Spielberg: 1941 part 2

1941 is known as a “comedy spectacle,” a kind of Animal House Goes to War. It is occasionally raunchy, but in a light-hearted, good-natured way. Much bigotry is on display, but it invariably comes from idiots and slobs. It has a sunny, generous, forgiving attitude to the morons and clowns who populate its sprawling, unwieldy plot. I think this attitude, which I ascribe to Spielberg’s approach toward the screenplay, is a mistake.

It is said that Kubrick once told Spielberg that the mistake with 1941 was that it was marketed as a comedy and should have been marketed as a drama. I think Kubrick may have been yanking Spielberg’s chain, but I can see where he’s coming from. There is a dark underbelly to 1941, one that hasn’t really come to light until the age of the DVD, and which is still hard to identify with untrained eyes.

When I got my “collector’s edition” of 1941 a couple of years ago, the first thing I noticed is that it’s a terrible transfer of a terrible print. The second thing I noticed was that it was twenty-odd minutes longer. So the folks at Universal are saying, essentially, “You know that movie everyone hates? Well now it looks awful and is longer than you remember! The quality of the transfer is still a mystery to me, but it turns out that the longer cut is Spielberg’s. On my first viewing, the “restored” scenes felt superfluous at best and clunky at worst — they threw off the rhythms of a movie that had always had problems but which had always at least moved at a decent clip.

On a second viewing, the DVD still looks abysmal but the restored scenes revealed a darker, more cynical, subversive aspect to the movie.

1941‘s theme is “wartime madness.” Characters in the movie use the threat of invasion as an excuse for all kinds of socially inappropriate behavior, ranging from petty theft to attempted murder. Sex is uppermost on the minds of many folks, but for others the plot machinations of 1941 are an excuse to give vent to unchecked prejudices. Since everyone likes sex, let’s discuss that first.

SEX. As everyone knows, the movie begins with Cmdr Mitamura’s submarine “skewering” (Spielberg’s word) a skinny-dipper off the coast of Northern California. It then moves on to Donna Stratton’s airplane fetish and Maxine’s soldier fetish, not to mention Capt Kelso’s free-floating infantilism. In the “restored” cut, there is a darker version of this. The female dancers at the USO club are coached by their leader Miss Fitzroy that their job is to “entertain” soldiers and sailors before they go off to war. Nothing is left to the imagination as to what “entertaining” constitutes — Miss Fitzroy is, essentially, a madam for the US government, telling the women of the country that it is their patriotic duty to submit to the desires of horny soldiers. Many of the young ladies at the USO eagerly agree with this advice — they’re as crazy about soldiers as Donna Stratton is about planes. “Good girl” Betty Douglas feels less certain — she’s kind of sweet on non-soldier Wally, and has come to the aggressive attention of meathead antagonist Chuck Sitarsky (who in turn is the object of Maxine’s unwanted desires). Before leaving for the big dance, Betty’s father Ward takes her aside for what we suspect is going to be a “be careful” lecture. But no! Betty’s father gives her the exact same orders as Miss Fitzroy. As Ward is too old to fight in the war and his sons are too young, he feels that whoring his daughter out to departing soldiers is the best he can do to contribute to the war effort. (Ward, of course, later gets to contribute to the war by shooting off a big gun, destroying his home in the process. Wartime fetishes, apparently, will destroy the American home — not to mention significant portions of Hollywood.)

Now then:

RACE. There is a scene somewhere in Act II of the restored cut of 1941 where Pvt Jones, a black soldier, reports for duty in Sgt Tree’s tank crew. The otherwise-white crew members humiliate Jones, and one, Pvt Foley, goes so far as to paint his face white. It’s an ugly scene, not at all funny, and it throws the movie deeply out of whack. But on a second viewing I found it to be the tip of an iceberg of racial undertones that make up an entire missing “shadow movie” that moves underneath the text of 1941 like Mitamura’s submarine runs underneath the waters of the Califorfornia coast.

We could start with the cast’s general animus toward the “Japs,” but that aspect is fairly well known, and we know that the filmmakers don’t hate the Japanese because Mitamura is the most dignified and honorable character in the movie. Let’s start instead with Wally, one of the major protagonists (and the sole protagonist of the original script). Wally Stephens is played by Bobby DiCicco, and, despite his dark hair and eyes, exudes about as much “ethnicity” as Barry Williams. Wally is criticized by Sgt Tree and his crew for his taste in clothes several times during the movie, once for his garish Hawaiian shirt commemorating Pearl Harbor (which makes no sense to me) and again for his sleek black-and-red zoot suit. In the theatrical cut, Wally’s zoot suit has no racial importance, but in the restored cut we see Wally hanging out with his Mexican friends before entering the big dance. And of course, any student of Los Angeles history knows that the zoot suit was the trademark of the Mexican hipster in LA, and one of the underdeveloped plot strands of 1941 is the zoot-suit riots of the 1940s, where servicemen battled Mexicans (apparently prodded by a bloodthirsty media — the “riots” were announced, and promoted, in advance by racist radio commentators). So Wally, it seems, if not Mexican himself, is “identified” as such by the racial indicators of the script.

Then there is Capt von Kleinschmidt, the Nazi tagging along with Mitamura, who keeps his Nazism in check for most of the movie, but ultimately informs Mitamura that he and his yellow-skinned countrymen have no place in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Von Kleinschmidt is immediately thrown overboard for his bigotry, but many other characters are not punished so greatly.

General Stillwell is accorded great dignity and gravitas by the filmmakers, and gets big laughs when we see him tearing up at Dumbo. In the theatrical cut, we see Stillwell laughing along with the crows as they taunt Dumbo, but in the restored version the scene goes on much longer and includes almost the entire “elephant fly” song. Stillwell knows the song by heart and recites it along with the movie characters, and when it’s over he applauds and invites the officers around him to join in. At first this scene felt like padding, but then I remembered that the crows in Dumbo are minstrel characters. It’s one thing to show Stillwell chuckling along with a racist cartoon, but to show him reciting the lyrics by heart and then applauding implies that, beneath his calm, sane exterior, Stillwell is as racist as Pvt Foley — he just doesn’t know it.

Where are the Jews in this World War II movie from the future director of Schindler’s List? I can identify two. First is USO bandleader Raoul, who, apropos of nothing, reveals his last name to be Lipschitz, which makes him a typical Hollywood Jew, changing his name to something dark and glamorous to make it in show business. Then there is the infamous gnat Herbie Kazlminsky, who, in addition to being a stereotypical Jew, is a dead ringer for the director. To drive the point home, Spielberg gives Herbie a ventriloquist dummy who looks even more like Spielberg than Herbie does.

(Wait — there is a third, Hollywood Bigshot Meyer Mishkin, who is the judge at the dance contest. His character is also a Hollywood Jew, but one from the other side of the table — a shot-caller, not a performer. They didn’t need to change their names — they didn’t need to be loved by the public.)

(It’s odd that in a movie filled with so much racism, no Polish jokes are lobbed at Sitarksky, and the presence of an Italian neighborhood-watch captain, complete with old-world Italian harridan wife, goes unremarked.)

The setup scene between Pvts Foley and Jones is missing from the theatrical cut, but its answer scene remains: in Act IV, a bag of flour or something explodes in Pvt Jones’s face, rendering him white. Foley laughs heartily at this and is answered with an explosion of soot in his own face. When Jones laughs back at Foley, he screams in horror at the notion of appearing to be black.

All these scenes imply that 1941 had, at some point in its development. a much darker, more satirical, more subversive purpose, to suggest that America is an inherently racist, sexually perverse country and that wartime is welcomed by Americans as an excuse to vent that racism and perversion. That message is certainly as true today as it was in 1979, but it explains why John Wayne and Charlton Heston both recoiled in horror when Spielberg asked them to play Stillwell.

There is a moment in the “making-of” documentary where Spielberg recalls Wayne’s reaction, saying that he felt the script was “a slap in the face” of America and the memory of World War II. Spielberg then amends the comment by saying that 1941 is a pie in the face of America and the memory of World War II. Between those two “face” comments, I think, is where 1941 went wrong. Spielberg was given a script with some relatively serious questions to ask about America’s national character and responded by making a movie that is primarily about stuff blowing up. Spielberg mentions that when he got the script he skipped straight to the end because he wanted to read the scene where the Japanese submarine blows up the Ferris Wheel on the Santa Monica Pier, loved it, and wanted the rest of the movie to be just like that.

That is, indeed, the net result. The nice thing is that, as spectacle, 1941 works pretty well, and once the big USO dance-contest set piece kicks in, the movie hits a groove, mows down its lapses in narrative logic, and gets by on sheer kineticism for the rest of its considerable running time. The action sequences, always and forever a Spielberg forte, sizzle and pop as they should, and the craziness reaches an appropriate fever pitch in the final reels. But I for one will from now on watch 1941 and wonder about the other movie that’s hiding in there somewhere among the hijinks.



14 Responses to “Spielberg: 1941 part 2”
  1. Todd says:

    In the making-of documentary, Spielberg goes so far as to say that 1941 would have been a much better movie if Zemeckis had directed it himself, and I see nothing in the finished product to contradict his assessment.

    • popebuck1 says:

      For that matter, all the crazed young people running around in 1941 reminds me a lot of Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand, substituting “wartime hysteria” for “Beatlemania” as the socially-acceptable excuse for hormonal teens to go insane and act out their wildest urges.

  2. dougo says:

    The Dumbo thing reminds me: what did you make of the “When You Wish Upon a Star” quote in the score for Close Encounters? Are there Disney references in all of Spielberg’s films?

    • Todd says:

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say there are Disney references in all of Spielberg’s movies, but they do crop up. Some of them are overt, like the Pinocchio references in Close Encounters and some require a more trained eye, shots and angles and, as you say, scoring quotes.

      But Spielberg, like the Coens, are walking film encyclopedias, and Spielberg by no means limits his quotations to Disney. Just off the top of my head I can think of quotes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Ford and Welles that abound in many of his movies.

  3. Spielberg – Disney – and Music…

    Pinocchio – Awkward puppet goes on adventure and his wish of becoming real finally realized. REAL = no longer wooden and a ‘true son’ to his father (which now that I type that sounds eerily like a couple bible stories…)

    Close Encounters – Awkward family man goes on adventure and his wish of becoming real finally realized. REAL = released from the confines of an unhappy life

    E.T. – Awkward alien and human boy go on adventure and their wish of becoming real finally realized. REAL = accepted and understood

    A.I. – Awkward mechanical boy goes on adventure and his wish of becoming real finally realized. REAL = better understanding of its place in the world. (Inclusion of OBVIOUS Pinocchio references like ‘blue fairy’ a BONUS!)

    I don’t know if it could be called a ‘Disney’ connection, but Spielberg sure likes this structure.

    as for 1941 – one great thing that came out of it are the great marches by John Williams. In 1991, I received the ‘Spielberg Williams Collaboration’ – on cassette – for Christmas – and FELL IN LOVE with the 1941 March. (I later purchased the 1941 cd and found the march included ‘cannon blasts’ which I did not like…) ANYWAY – music good.


    • Todd says:

      Re: Spielberg – Disney – and Music…

      Don’t forget Hook.

      • Re: Spielberg – Disney – and Music…

        If I try really hard, I’m sure we could ALL forget Hook – for the good of the country.

        Actually, I like Hook – interesting concept, and Dustin Hoffman was great.

        -Side Note- Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) has a tiny role in hook as one of Hook’s Male Pirates… True!


        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Spielberg – Disney – and Music…

          I believe she’s the one who goes in the “Boo Box” aka the box filled with scorpions.

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    As a spectacle “1941” might work well. I remember a lot of the funny parts. But is it a movie? That thing is more confusing than “Where Eagles Dare” and that one is pretty hard to beat in the confusion category.

  5. notthebuddha says:

    it’s one thing to show Stillwell chuckling along with a racist cartoon

    Do you mean Dumbo overall is racist, or just the part with the minstrel crows? I personally can’t think of a film that makes a greater statement against racism, or prejudice and bigotry in general.

    • Todd says:

      I don’t think Dumbo, overall, is racist, and what’s more, the minstrel crows I think would fly right over the heads, figuratively speaking, of most of today’s audiences, or 1979’s for that matter. Which is probably why Spielberg chose to extend the scene, to make sure we got the joke — if a joke is what it is.

  6. maleficone says:

    It is interesting that in the theatrical version, most of the racial and sexual undertones have been excised. The fact that the studio chose to have the DVD released with the restored footage, and that Speilberg actually prefers this cut, is quite odd. I remember watching this version many years ago when the film was shown on TV and then again recently on DVD. My recollections were similar to yours in that I found the restored scenes initially to be clunky and destroyed the pacing of the film. I still prefer to watch my old VHS copy of the theatrical cut. But, now that I look back on your comments about the more subversive elements of the cut scenes, I can see why this version gives off a really unsettling vibe. They really kill the movie and, in several instances, are downright offensively awful. I love 1941 as a kid for it overall zany action, WWII imagery, and great soundtrack. I’m glad that I still have the original version on tape and hope that they will release a decent DVD edition sometime.

    • Todd says:

      It doesn’t seem odd to me that the studio would choose to release Spielberg’s cut, although it does seem odd that they saw fit to release an unreleasable transfer.

      I don’t understand it. The movie did fine, despite all the bad buzz, and it is, after all, directed by Steven Freakin’ Spielberg, why not put out a 2-Disc set that includes both the theatrical and unexpurgated versions? The whole package, which is apparently a re-do of an earlier laserdisc version, is just so utterly shoddy. Perhaps with the coming of Blu-Ray you will get your wish.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thank you!

    Everytime I read about Spielberg and his films this film gets alot of flack and dismiss it as nothing as a messy critical and commercial flop and doesn’t even try to analyze it. I often thought was it right to analyze such a mindless comedy like 1941 but in the back of head I said yes because there are themes in this wild comedy that people do not want to dig further. Thank you for giving your thoughts about this film, some I have never even came to mind. As far as race in the film I feel its about as politically correct as a Family Guy episode.