1941 Revisited


Email to Al Sullivan


Several people have questioned why I like Steven Spielberg’s 1941 so much when I dislike some of his artistically more superior films like AI.

The answer is easy: AI is sentimental. AI is campy.

I hate sentimentally and have a sentimental place in my heart for camp.

While sitcoms like “I love Lucy” eventually grate on my nerves after too many viewings, I could sit through endless repeats of “The Honeymooners” or Adam West’s “Batman” without blinking an eye.

Much to my wife’s chagrin, I am a great admirer of the film “It’s a mad, mad, mad world,” of which I am reminded each time I watch Spielberg’s 1941.

Both films do for comedy what the two Blues Brothers films did for music, giving us a glimpse of great comic actors as they made way for the next generation.

Both films serve as vehicles to comic routines.

Yet for some reason, most people tell me they prefer “mad world” to “1941.”

“Mad World” in some ways feels more authentic, partly because it presents us with many of the great comedians to which “1941” merely alludes. While Spielberg pays tribute to great comics of the past, “Mad World” lets us glimpse them as they fade from the scene. While Spielberg gives us renditions of The little Rascals” and makes references to “Who’s on First” routines, “Mad World” brings us The Three Stooges and others in their last performances on film.

Many of Spielberg’s films find their roots in other films, remaking them in a different form – although like most great directors of our times such as Woody Allen – Spielberg’s images can be traced back to perhaps the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane.

It is impossible to say if Spielberg made “1941” with “Mad World” in mind, but parallels exist. Both are epic comedies. Both employ an ensemble of characters and require weaving of numerous plots leading to a stunning conclusion – although the plots of each films differs sharply.

“Mad World” is about human greed and is a kind of fable about what happens when people allow greed to possess them.

In this tale, people traveling on a highway see a car accident and hear from the lips of the dying gangster about a fortune buried in a park near San Francisco. Although they agree to split the fortune, greed and other circumstances soon takes over and they begin a mad race to get their first with winner taking all.

Spielberg’s film has no such core – and is largely the reason for its perceived failure.

Instead of an ensemble of characters with a common goal, Spielberg gives us numerous characters whose lives touch each other in passing, but otherwise have little real connection to each other. He does present us with some seductive subplots, such as the zoot suit dancer who does not yet recognize that his era has ended, and the Japanese submarine (straight out of Mr. Roberts TV show) that gets lost, but is determined to attack the American mainland and targets Hollywood. We also get the general’s aide who lusts after a woman who gets her sexual kicks in airplanes (instead of as Paul McCartney’s bass guitar in “I want to hold your hand” – a film in which many of the same actors play similar roles).

The problem for the film is that all of these characters are destined to come together in some way by the end of the film.

In “Mad World,” all of the characters have one destination in mind from nearly the beginning of the movie, and no matter how wide they wander and no matter what predicament they get into, they are driven constantly to get to that place.

This is not the case in 1941.

While all of the characters are destined to wind up in or near Hollywood by the end of the film, the audience is not made aware of the fact and we wander around with the characters somewhat confused as to where we are going and why until accident brings many of them together.

This creates a looser and less satisfying overall effect and explains why some people are turned off by the film.

Spielberg uses a classical comic plot pattern: characters are apart at the beginning of the film and brought together at the end. This is usually very satisfying for small or social comedies when we are expected to follow one or two simple threads. But unless you’re William Shakespeare, it is nearly impossible to make such a pattern work for epic comedies like “Mad World” or “1941.”

This is not to say that Spielberg did not try and connect the characters and the plot lines. But each is a very tenuous connection. Characters from one thread pass through others without seeming to have any fundamental connection. We get the tank commander who delivers the anti aircraft gun to paranoid homeowner on the cliff overlooking the ocean. He touches upon the homeowner’s thread as well as the thread of the zoot suit dancer (to later return during the climax to help transform into a hero), but for the most part, each thread wanders its own way. So we get the wandering fighter pilot flying towards Hollywood and the sex crazed couple in another plane more or less accidentally coming together over the skies of Hollywood where they are mistaken for Japanese invaders and lead to the amazing conclusion. Yet the coming together of these remote plots does not work the way Spielberg managed to do with his TV film, “Duel.”

“Mad World” overcomes this problem with introducing a different comic pattern. All of the characters start at the same place (for the most part), separate, then come back together for the film’s dramatic conclusion. We are always aware of the relationship because of the roots early in the film.

Part of the reason “1941” fails to satisfy many is because he failed to set up the interconnectivity between the characters.

Compare this to a symphony where we have numerous themes. The reason for an overture is to introduce themes in one place before they break apart. With “Mad World” we get the overture so that by the end we appreciate all of the themes coming back together. In Spielberg, we merely get a lot of differing songs seemingly confusing by the end because they seem accidentally brought together. Pratfalls may be funny in comedy, but they are always anticipated. Accident in any fiction is boring or confusing.

Spielberg needed to make clear at the beginning why each actor would wind up in Hollywood at the same time.

While “1941” is visually superior to “Mad World” and at times even funnier, it is less emotionally satisfying and this has to do with structure. His film wobbles to its conclusion instead of rolls.


Spielberg menu

Main Menu

email to Al Sullivan