Revisiting ‘1941’: Spielberg’s WWII Comedy Spectacular Turns Thirty-five

March 20, 2015 - 11:04 am   |   by
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“[Spielberg] has said he felt invincible at the time, so what you get is a Steven Spielberg channeling his inner ten-year-old and going crazy on a movie backlot.” Mike Matessino

“The main reason to celebrate 1941,” says Mike Matessino, “is because it has been restored in HD and released on Blu-ray, particularly the extended version that fans have come to love and which Steven Spielberg considers his Director’s Cut.” Matessino produced the two-disc CD soundtrack release of 1941 issued by La-La Land Records in 2011 and will be hosting the American Cinematheque’s March 22nd screening of the film and cast-and-crew Q&A. The screening will mark the theatrical debut of a new DCP of the extended cut of the film.  [Read more here...]

1941 is also celebrating its 35th anniversary, having been released in late 1979 and playing through the early months of 1980. And, nearly ten years after the format’s launch, 1941 finally received a release on Blu-ray Disc when it was among the titles chosen for inclusion in the recently released Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection Blu-ray set. (The set also includes Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Always, Jurassic Park, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park.) A stand-alone Blu-ray of 1941 is scheduled for release in May.

1941 - Belushi and Aykroyd

The Universal/Columbia co-production starred the ensemble of Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, and Treat Williams. With a script by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale and John Milius, the epic comedy chronicles the paranoia and zaniness that ensues following the spotting of a Japanese submarine off the West Coast soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film also features Nancy Allen, Eddie Deezen, Bobby Di Cicco, Dianne Kay, Slim Pickens, Wendie Jo Sperber, John Candy, and Lionel Stander.

1941 premiered at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles on December 13th, 1979. The film opened the following day in a few hundred theaters in the United States and Canada, including a handful of prestigious 70-millimeter presentations in high-profile markets such as New York (at the Rivoli), Los Angeles (Cinerama Dome), San Francisco (Northpoint), San Jose (Century 21), and Seattle (Crest). Opening weekend saw a third-place-finishing $2.7 million-gross (behind Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Jerk) and plenty of negative reviews. The promotional tagline used was, “As they roared into battle, only one thing was missing… the enemy.” Some have thought, “As they roared into battle, only one thing was missing… the audience” may have been more accurate.

1941 premiere at the Cinerama Dome

Co-screenwriter Bob Gale insists 1941 was not a flop. “Although it was pretty soundly trashed by the critics, it did make a modest profit,” says Gale, who also with Zemeckis wrote I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars and the Oscar-nominated Back to the Future. “I think a lot of the bad reviews had to do with the expectations of what Steven would do after Jaws and Close Encounters. And perhaps there were some critics who thought Steven was on too high a pedestal and he needed to be taken down a bit.” Spielberg’s film, his fourth theatrical production, grossed about $30 million domestic and more than $50 million internationally. So, even with its reported $35 million production cost and only about half of the theatrical take coming back to the distributor, any claims of flop status should be called into question.

1941 premiere newspaper adGale, who will participate in the Q&A following the upcoming screening, says 1941 was the first feature script he and screenwriting partner Robert Zemeckis were hired to write after graduating from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television. John Milius, who received a co-writing credit on the film, was originally considered to direct. Milius had written Apocalypse Now for Francis Ford Coppola and had directed The Wind and the Lion (1975) and Big Wednesday (1978) and would go on to direct Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Red Dawn (1984). “We weren’t really thinking about who would direct it when we wrote it — we just wanted to write a crazy comedy,” says Gale. “John let Steven read it, and Steven said, ‘I want to direct this!’ and John figured that Steven was in a position to really put everything on the screen. Bob and I were just thrilled that the movie was getting made!”

Was Spielberg a good choice to direct considering he had not made a comedy at that point in his career? “Of course, Steven was a great choice,” insists Gale. “Not many directors could convince a studio that it was a good idea to have an aerial dogfight on Hollywood Boulevard, a choreographed jitterbug number that turns into a huge riot, and a Ferris wheel rolling down Santa Monica pier, all in one movie.”

Gale says he has wonderful memories of the filming of the movie, and, unlike many screenwriters, he and Zemeckis were allowed to hang out on set during the production. “The cast was just incredible,” remembers Gale. “To have our dialog performed by actors we grew up watching — Toshiro Mifune, Slim Pickens, Robert Stack, Warren Oates, Christopher Lee — it was like being a kid in a candy store. Bob and I were 27 years old, and we concocted this ballet of insanity that involved hundreds, maybe a thousand people! We used to say, ‘it’s a 35 million dollar movie that was typed on a 30 dollar typewriter.’ And that was when a 35 million dollar budget made it one of the most expensive movies ever made. Today, to put those images on the screen, it’s probably north of $150 million, maybe more.”

Steven Spielberg on the set of 1941

Slim Pickins in 1941

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Despite the frequently-given sentiment that it is not a great movie, 1941, as we’ve come to expect from Spielberg’s films, was very well made, earning Academy Award nominations for its visual effects, sound, and William Fraker’s cinematography. Some may find it surprising that composer John Williams’ now revered score did not receive a nomination given his track record. (Williams was not nominated for his other scored film from 1979, Dracula, either.) Among the most-prolific and celebrated director-composer collaborations ever, Williams has scored 26 of Spielberg’s 27¼ theatrical feature films, receiving Academy Award nominations for 16 of them, winning three times. As well, Williams received 23 Grammy nominations for his Spielberg work, winning 11 times. Yet, despite the lack of any 1979 awards season love for Williams’ contribution to 1941, his score might just be the most appealing and enduring aspect of the film.

Composer John Williams

“Williams’ 1941 score is simply brilliant,” says Matessino. “I share Steven Spielberg’s opinion that the march is even better than Williams’ Raiders March, but the score as a whole shows Williams’ versatility and just how good he is at writing for comedy. He works in a lot of existing melodies, more than for any other score he’s done, I think, and there really isn’t a single moment where the score is just droning along. It’s always doing something interesting, and it constantly entertains and fires the imagination. There’s no dissonance in it, it wears its heart on its sleeve, and it brilliantly performed and recorded.”

1941 One Aheet (Style B)Adds Matessino: “I think 1941 truly solidified the Spielberg/Williams collaboration, because after Jaws and Close Encounters it would not have been surprising if Spielberg considered a different composer for a comedy — a genre Williams had not done in a while. Instead, he knew that Williams could do anything and they went into it together. It happened at a very important point in John Williams’ career, right smack in the middle of a ten-year period in which he scored nine of the hugest blockbusters of all time. And it also happened just as he was about to take up the baton as conductor of the Boston Pops.”

John Williams, by the way, was a little boy in 1941 and his father was a drummer in a swing band, so it would make sense with 1941 that Williams would tap in to his own early musical influences and build in a tribute of sorts to his father. The centerpiece of this idea is Swing, Swing, Swing, which Williams wrote to accompany the USO jitterbug contest sequence. It was based upon Benny Goodman’s famous Sing, Sing, Sing (1937), which is what was used as playback on the set during production. “Williams managed to come up with a piece that is a tribute to the era but which also works as a piece of film scoring,” Matessino says. “If you look at the scene you would swear that the music was written first and the scene was created to match it. There is total synergy there, and I’d say that scene is still one of the highlights of the Spielberg/Williams collaboration.”

Matessino’s role on the remastering of 1941 was to restore the music to the extended cut. He got involved after producing a two-CD set of the score and discovered that there were some scenes in the extended version that had originally been scored but that material had not been restored on the version that existed on LaserDisc and DVD. The reason was that those disc releases used the 1983 network television broadcast as a template, and when the extended version was first restored in 1995 the music was matched to the broadcast version. While working on the soundtrack project, Matessino studied 1941 carefully and came to feel that some of the extended version scenes that used repeated or looped music could be scored better and made that proposal to Spielberg. “The goal was to eliminate any residual sense that the extended version is a TV edit,” Matessino explains. “I believe the few music changes and some minimal sound work now make it feel like a finished, polished director’s cut.”

1941 Soundtrack CD from La La Land Records

“I really do enjoy the extended version,” says Gale. “The extended cut [which runs about 25 minutes longer than the theatrical cut] includes a lot of back story that better explains the motivations of the characters. It puts the Wally-Betty story more in the limelight, which is what Bob Zemeckis and I had always intended. It also, I think, creates the sense of a ticking time bomb, with different stories and characters all on an impending collision course.”

Gale adds: “I’m particularly grateful that Universal and Steven pulled the trigger on this restoration, and that we had a lot of passionate people working on it, to make it look and sound so great. And a special shout out to Mike Matessino who gets the total awesomeness award. Mike was instrumental in the restored 1941 soundtrack CD a few years ago, so when he saw that Universal was using the wrong cues for the added scenes from the DVD version, he remembered that these scenes had been scored, and put the right music in. So this is the first time these scenes have been married to the right music.”

A scene from 1941

And what of the sentiment 1941 is a disappointment? Matessino believes the film has improved with age. “1941 is astounding technically,” he proclaims. “It might actually have the best miniatures ever done, and it’s mind-blowing to think that every single thing in the picture was physically placed in front of a camera. As well, I feel that this extended version is superior because it sets up the characters better and creates more of the atmosphere of the era that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were going for in their screenplay.”

Matessino also believes 1941 was way ahead of its time. “The film was perhaps too frantic for 1979 when we hadn’t yet gotten fully conditioned to the speed of video games,” he says. “It also came out at a time when we were getting a lot of serious pictures about the Vietnam War. So going back to the ‘40s for a slapstick comedy about panicked Americans didn’t resonate at that moment. Looking at it now you can really appreciate the subversiveness of it… and that’s the combination of Spielberg, Zemeckis & Gale, and, of course, John Milius.”

On the set of 1941

John Belushi as Wild Bill Kelso in 1941

Should movie buffs give 1941 a second chance? “For me, 1941 is an essential Spielberg movie,” Matessino says. “It’s impossible to appreciate the track of Spielberg’s early directing career without it. You have Jaws and Close Encounters on one side — hugely successful but both very difficult productions that went over-schedule and over-budget… and Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on the other — hugely successful but both very disciplined productions that came in under-schedule and under-budget. 1941 illuminates how that transition happened, but at the same time fans get to enjoy Spielberg’s indulgence. He has said he felt invincible at the time, so what you get is a Steven Spielberg channeling his inner ten-year-old and going crazy on a movie backlot. But underneath all the screaming and destruction you can see his passion for old movies and Old Hollywood.”

One of the beauties of repertory screenings and home-video, as such, is that they support the idea that films can be discovered or re-discovered years after original release. 1941, watched again (or for the first time) without the distraction of pre-release hype or any media coverage about the project going over budget or needless comparisons to other films, perhaps can now be enjoyed and appreciated like so many other movies of Steven Spielberg’s illustrious career.

“From what I’ve read over the years, there’s been a lot of positive re-evaluation of the movie,” says Gale. “Which is easier to do without the context of the time in which it was released. I think this new edition will contribute to that. No one can ignore the spectacle of this film, and seeing it in HD and hearing it in full-blown stereo surround makes it even more impressive. And dammit, it’s funny!”

1941 screens this Sunday, March 22nd, at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, and will be released (individually) on Blu-ray on May 5th. (Click on the images below for screening details and to pre-order the Blu-ray from Amazon.com.)

1941 Egyptian screening - March 2015

American Cinematheque

Special Thanks: Neil S. Bulk, Bob Gale, Mike Matessino, John Sittig.

- Michael Coate

1941 (Blu-ray Disc)

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