touches that would (later) become such a part of the modern movie world.
If you still HATE the movie, that's cool. Keep the DVD handy for the next time your nearest neighbor pisses you off. Throw this disc in, set the volume to 45, and go hit a movie.
( * According to Wikipedia, the film cost $35 million, and it grossed over $92 million worldwide.)