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A Study in Spielberg: 1941 (1979)

05 Apr

1941

A more appropriate name would be “Steven’s Folly.”

I suppose that every great director has to have at least one movie that tests the patience of the audience.  For Spielberg, that was a comedy misfire known simply as 1941.  Perched uncomfortably in his filmography between Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was a bizarre free-for-all that started at level 10 and never never dropped for a moment.  This was a noisy, relentless, overbearing bit of comedy tripe so obnoxious that Spielberg would later claim that audience members at the first test screening were holding their hands over their ears.

Set amid the paranoia of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the focuses a group of misfits in Southern California, 1941 doesn’t really have a plot structure so much as a gaggle of insane characters let loose on each other to do apparently whatever they like within the span of 90 minutes.  The problem, I discovered, is that none of the comedy sticks.  It’s just a series of nutty people allowed to say and do whatever they please in a sort of war-time version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  The comic invention is to gather together all sorts of wonderful actors, both serious and comic, and let them run around like idiots and make a lot of noise.  This, a comedy does not make.

Comedy has to have rules, it has to have structure, it has to have set up and payoff.  Even the Marx Brothers’ brand on insanity was written and rewritten, rehearsed and re-rehearsed.  It was perfected down to the last detail so it seemed to come from their guts.  That’s not the case here.

The movie has a cult status that I don’t understand.  I sat stone-faced through this whole production.  Not just stone-faced, but also frustrated as I watch a bilious amounts of comic invention burn on the screen.  It is one of those movies where you sense that it might have been funny in the moment, on the set, or in the screenwriting sessions.  But when you’re sitting there watching joke after joke fall over and die, you are left with the inevitable question, “what’s the point of all this?”

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