Tuesday, October 28, 2008

To Hollywood and Glory

There was next to nothing that could get me out of the house the night of the MAD MEN finale. Well, that’s not exactly true. I’m only human. There are some things that could. I can think of the names of a few women who could have gotten me to go somewhere with them. But if we’re talking about films, it would have to be something that almost never gets screened anywhere, a film that I’ve waited untold years to see a print of. And that’s what was showing at the New Beverly on Sunday night. That’s right, it was Steven Spielberg’s 1941, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, which I’ve long been a member of the small but rabid fanbase who, while possibly slight mad, is totally convinced that the movie is an unsung triumph. It was screening on a double bill with I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, Zemeckis’s 1978 directorial debut. I’m not the only one who looks at these two films, along with Zemeckis’s 1980 USED CARS as a genuinely biting satirical trilogy of American hysteria, with a tone, approach and array of recurring actors that can be seen on a par with the best of Sturges. BACK TO THE FUTURE, the smash hit Zemeckis and Gale would make in 1985, contains a few of these elements as well but, for both better and worse, it feels like its creators are already moving onto something else.

I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, which screened first, tells the madcap story of a bunch of Jersey kids who head over to Manhattan the day the Beatles are set to appear on Ed Sullivan intent on somehow getting a look at the group. Even on a low budget that restricts much of it to backlots and downtown L.A. it still captures a flavor of the insanity that you can easily believe was going on outside the Plaza Hotel and over at the Ed Sullivan studios—actually, it occurred to me that not only had I skipped out on viewing MAD MEN as it aired, I was also somehow jumping forward in time on the show, possibly to the third season. The script for HAND, of course by Zemeckis and Gale, allows everything to come together almost perfectly starting from sending the characters apart on their own plotlines all the way to how they come together in the end. It’s also easy to spot recurring themes in Zemeckis’s films making their first appearance from lightnight bolts to being present for important historical events right down to a nerdy guy who bursts in somewhere to save his crush and proclaims a version of, “Get your damn hands off her,” before punching somebody out. Being a first film, it’s not perfect, mostly in a few patches where things could be tightened up to pick up the pace which is already pretty fast (it’s 104 minutes—getting it down under 100 would be ideal). But it doesn’t really matter that much considering what a good spirit it has and how many genuine laughs occur throughout. It’s not just a good script but a terrific cast as well that includes Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Susan Kendall Newman and Marc McClure. I particularly like Theresa Saldana as the one determined to get photos of the Beatles that she can sell to Life Magazine, but best of all is the ultra-hyper nerd team of Wendie Jo Sperber and Eddie Deezen as Beatles fanatic Ringo Klaus. When the two of them are onscreen, nothing else matters and this oddball couple becomes, for me, I’m totally serious, one of the great screen couples of all time. Will Jordan is Ed Sullivan and Dick Miller (who got one of the biggest rounds of applause from the New Beverly audience when he first appeared onscreen) is a cop guarding the Beatles’ hotel room. Both of them have to deal with Deezen at various points and those scenes are truly essential.

But it was Wendie Jo Sperber who was the focus Sunday night at the New Beverly, since it was not just an occasion to show these films but to pay tribute to the late, truly great comic actress who sadly died of breast cancer in 2005. The night, which also served as a benefit for WeSpark, the cancer support center that Sperber founded, featured a Q&A between the films with Bob Gale, Nancy Allen, Sperber’s stunt double Nancy Hoffman and Perry Lang, one of the co-stars of 1941. The group told stories about the making of both films, some of which has been covered on the DVD audio commentary for the film, but their talk had a particular emphasis on Sperber who they all clearly had great affection for—Allen, who expressed great love of I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND and its making, also is Programming Director for WeSpark. As it turns out Sperber actually lied about her age, saying she was eighteen, to get the part in HAND but they didn’t want to not have her in the film. Gale also revealed that the names of the four leads girls—Pam, Janis, Grace and Rosie—were so named so their first initials would match up with those of The Beatles. Of course, they also discussed 1941, which co-writer Gale referred to as a “glorious mess”. Nancy Allen says she wished that Robert Zemeckis had directed it, adding that the first script of it she read was “as tight as I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND” (for those who would want to know, Nancy Allen still looks pretty great). This was presumably before Spielberg kept coming up with more scenes, more characters, more stuff overall, until it became one of the most hugely overstuffed films ever made.

1941, set over the course of twenty-four frantic hours in L.A. soon after Pearl Harbor, has far too many subplots here for me to get into and was seen at its time as a wildly overbudget, self-indulgent, unfunny waste. That reputations continues to this day, maintained by people who I assume have the word Scrooge in their name and have never bothered to actually sit down and watch the thing. Forget how much I enjoy it. Forget how much of it is, to me, hysterically funny. So much of 1941 is so genuinely well-done that I wonder why people out there are so grouchy about it. I can understand criticism that it’s overstuffed. I can understand not thinking all the comedy works like it should, that it’s too loud, that some of it is in questionable taste. But if you can’t get any pleasure out of many of the actors here, out of the jaw-dropping model work, the John Williams music, the fact that this is the one film in existence that has Slim Pickens, Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee acting with each other, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve waited for years for the chance to just see the amazing Jitterbug dance contest in a theater and it was worth it. This has to be one of the best sequences in Spielberg’s career and when it was over I wanted to stand up and cheer.

There are issues, yes. William Fraker’s photography is beautiful, yes, something that was more evident than it ever was in any video version I’ve ever seen (both prints were in good shape, though the sound on HAND seemed flat. 1941 looked and sounded tremendous, maybe because the print never gets screened). But that look by Fraker is so good that it almost tampers with the comedy, an issue that also occurred to me when I saw TROPIC THUNDER. One shot involving a sight gag in the USO section seems to contain so much diffusion that it actually hurts the joke. But Spielberg, for all everyone saying that he couldn’t direct comedy, seems constantly intent of filling the frame from one side to the other with various bits of action, mostly from the actors, like something out of MAD magazine. This was more evident viewing it this way than I’d ever realized and it was fun to see what was going on with certain people when they had nothing to do in a scene otherwise. Patti Lupone’s entire performance seems to exist on those sides of the frame. I could go down a list of all the amazing talent in front of the camera but it would wind up highlighting how overstuffed the movie is and it makes me argue with myself over what takes away from the film being a coherent narrative against sections that seem to exist because Spielberg & Co. were having too much fun to not include them. The Pickens-Mifune-Lee section, which Gale says got added when Spielberg cast Pickens in a small role and simply wanted to give him more to do, is a good example of this. The entire Pomona section, with the great Warren Oates as Col. Madman Maddox, feels like this film’s version of finding Col. Kurtz upriver. It makes me wonder if John Milius, who has co-story credit and Executive Produced, was responsible for this section. It’s a digression, but so many things in the film are a digression (John Belushi’s split-second cameo as a second character is one, but there are many of them), and I wouldn’t want to see a version without it.

Within all this madness of nearly everyone who has a line being a familiar face, Robert Stack as Gen. Stillwell sticks out as the one bit of sanity but the actor has perfect timing in every line he speaks (“This isn’t the state of California, it’s a state of insanity.”). Eddie Deezen of course gets laughs trapped up in the ferris wheel with Murray Hamilton (what’s more annoying than being stuck with Eddie Deezen? Being trapped with Eddie Deezen and a dummy that looks like Eddie Deezen) and so do Lionel Stander (“Close, Ward, close.”) and Joe Flaherty (what is that mouse doing on his shoulder, anyway?). So much of the rest of the film is taken by John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Ned Beatty, Tim Matheson, Nancy Allen, Treat Williams and others, that it’s easy to forget that romantic couple Bobby Di Cicco and Dianne Kay are more or less presumably supposed to be the leads, but it can’t be said that it’s their fault. I freely admit that the cast recap at the very end with the various actors screaming into the camera is one of the best such recaps except maybe for MASH but there are even more names to find further down in the crawl or, in some cases, not at all. This includes Michael McKean and David Lander, Penny Marshall, John Landis, Sam Fuller, even Mickey friggin’ Rourke. James Caan can be spotted in a sailor outfit at the beginning of the USO fight. All of Dick Miller’s dialogue was cut from the theatrical version but he’s still in there if you know where to look for him.

But to come back around to the reason for the night, as far as I’ve always been concerned the film is flat-out stolen by Wendie Jo Sperber as Maxine, best friend to the lead, who falls instantly for bad guy Treat Willams and will stop at nothing in her pursuit of him. Displaying total assurance in using her physicality for comedy she takes what could have been a tasteless ‘ugly friend’ stereotype out of a cartoon by making it charming and, yeah, kinda sexy.

The 1941 that was screened the other night, the one originally released in theaters in 1979, is not really the best-known version of it anymore. The DVD contains a version nearly a full half-hour longer which was first seen in slightly different form when it played on ABC back in the eighties and then was fully put together in that form for its laserdisc release (using Bob Gale’s Betamax recording of the ABC airing as a guide since he was the only person who had a copy!), before coming out in that form on DVD which is how it exists now. That longer version was a bit of a holy grail for me for a long time, since even as a kid it was pretty evident that there was a lot missing from the film and there are a number of valuable scenes that got put back in. But the scale and noise of the film ultimately becomes so exhausting that the shorter theatrical cut is, in some ways, easier to take. There are a number of gaps that occur because of this—like how Perry Lang’s character turns up at the USO in uniform, for one thing—but most of the best stuff is in the shorter version. As much as I like most of this movie, this is probably the version that’s easiest to take in one sitting.

Finally getting to see it in a theater proved to me how entertaining it is, at least for me and the other people who were there. I didn’t get much sleep that night—I did, after all, have to see MAD MEN as soon as I got home, but it was worth it. I won’t make a proclamation such as saying that 1941 is Steven Spielberg’s most underrated film or even claim that it’s my favorite. But I may as well go ahead and state that in spite of its flaws and yes, I’m aware that it has them, I flat out love it. And I’ll gladly take it over a number of other Spielberg films that are generally considered to be “better”. It may take a while to convince others of this, but I’m used to these things taking time. As General Stillwell himself muses as he walks off at the end, “It’s gonna be a long war.”


James said...

Mr. Peel,

The reason for Joe Flaherty and the mouse on his shoulder could be a nod to Xavier Cugat, a bandleader of the 40s. His trademark was to hold a little tiny Chihuahua dog while he conducted the orchestra with his free arm brandishing his baton. And that band/fight sequence is a marvel. I always think of it as a great moment for Spielberg and would love to see him direct a musical. It was echoed in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opening. 1941, for me, is a guilty pleasure. I had the opportunity to see it in its original form and the dvd release. I recall disliking it at first ... yet went back to see it again in the theater with a friend. It mesmerized me by its antic fevered pace and Rube Goldberg plot construction. I totally agree wit your assessment of the Gale/Zemeckis trio of first films. They were so entertaining and so well plotted with winning comedy. You could see 40s screwball influenced them all. They don't make 'em like this today.

Always anxious to see your new postings, sir.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


The Cugat theory certainly makes about as much sense as anything I could think of. There is definitely a little of 1941 that anticipates the opening of TEMPLE OF DOOM, particularly the department store scene that was cut from the theatrical version. I just have a real fondness for that mania of 1941. Thanks very much for the comment and for reading!

Michael Lear said...

Whole-heartedly agree! Saw 1941 during its opening weekend, with hardly anyone else in the theater. I couldn't understand why no one was there, and to this day, still don't understand the critical reaction. I will say it is Spielberg's most underrated, and easily one of my favorite of his films. From Jaws through Temple of Doom, I loved all of his films, and this one is right up there. The timing and choreography of the dance-hall brawl is like a Swiss-watch - flawless. The model work is maybe the best model work ever. This is at the top of my Blu Ray wish list. "No you won't" "Yes I will", "No you won't" "Yes I will". What a great movie!