Spielberg invades Bayonne

Defining a comedy classic

I'm a sucker for slapstick, vaudeville and that whole now musty out of fashion low-brow comedy many contemporary critics find distasteful.

It is this sense of connection to the comic past that drew me to Steven Spielberg's film 1941.

My attraction to such comedy is only partly explained my growing up in Paterson, New Jersey where I barely missed out on some of those people I consider my greatest heroes.

Paterson had seven theaters in which Vaudeville acts frequently appeared even in the years after World War Two featuring even one of Paterson's own, Lou Costello.

But by the time I came on the scene Vaudeville was dying thanks to television and this new suburban snobbishness I still don't fully understand.

While Costello, as a local hero, held a special place in my heart (I took his death as hard as I did my mother's years later), his generation of comic stirred up something important in me, and caused a strange sense of pain with every laugh. Even now, I laugh and cry when watching old routines or sit through the rare film festival on cable TV.

Growing up, Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, The Little Rascals, and of course, The Three Stooges served as icons. As I grew older and supposedly wiser, I learned to appreciate the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin, developing the same passion for them as my original heroes.

For most of my life, I seemed to have missed out on the comedy era to which I am mentally most suited, envying my mother and uncles for their ability to walk downtown and see any of them in person, one or more of the greats bound to be at one of the venues on a given afternoon or evening. I saw all of the classic films, but always had this nagging sensation that I had come too late and that the world I so treasurer had vanished before I was born.

At 16, I deliberately took a job as a movie usher at the Fabian Theater in Paterson because my best friend at the time (who was already an usher) claimed the Vaudeville dressing rooms and sets still existed in that alien landscape behind the silver screen. Although I recount the search in a novel-length (and as yet unpublished account), I did eventually stumble over those mythical things, and I can still recall the feeling I had while wandering through that dark space following the dusty footsteps of my childhood heroes. In that space, I seemed to establish a psychic bond with them in much the way Elliott did with the alien in ET.

Seeing Spielberg's 1941 for the first time this week stunned me, stirring up the dusty trail since my days as usher.

Foolishly, I had kept away from this screwball comedy because so many people I respected claimed it was "a bomb." Even as I unwrapped the DVD, my wife warned me against it, having heard the same ill tales about it as I had, and felt that the length would make us equally ill prepared for work in the morning.

Never was a warning so ill-conceived.

From the opening credits, I roared with a laughter I thought consigned only to the older classics of my youth. Some of the same strange feelings I had when wandering behind the screen at the Fabian stirred again inside of me, the dust of that strangely magical world choking me up with nostalgia even as I laughed.

What folly made critics treat 1941 so harshly is beyond my imagination, though I suspect some used this amazing tribute to the masters of 20th Century comedy as an excuse to knock Spielberg down a notch, when 1941 appears to be a masterpiece of homage to those whom I revered most in my life. Perhaps the critics and modern audiences simply saw themselves as too sophisticated for the kind of gags that made those comedians great, and that making reference to that age was a step back in time when audiences and critics were looking for the next Close Encounters, Poltergeist or Raiders movie.

But it was strolled through time I was more than willing to make and one that I know I will be making again and again for the rest of my life, a rich a field of study as any of Spielberg's other masterpieces. It is a film that has waited on the store shelf for me since its creation in 1979, and I was too stupid to realize it.

While I reserve specific comments for future essays, I will say that this is a much denser comedy than "It's a mad mad world" but one that has a similar outlandish feeling, providing a wide landscape of comedy with every inch filled with a potential laugh.

No film has touched me so deeply since two or three of the classic Abbott & Costello films of my youth, and I suspect if I hunt through the massive number of scenes I might come up with a tinker in a wishing well or a mind-reading vacuum salesman. In fact, the film is so thoroughly stuffed with reverences to past comedians, I might spend the rest of my life watching the film and not come up with them all.

Although Spielberg is currently recreating another H.G. Wells story, in this film, he has created a time machine, one that has allowed me to journey back in time to visit a host of old friends, and a trip I am already making reservations to take again often.

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