By Marc S. Sanders

Steven Spielberg’s first critical and box office flop, 1941, is a splattered mess of slapstick hysteria set a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Residents of the California coast line prepare to be the next target.  Ahem!!!!!  Well, that’s it for the story…Goodnight.  Tip your waiters.

Just a year ahead of the Zucker brothers with Abrams comedy team that’ll deliver Airplane!, Spielberg opted to direct a spoof script penned by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (Back To The Future).  1941 is full of gags galore beginning with a reference to the director’s most successful film to date, Jaws.  For me, seeing actress Susan Backline on screen again for another ocean skinny dip only to be intruded upon by a rising Japanese submarine was the second best joke of the film.  Once that was over, I had two hours left to go.  A long two hours. 

I’ve noted before that satire or spoofs are the riskiest genres to produce.  They can succeed with a picture like Dr. Strangelove…, or Network or Airplane!  Satire can be divisive too though, and thus only one half of your audience will appreciate the poke and prod.  Even worse, satire can just be unfunny across the board no matter which side of the aisle you lean on.  That’s 1941.  It plays too much like a Three Stooges series of slapstick violence.  Reader, even Steven Spielberg cannot capture the magic of the Three Stooges.

Zemeckis and Gale opt to poke a little fun at the Puerto Rican zoot suit riots vs the Enlisted men ahead of America’s entry into World War II.  So, when army soldier Treat Williams gets jealous of one handsome zoot suit dancer flirting with his girl, a fight breaks out which eventually populates two thirds of the film as it escalates all the way over to Hollywood Boulevard. Now thousands of stooge wannabe extras are walloping each other from one side of the street to the next. 

To allow a breather from this, the writers sidetrack over to Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen getting frisky in an out of control bi-plane while being mistaken for the enemy by John Belushi doing a very poor resurrection of his Bluto character from Animal House.  As Captain Wild Bill Kelso, Belushi’s pursuit fires upon everything else in sight, especially Hollywood Boulevard, but misses the plane occupied by Matheson and Allen.

The third point of this rectangle concerns Dan Aykroyd with John Candy and a whole platoon opting to set up a military cannon along the ocean view property belonging to Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary in anticipation of the Japanese invasion.  Ned Beatty is the best stooge of the entire cast as the nerdy resident determined to protect his home while exercising his patriotic duty.  Gary’s response to Beatty’s ineptitude cracked me up as well.  The house wreckage of The Money Pit has nothing on what occurs in 1941.

The fourth storyline focuses on the enemy with a German speaking Nazi portrayed by Christopher Lee debating with the captain of a Japanese submarine (Toshiro Mifune) plotting to bomb Hollywood.  Somehow, each foil understands the other’s language.  These guys are just here to scream at one another.  There’s nothing funny about them.

Oh yeah.  Robert Stack is the Army General who watches Dumbo in the movie theatre while Hollywood Boulevard gets demolished outside.  Ho! Ho!

Often, I compliment Spielberg for his reliance on the sets he provides.  Everything you see on the screen serves a purpose to his films.  It happened as recently as with his remake of West Side Story in 2021, and it’s effectively used in Close Encounters…  He uses the same approach with 1941.  In this film though, there’s no pulse or significance to the props and pieces that are used.  The house is demolished.  So is the storage shed.  So is the movie theatre.  So is the Ferris wheel.  Yes.  What you’ve already seen in endless Looney Toons cartoons occurs here with a miniature model.  The Ferris wheel comes off its hinge and rolls across the beach side dock into the water along with Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen in tow.  When it happens, you’ll tell yourself I was waiting for that to happen.  What you expect to happen, happens, but you’re not laughing at it.

None of what you see in 1941 are terrible gags.  If you watch one scene out of context on a four minute You Tube channel, you may chuckle.  The problem is that every scene is treated like throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what will stick.  Mashing all of this together is not appetizing.  I like ice cream and I like steak.  I don’t like my ice cream on my steak.  Any idea of development is completely ignored.  The film can’t even work like a collection of skits.  Even Airplane! had a romantic storyline trajectory to perform with.  Here, two jealous guys have a fist fight and it more or less stretches that fight for an entire two hours.  The Three Stooges knew when to eventually quit.  Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale didn’t. 

As soon as I saw Belushi on screen, I laughed.  It’s Bluto again.  Yet, the appearance wears off very quickly.  He has little dialogue and is limited to chomping on a cigar while grunting and groaning as the fighter plane he occupies wobbles around shooting at everything in sight.  When he eventually crash lands, Belushi continues to chomp on the cigar and grunt and groan.  Only now, he pratfalls as well…badly.

Ned Beatty is the real star here.  The ultimate nerd is also limited in dialogue. Still, to watch his body language with his glasses and bow tie and pear-shaped physique, accompanied with Lorraine Gary’s helpless gasping wife responding to the damage he commits with the cannon is hilarious.  Absolutely hilarious.  Tape all of their scenes together and make it a short to present ahead of the main attraction in a movie house. The audience will have a great time.

Otherwise, the only other fun I got out of 1941 was spotting the stars that were relevant at the time of its release.  Candy, Aykroyd, Frank McRae, Slim Pickens, Christopher Lee, Robert Stack, the cute blonde daughter from Eight Is Enough.  Even Penny Marshall has a quick blink and you miss it moment.  Oh, and look, there’s Lenny and Squiggy!

I think Zemeckis and Gale were on to a real smart idea here.  They maybe should have consulted with Harold Ramis and his National Lampoon’s crew however, because that’s the direction Spielberg’s film was aiming for.  What sets a film like Animal House apart from a 1941 though is in the set up.  Dialogue also helps.  1941 lacks set up.  1941 lacks dialogue.  It’s all visual and noise and more noise and more noise. 

1941 begins at letter A, and stops at letter A, never making it to B, and definitely never reaching Z.  An idea with potential was put down on paper.  The problem is these guys stopped writing after the first sentence.


By Marc S. Sanders

Mainstream films released by big studios suffer from a major problem these days.  Too often, they don’t allow their characters to breathe.  Films today rush to the climax or the action or the cliffhanger that’ll whet our appetites for a sequel or a crossover or a toy product.  Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy escaped all of those conventions.  In fact, I’d argue that Beresford made a buddy picture with his Best Picture Winner based upon Alfred Uhry’s well received play.

Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy, who won the Oscar, and held the record for oldest recipient) is an insistently independent old southern Jewish woman living in Georgia.  She drives her car where she wants to and whenever she wants to go somewhere.  However, following an accident in her driveway, her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd in a very surprisingly good performance) breaks the hard truth to Daisy that her driving days are over since it’s likely no insurance company will ever affordably cover her.  Boolie recruits Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman in one of the most gentle and delicate performances of his amazing career) to chauffer the proud woman around her Georgia neighborhood.  Naturally, Daisy does not take well to Hoke at first.

The film begins in the 1950’s and then spans roughly 20 years from that point.  I love how Beresford presents the passage of time.  The cars that Hoke carries Daisy in change as the years go by.  As a new car is shown parked in Daisy’s garage, the relationship and eventual friendship of Hoke and Daisy become stronger and, on some occasions, franker and more honest.  With Hans Zimmer’s energetic score that seems to accelerate the speed of the automobiles Hoke drives, Driving Miss Daisy feels like a very sweet and tender film.  It is.  Moreover, it’s an alive picture.  However, the film does not ignore the prejudiced mentality that’s embedded within the south.  A telling moment occurs when Hoke is driving Daisy to a family gathering in Alabama.  Why would an elderly black man with an elderly Jewish woman sitting in the back seat be met with such disdain by policemen who question their presence while eating lunch on the side of the rode?  I won’t repeat the officer’s comment here, but it is ugly and a sad reflection of how things were.  Are things still that way?

Uhry’s script adaptation from his play does not stop there though.  He questions Daisy’s own stance.  She takes no issue with black people catering to her and her home on regular basis, and she becomes enamored with Martin Luther King’s inspiring wisdom.  So, when she is given the opportunity to see Dr. King speak in person, it only makes sense that Hoke will question why he was invited last minute to join her.  After so many years of servitude, why did Daisy wait until Hoke literally drove up to the location of the speech to invite him in?  I’d argue that it never occurred to Daisy, and I think Alfred Uhry believed that is part of the problem.

Both Daisy and Hoke experience anti-Semitism and racism in the mid twentieth century south.  Ironically, the film demonstrates that common victimization is one reason why they need one another.  I’m thankful that Beresford does not show a burning synagogue for dramatic effect.  Instead, he relies on Uhry’s dialogue as Hoke breaks the news to Daisy when they are on their way for morning Shabbat services.  How does Daisy feel in this circumstance?  The synagogue can be rebuilt.  The horror of knowing this kind of hate exists will never be erased.  That’s the terrible shock.  As well to empathize, Hoke describes how as a child he saw his uncle get lynched and hung from a tree.  Daisy and Hoke unite in the hate that surrounds them.

The performances of Freeman, Tandy and Aykroyd are exquisite.  Their dialect for each of their respective characters rings so true of the Georgian southern regions they stem from.  Freeman has an enunciation that rings of a black man who never learned to read.  He even develops a laugh that seamlessly works into his dialogue and reaction to Daisy’s stubbornness.  His posture is marvelous as an elderly gentleman who will walk slowly while hunched over.  It just looks so natural. Aykroyd is in no way doing one of his comedy characters.  He carries the gut of a well-fed southern man who’s become successful with his family business while not taking every fit that his mother has so seriously.  If any of us have had to tend to an elderly relative, then we can certainly relate to Boolie’s position.  Tandy is wonderful at method acting; it should be studied in performance art classes.  She was an elderly woman already when cast in the role.  Yet, as the years carry on through the story, she changes her gait to how this woman’s bones might become more brittle, or how she might speak slower or smile or frown or chew her food.  She has such a fire in every one of her scenes.  A heartbreaking scene where she appears to be having a frantic form of dementia is very eye opening as she paces her historic two-story home looking for papers she graded years earlier as a teacher.  The younger Freeman (playing a far older man) has to keep up with Tandy in this moment; even Beresford’s steady cam has to move quickly to keep focus.

Recently, I had reviewed Terms Of Endearment, and I alluded to the fact that not enough films about middle age people are focused upon, or at least given the commercial attention that they should be given.  Why is that?  So many middle age and elderly characters are so interesting.  I said it before.  Look at The Golden Girls sitcom.  After all, characters with more years behind them have had more moments to live and breathe. Actually, they have a longer history with more nuances and meaningful events they have already encountered, as opposed to twenty somethings with hot cars, pecs and guns.  Film studios are missing out on a wealth of great storytelling. 

Driving Miss Daisy is well paced story of friendship and fear, and often natural comedic material within its three lead roles.  It’s never boring.  It’s only more and more interesting as the years of the story pass by.  It’s simply an endearing buddy picture of the finest quality.