“I often describe 1941 as having your head stuck in a pinball machine while somebody is hitting tilt over and over again” – Steven Spielberg
As a follow-up to his box-office hits Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg tackled the 1979 comedy 1941.
And it fell flat.
It was a major disappointment critically, with Vincent Canby in The New York Times saying “I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the director or of the editor, but I’ve seldom seen a comedy more ineptly timed”. And while the film did turn a profit, it took in only $23 million at the North American Box Office, a major step down from Spielberg’s earlier movies.
Critics and patrons be damned, however: 1941 is a funny movie! My father, brother and I fell in love with it on cable TV, so much so that we eventually bought it on VHS (back when tapes were still selling north of $75). I watched 1941 over and over, and it never failed to entertain.
Less than a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine under the command of Akiro Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune), and carrying a Nazi observer (Christopher Lee), loses its way (due to a faulty compass) and ends up drifting off the coast of Los Angeles.
Determined to carry out his mission, which is the bombing of Hollywood, Mitamura sends several troops ashore to do some reconnaissance, and while there they capture lumberjack Hollis “Holly” Wood (Slim Pickens), taking him prisoner and demanding he point them in the direction of Hollywood.
Such an attack won’t be easy for Mitamura and his crew. With Pearl Harbor still fresh in everyone’s minds, all of Southern California has been on high alert. Due to the strategic positioning of his Santa Monica house, Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty) is asked to store an anti-aircraft ordinance in his front yard by U.S. Army Motor Sergeant Tree (Dan Aykroyd), much to the dismay of Douglas’ gun-hating wife Joan (Lorraine Gary).
Douglas’ daughter Betty (Dianne Kay) and her friend Maxine (Wendie Jo Sperber) recently signed up to serve as dancers with the USO, something that doesn’t sit well with Betty’s longtime boyfriend Wally (Bobby Di Cicco). Further complicating matters is that Sgt. Tree’s second-in-command Corporal Sitarski (Treat Williams) has the hots for Betty.
At the nearby Santa Monica Ocean Front Amusement Park, Angelo Scioli (Lionel Stander) of the Ground Observer’s Corps puts two volunteers, Claude (Murray Hamilton) and the erratic Herbie (Eddie Deezen), on the Ferris Wheel, handing them a phone and sending them to the top so they can keep an eye out for enemy aircraft.
Meanwhile, the oversexed Capt. Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson), an aide to Gen. Stillwell (Robert Stack), puts the moves on Stillwell’s secretary Donna Stratton (Nancy Allen), knowing full well the only way he’ll get anywhere with her is to get her up in a plane. Also patrolling the skies around Los Angeles is renegade pilot Captain Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi), who believes the Japanese are preparing an invasion.
Everything will come to a head later that evening, when the lost Japanese sub will be spotted by several people, including Ward Douglas and Wild Bill Kelso. Throw in an all-out brawl between servicemen at a USO dance hosted by Sal Stewart (Joe Flaherty) and you have a situation that will almost certainly spiral out of control.
The cast, as you can see, is packed, but even more stars will appear, albeit briefly, throughout the film. Warren Oates turns up as a gung-ho Colonel named “Madman” Maddox, who is stationed in the hills and is demanding that Gen. Stillwell send more troops to fight the Japanese paratroopers he is convinced are out there. John Candy, Frank McRae and a very young Mickey Rourke are also on-hand, as members of Sgt. Tree’s tank crew, and Susan Backline, aka the first victim in Jaws, opens the film with a very funny parody of her famous scene from that 1975 classic.
As for the action, Spielberg cuts back and forth between the various subplots often enough to ensure each will generate laughs. Especially funny are Hamilton and Deezen as the mismatched partners on the Ferris Wheel, who are soon joined by a very unexpected guest (one that’s more attentive than the two of them combined). Belushi is at his manic best as the patriotic Wild Bill, and Aykroyd is one of the film’s few voices of reason. That is until he’s knocked on the head just when his crew needs him most! Even Stack’s General Stillwell gets distracted by a showing of Dumbo on the big screen.
Yes, 1941 is bloated. It is loud. It is jumbled. Its characters are over-the-top and even cartoonish. But it is also hilarious, and while some scenes don’t flow together, or go on a bit too long, they are almost always followed by another that will absolutely make you laugh!
Rating: 7.5 out of 10