1941 is a stupid farce based on a stupid idea: What would have happened if, after bombing Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had gone on to attack Hollywood?
It is the premise of this picture that the Americans would have been so moronic that they would have done the enemy’s job for them. The Americans in this film knock each other out and destroy the California coast before the Japs ever get to Hollywood Boulevard.
Since it never rises above the silliness of old Abbott and Costello, Three Stooges, and Martin & Lewis comedies, the movie will only appeal to the Animal House (1978) audience, and there’s a lot of cruelty and violence in it that isn’t the least bit funny.
The opening sequence is clever – A nubile young girl leaps from a car on a California beach in the quiet fog of a December dawn, sheds her robe and plunges naked into the freezing surf.
As the John Williams music signals familiar approaching danger, the girl is impaled on the snout of a black monster and hoisted high above the waves, screaming her head off. It’s not a shark this time, but the periscope of a Japanese submarine commanded by Toshiro Mifune.
The scene is short, but one of the few genuinely funny interludes in the movie. Later, there’s an exciting musical production number that involves a takeoff of the Andrews Sisters in which a riot breaks out and the doughboys demolish a USO centre in the middle of a jitterbug contest.
This kind of clever send-up of 1940s movies indicates real insight, and there’s no doubt that Spielberg has seen Hollywood Canteen instead of just Animal House. Unfortunately, the movie slides quickly downhill from there, landing in a farrago of flying vegetables, broken plates, wooden situations, and imbecilic sight gags.
John Belushi (pictured at left) is something that crawled out of a roach motel. Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary, as a Dagwood and Blondie couple who get an anti-aircraft tank planted in their front yard, get lost in the confusion.
Slim Pickens is nauseating in a scatological bit involving a swallowed compass from a Crackerjack box and a lot of prune juice. Robert Stack is a general who cries at Dumbo. Tim Matheson is merely baffled as a pilot who crashes into the La Brea Tar Pits. Treat Williams is wasted as a bully.
The cast is vast and unimportant. Mifune even says, “rotsa ruck.” Actors will obviously do anything for Spielberg, even if it means sullying their reputations.
Farce is never effective unless it is played with deadly seriousness. Two hours of noise and custard pies are not enough. 1941 seems to have been made with the philosophy that if anyone stands still too long, he gets his head shoved into a tank, a fist, a toilet, or a chocolate cake.
The planned Thanksgiving premiere was postponed when Universal Pictures execs found the beginning of the film too talky and not funny enough, demanding that the first 45 minutes be re-edited. Steven Spielberg snipped away and was so certain 1941 was going to be a disaster that on the night of the eventual premiere (14 December 1979), he fled the country and decamped to Japan.
The reviews were awful, and the picture went down with a resounding thud.
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