It’s December 1941 and the United States is preparing for war after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Everyone is on edge and gearing up for a fight. California is especially tense as residents and the military are concerned of another attack on the U.S. coastline.
They have good reason to be worried when a Japanese submarine has made it’s way to the coast and is looking to make another devastating blow to America by destroying Hollywood.
That’s the setup for Steven Spielberg’s big-budget comedy 1941. Chaos, mayhem, dance sequences, gun fire, fist fights, explosions, and disaster then began to rain down furiously on an all-star cast.
1941 has a much maligned reputation. It followed the two huge blockbusters that would put Spielberg on the map – Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Expectations were high for the young director with his WWII comedy.
The budget ballooned, hundreds of extras, filled with stars, especially the popular Saturday Night Live duo of Belushi and Aykroyd. Add to all of that Spielberg’s name doing a huge comedy, it’s no surprise expectations were high for the young director for 1941.
As we all know, 1941 wasn’t as big a hit as Spielberg’s previous two films, but it still did decent business. The film did make its money back, but it certainly didn’t break any records. Despite that, it’s gotten pegged as being a huge box office bomb.
Maybe it was inevitable 1941 would be held up, unfairly or not, to the lofty standards Spielberg had accomplished before. A Spielberg movie that did ‘ok’ was inevitably going to be viewed as a failure – and that has been the stigma the film has carried ever since.
Also, the negative reviews probably hasn’t helped much. Pauline Kael wrote the film “was like having your head stuck in a pinball machine for two hours.”
Leaving aside its legacy, I always viewed 1941 as maybe not being the uproarious comedy it tried to be, but it being an awfully impressive looking movie with such an amazing cast and elaborate set pieces that despite its shortcomings it ends up being slightly enjoyable. It might of been reaching for hilarity with its impressive scale with everything it does, but the laughs don’t necessarily come. However, the execution of it all makes it interesting to watch.
The lineup of actors in it is pretty awe-inspiring. Everyone from John Belushi, Toshiro Mifune, Tim Matheson, Warren Oates, John Candy, Slim Pickins, Treat Williams, Robert Stack, Dan Aykroyd, Lorraine Gary, Christopher Lee, Nancy Allen, Murray Hamilton, Ned Beatty, Warren Oates, Joe Flaherty, Eddie Deezen, Michael McKean and on and on. I mean everywhere you look you see someone you’ll recognize.
It has all the makings of a hysterical comedy, but that’s the one thing the movie is lacking – genuine belly laughs. It’s loud, it’s boisterous and it’s not as funny as it tries to be.
It’s a common complaint with 1941. It has all the components, but somehow the laughs don’t come. The film mainly relies on destruction and the actors screaming for the comedic payoffs to its building block style type of gags.
Yeah, there’s a few chuckles here and there, but it doesn’t balance out with the budget, actors and elaborate staging of it all.
1941 basically spends a great deal of time recreating Los Angeles 1941, dressing actors in period and military costumes, trying really hard to capture the look of the time period just to destroy it and have people scream and get messy. That pretty much sums up the majority of punchlines to everything.
This isn’t to say it’s not entertaining at points. The sets and score by John Williams is fantastic. The special effects work pretty well. I always thought some of the miniatures, particularly the planes flying down the streets of downtown Los Angeles were very well done. And the huge cast is stunning to see. It’s rare that a film could recruit such an impressive eclectic blend of actors.
It’s a bit of a comedic stew, much like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is. There’s enough characters and story threads going on if you’re not feeling one, just wait a bit and you might like the next one coming up.
Not a fan of Matheson trying to get it on with Allen while in an out of control aerial ballet in a plane, hold on you might like Lee and Mifune arguing on the submarine trying to accomplish their mission. Pickens swallowing a valuable Cracker Jack prize the enemy desperately needs (I like that bit). Or how about Bobby Di Cicco entering a jitterbug dance while Williams tries to beat him up that eventually escalates into a full scale riot between sailors and soldiers.
Or maybe Belushi recklessly flying his plane is more your taste. I have to admit I always thought Belushi looked so cool in his pilots outfit and his Captain Wild Bill Kelso was one of the highlights in the movie for me.
Perhaps you’ll like the bizarre situation of Deezen and Hamilton hanging out on a ferris wheel with a ventriloquist dummy. Toss in coastal homeowner Beatty trying to figure out how to work an anti-aircraft gun to take out the Japanese sub, but causing more damage to his own home than then enemy could’ve done. What’s your taste, there’s probably something in here that you’ll gravitate to. It will just be crammed in between stuff you might not care about.
There is a lot going on in 1941. Some of it works better than some. The consistent theme running through it though is the same – comedic destruction.
One of the quieter moments that always seems to get talked about a lot is the hardened General Stack tearing up while watching Dumbo. It’s an amusing scene and I think it stands out and becomes such a short memorable moment in 1941 because it is one of the simplest, quietest jokes in the movie.
The same with the Japanese sailors dealing with Pickens’ old 1940s radio. After having captured him, bringing him onboard, they have trouble fitting his giant antique radio through one of the ports. One sailor mutters, “We have to figure out how to make these things smaller.” Get it?
That’s one of the few less loud destructive jokes in the film. There’s really not much in the way of subtle jokes in 1941. It’s loud. It’s boisterous and ultimately it’s not as funny as it tries be. At times it starts to feel desperate trying to please and the only thing it can do is crank things up even louder. Heck, Spielberg isn’t even ashamed of parodying his own Jaws! Spoofing that is ancient, but it’s kind of interesting to see Spielberg himself doing a joke about it.
Ok, maybe it’s not one of Spielberg’s best and it would never rank as one of the all-time great comedies, but if anything 1941 is a movie worth a watch just to witness such a huge comedy on such a grand scale. It might not reach its ultimate goal, but it really tries to give it its all. It’s an admirable attempt.
A teaser trailer that features Belushi as pilot Wild Bill Kelso recruiting audiences to see 1941 a full year before its release!