1941 (1979)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) I had been curious about Steven Spielberg’s 1941 for decades (since seeing it as a video-store rental in the mid-eighties, as a matter of fact), but now that I’ve found the time to see it, my first reaction is a blend of bewilderment and hilarity.  It’s fairly rare to see big-budget farce these days, and so 1941‘s most distinctive feature is the way its shamelessly silly comedy is played along a backdrop of expensive and explosive sight-gags.  It takes a while to adjust: the first (day-lit) half-hour feels dumb and uncomfortable as the dozen characters are rapidly introduced while mugging for the camera and the broad comedy seemingly goes everywhere.  It gets better once night falls and the film focuses (somewhat) on a USO show and ensuing mayhem.  The dancing sequence is one for the books, and as the comic set-pieces escalate, 1941 finds an amusing overblown rhythm.  Unfortunately, it peaks nearly twenty minutes before the actual end of the film, and the rest is just wrap-up.  There’s a decently subversive intent here in making fun of war paranoia following Pearl Harbor (I imagine there’s a pretty funny 2001 movie in our future poking fun at post-9/11 hysteria, but we won’t see it before 2039.), but the film as a whole feels as undisciplined as it is lavish.  It’s certainly still impressive: the special effects are top-notch even today, and the cast has some of the biggest names in then-film comedy.  (You can fawn over Dan Aykroyd or Ned Beatty or John Belushi, but I’ll giggle over Nancy Allen’s plane-crazy character, or Wendie Jo Sperber’s persistent Maxine.)  For better or for worse, there aren’t that many films with that particular tone nowadays, and so 1941 does warrant a look despite a number of significant flaws.  (Fans of stockings and garters will also be pretty happy with the film.)  Finally, as if you needed any further reason, it’s a Spielberg film, which means that it’s visually inventive and creatively self-assured: there are audacious camera moves everywhere, and the mayhem seldom degenerates into nonsense.  For all its flaws, it’s a big movie that tries things now seldom attempted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *