1941 or Never Let Spielberg Near a Comedy

1941I finally managed to watch the film 1941. Before, I had never made it more than a half hour in because the beginning is so tedious. But now that I’ve seen the whole thing, I can say that in addition to the first half hour of tedium, there is also another two hours of tedium. It doesn’t really matter where you come into the film, you will see exactly the same thing: overcrowded, comedic action sequences that are hard to follow, and almost completely lacking in any wit. And each one of those sequences goes on for at least three to four times as long as anyone could be expected to watch.

What’s interesting about the film is that it is actually well made. It looks great and the acting is wonderful. This makes it all the more bizarre that with such onscreen comedic talent, the film could so consistently avoid being funny. John Belushi spends the whole film doing Bluto from Animal House but without anything to do that is actually funny. In the end, it isn’t clear at all who his character is supposed to be. But the same thing could be said for pretty much all the characters in the film. There are an enormous number of them and mostly, if it weren’t for costumes, it would be impossible to tell them apart. Indeed, Wally goes from zoot suit to navy uniform to army uniform and it takes some time to understand that he is the same character.

It is hard to fault the script, because I doubt it was written to be two and a half hours long. Some of the scenes in between the interminable action sequences are very funny. The best involve Joe Flaherty as the bandleader Raoul Lipschitz. There is a nice joke with the name. A woman asks him what his name is and he answer, “Raoul.” She says, “I knew it!” — apparently excited that he is a hot blooded Latino. Then he finishs, “Lipschitz.” But even better, after a (typically outrageous) brawl destroys the USO club, he signs off his radio broadcast with only a hint of sarcasm:

I’d like to thank all the GIs for helping make tonight’s evening such a… a memorable occasion. Maybe in the future we can have some negroes come in and we’ll stage a race riot… Right here.

But such bits are swamped by the rest of the film. And it isn’t just that the action sequences are long. They are mostly pointless. Much of the destruction that takes places is gratuitous. Army personnel shoot into crowds for no reason — of course no one dies. I’ve often complained about characters acting in odd ways for the sole purpose of furthering a plot. Well, that’s about all that happens in 1941. Things must be destroyed, so the characters act stupidly. Ned Beatty as Ward Douglas shoots a cannon at a submarine through his house rather than, I don’t know, moving the cannon a yard or two to the right.

Ultimately, what most misses in the film is that no one is well enough developed to actually care about. So it is just a bunch of action sequences and stunts that work in a technical sense but fail in any emotional sense. And the tragic thing is that the film could have been a hundred times better with a budget that was one-fifth. If there is a primary narrative in the film it is Wally and Betty’s forbidden love and the evil Corporal Sitarski’s apparent rape efforts. But nothing really comes of any of that, just like nothing comes of the narratives about any of the characters.

It is, however, curious how a film with so much comedic content could be so barren in terms of laughs. I think it is the editing. I think that Spielberg had the film cut as though it were just an action film. But even if there had been real life and death drama to pull the viewer along, I doubt it would have worked. Again, the characters are so poorly rendered I literally didn’t care what happened to anyone other than Betty who I may have only cared about because I have fatherly feelings about young women like her.

I wouldn’t have even written about the film, except that it still bothers me how much I didn’t like it. It isn’t that the film is bad. It is just that there is really nothing to grab onto in it. There is no point to it. But when I saw the filmmakers on a documentary on the DVD talking about how the film did well in Europe and how people like it a lot now, I thought these guys must be deluded. They were going for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. What they made was a cinematic essay about how Steven Spielberg should never be allowed to direct a comedy.

5 thoughts on “1941 or Never Let Spielberg Near a Comedy

  1. Spielberg can be funny. Much of “Jaws” is hilarious. I remember seeing “Temple Of Doom” at a revival theater in Portland that usually showed old, old movies, and the audience were mostly fans of these old movies, and they HOWLED constantly. The sequence where Indy and the kid are crawling through bugs while the pampered screwball heroine whines about breaking a nail just gets funnier and funnier . . . then spikes with skulls show up, and everyone was spitting popcorn, laughing. Then came chases and more chases and alligators eating people who fall off 2000-foot cliffs; it was one of the best times I had at a movie theater and made me want to watch more old movies (I was a teenager at the time.)

    Notably, Spielberg considered “Temple Of Doom” a huge mistake, even though, along with “Jaws,” it’s his most purely, selflessly entertaining movie.

    Maybe there’s something about being a big-budget filmmaker that keeps you from being proud of your strengths and instead makes you wish audiences would worship what’s most self-indulgent about your work. Note I said self-indulgent, not personal. The suburban family-bickering scenes in “Close Encounters” are very harrowing, strong stuff, and I imagine quite personal. The nerds-versus-jock-material in “Jaws” is personal. Ben Kingsley as a Jew using his wits to survive in “Schindler’s” is incredibly personal. “War Horse” is self-inguldent to an extreme.

    “1941” is a mistake, and unfunny, but I have no animosity towards it (not the way I do “Saving Private Ryan.”) It’s a bit egotistical, and I suppose with success after success just coming easily some egotism is forgivable. I thought the old-movie love on formless display in “1941” fit in beautifully to “Temple Of Doom” (and those revival-theater fans made me feel that way.) Then some critics thought “Doom” was too scary (please!) and from then on, the only funny bit in any Spielberg action film was the single shot in “Jurassic Park” with a rear-view mirror reading “Objects May Be Larger Than They Appear.”

    Maybe a bit of a stretch, but Spielberg’s contemporary Scorsese made an intensely personal film about his childhood passion (God, not old movies), “Last Temptation” — which was slaughtered by fundamentalist protesters, not critics — and he’s never been as good since. (I like “Temple Of Doom” and “Last Temptation” more than the average viewer, I realize, but I really do adore those movies.) At least Scorsese has gotten funnier as he ages. “Wolf Of Wall Street” doesn’t say half of what’s needed about Wall Street; it is damnably funny.

    I’ll never not be grateful to Spielberg for the joy his movies have given me. I do think commercial success in that creative field (perhaps most others) is something of a curse.

    • I’m not sure quite how to take this comment. But I should be clear about one thing (and I thought about this while writing the article): I am not saying that Spielberg can’t do comedy, just comedies. It is a lot harder to make a comedy than have some comedy in another film. As you may remember, Schindler’s List has some funny moments in it. That is, without a doubt his masterpiece. But I’m quite fond of others. Minority Report is great. And Amistad is compelling with some wonderful bits of movie making.

      But Temple of Doom? I can’t say, because I didn’t make it all the way through it. I had a similar reaction to it that I had to 1941 — that it was excessive. But I don’t know. It might well impress me now. Maybe I’ll check it out.

      Your comments on The Last Temptation of Christ make me think you were drunk. :-) Not because it is a bad film, but because you think Scorsese hasn’t been as good since. Yes, Goodfellas is very possibly the most overrated film of all time. But The Age of Innocence? Kundun? My personal favorite, Bringing Out the Dead? Hugo? That’s four unquestionably great film! I haven’t seen, The Wolf of Wall Street. I just have this thing: I don’t like Leonardo DiCaprio. I think we all know that he would have no career if River Phoenix hadn’t died. That isn’t to say I hate all his films. It just means that I’m more likely to. I liked him in Catch Me If You Can. Another decent Spielberg film, although mostly due to an amazing script by Jeff Nathanson. I also like Shutter Island. I can’t remember who directed that. (That was a joke.) But it isn’t a great film because I don’t think a great film can be made out of a Dennis Lehane novel, because even though he’s a fine writer, his work is too much like a film — it lacks depth. I’m surprised they haven’t made more films out of his novel. They are perfect for the medium.

  2. Damn — nailed it. Drunk as a skunk. I’d finished some very depressing writing on the whole Charlie Hebdo thing (pleased to say, the local paper published the next day a bit where I parroted you and Cole, actually featured it as their “letter of the day”) and I was totally unwinding by being a drunken fool. Erase the thread, please. Sorry I unwinded by being by a dipshit here. Quite glad the paper printed what I copped from you and Cole. Even stealing this stuff is mentally overwhelming and exhausting when I try and put it in terms the average Jane can relate to.

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