There’s not many places I know of where you can sit down deliberately early in front of the box office, break out a couple of sandwiches, and within minutes find yourself in a conversation with a well-known and remembered Hollywood character actor. But that’s just how I started off my evening at the New Beverly this past Sunday waiting to see the double feature tribute to actress Wendie Jo Sperber, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and 1941. I was the first in line and only about five minutes after I settled in and starting mowing on my homemade dinner I was joined by renowned actor and garrulous New Beverly fixture Clu Gulager.
I had met Clu previously, standing on line this past April for Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy, but I hadn’t seen him since. Incredibly, he remembered who I was and for close to an hour, before the line finally started to form, he and I talked about my writing, his movies, our mutual film geekdom— Clu is a addictive filmgoer and has seen many movies you and I have probably never even heard of; he was repeatedly appreciative of my recommendation of Let the Right One In, and I believed him when he said he would see it the next night-- and our love and concern for the New Beverly Cinema. He was on a first-name basis with several others who eventually showed up, fellow film geeks, filmmakers and the people who love and support them. Joined by my friend Sal and his brother, we struck up a long conversation with a filmmaker by the name of Jason (Jason, sorry, but I didn’t catch your last name!) who is readying a documentary on grindhouse auteurs that should be fascinating, and Clu eventually hooked up with a couple of long-standing actor friends who enjoyed spending time with him before the movie reminiscing about their work together. When I talk about the sense of community that seems to have coalesced around the New Beverly Cinema over the last couple of years, Clu Gulager seems to be right at the center of it, which is in its way a perfect tribute to the theater’s spirit of survival and history.
The evening was a giddy and happy one, if a little disappointing in terms of attendance. The movies just couldn’t pull in the crowds we've (I’ve) become accustomed to seeing at New Beverly special events like the Joe Dante Film festival and others hosted by the likes of Edgar Wright, Patton Oswalt, Diablo Cody and, yes, Clu Gulager himself. Even so, those who were there in the crowd Sunday night were either already true believers in the early Zemeckis-Gale canon or at least eager to be converted. Producer –writer Bob Gale and actress Nancy Allen introduced I Wanna Hold Your Hand and paid moving tribute to their friend, the late Wendie Jo Sperber, with testimonies to her lively personality and iron will. The movie itself was perhaps more fun than ever. The two times I saw it on its original release (once coupled on a desperation double-bill with Magical Mystery Tour), it played to empty houses, the laughter generated by my best friend Bruce and I bouncing off the walls to the indifference of the auditorium and probably the annoyance of the few others in the audience. But at the New Beverly the audience roared appreciatively to the broad but finely tuned comedic talents of the movie’s terrific cast, fine actors who just happened to be adept and sharp comics as well. (Allen, Sperber and Theresa Saldana were eager students, according to Bob Gale, of the subtle wit of the Three Stooges.)
Me and Bob Gale
The Q & A featuring Gale, Allen, Sperber stunt double Leslie Hoffman and actor Perry Lang, was extremely entertaining and went blessedly long as the conversation swung from the happy lightning-in-a—bottle experience of making I Wanna Hold Your Hand to that of enduring the seven-month-long production schedule of 1941. I was grateful to be able to express to these folks personally just how much I love 1941, but it was clear to me (and fellow 1941 connoisseur Mr. Peel, who sat right in front of me for the show) that the cast and Gale were far more ambivalent about the experience and the final product. Gale referred to the movie as “a glorious mess,” and Allen, who suggested that anybody who was working in Hollywood at the time was either in 1941 or wanted to be in it (and I think she’s right), endorsed Zemeckis and Gale’s tighter original script—the one that existed before all the script pages added by Spielberg as he began piling gag upon gag—and believes that it would have been a better movie with a stronger producer (perhaps Gale) and had it been directed by Zemeckis. I tend to agree with her on the first point—if anything, 1941 is a template for the wretched excess of Hollywood in the late ‘70s and ‘80s insofar as a producing credit here stands primarily as a tool for padding one’s resumé rather than for contributing to realizing the vision at the heart of the movie. If Spielberg had been subject to a stronger hand, one who could have creditably said “no” to the wunderkind director, just coming off of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, then perhaps the movie would have ended up a tighter ship. But it also would not have ended up being the 1941 that I have come to love over the last 29 years. And though I value the acerbic directing talent on display in I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, and even as late as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I’m not at all sure that a young Robert Zemeckis would have had a better handle on the gigantic scale of 1941, coming off the relatively modest Hand, than did Spielberg, who packed the movie with enough visual jewelry for 10 movies based on the undeniable natural moviemaking chutzpah coursing through the veins of his previous pictures.
When 1941 finally screened, at almost 11:00 p.m., I was practically unable to sit still at the prospect of getting to see this movie on the big screen again. This was the theatrical cut, which was the only one available to appreciative audiences (as well as derisive ones) before the movie’s laserdisc issue in 1995, when the movie was expanded (based on Gale’s only existing Betamax copy of a televised version which showed on ABC in the mid ‘80s) and given proper room to breathe. Even Mr. Peel, the biggest 1941 fanatic other than myself than I’m aware of, seems to think that the theatrical version is the one that works best, if only for the fact that it is easier to take (that is, shorter and less demanding on the viewer’s patience and ability to endure loud noises and lots of people screaming at the top of their lungs). But though it was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill to see the movie again in any form, I have to admit I missed the extra half-hour of connective tissue, expanded gags, whole silly sequences (like the one, concocted whole-hog by John Milius, in which the Japanese soldiers invade Slim Pickens’ Christmas tree farm and kidnap him while dressed like Douglas Firs)—the extended version has superseded the original, far choppier cut which now, to my eyes and ears, plays, ironically enough, like a slightly bowdlerized TV version (John Williams’ wonderful musical themes often end up dangling like loose ends as other scenes stomp back into our field of vision, accompanied by their own glorious musical magic, cutting short scenes I’ve come to love and know should be there.)
This is, however, in the afterglow of seeing the picture again, foul nitpicking. There’s just too much great stuff going on in this movie to justify the churlishness that greets the mere mention of it in some circles, on the edges of the frame-- pay closer attention to Ned Beatty’s three boys next time you see it, and the beautiful perversity of that sequence with Colonel Madman Maddox (Warren Oates) at the Barstow airstrip-- and square in the middle of it—the U.S.O. dance sequence, which had the New Beverly audience bursting into applause, and the accompanying dogfight between Wild Bill Kelso and the trainer plane piloted by Captain Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson) and sexy aviatrix Donna Stratton (Allen) down a sparkling (miniaturized) Hollywood Boulevard. Then there’s Lionel Stander (“Close, Ward. Close.”); Eddie Deezen and Murray Hamilton “trapped like beavers” on a Ferris wheel (Gale’s hilarious story of Hamilton’s real-life aversion to Deezen was one of the evening’s highlights); the glorious physicality of Wendie Jo Sperber as Maxine, a part that Mr. Peel correctly suggests could have just been a crass friend- of-the-ingénue part in someone else’s hands, but which in Sperber’s becomes a great Sturges-like blast of relentless sexiness and determination that just gets better and funnier as the years pass; Slim Pickens on the pot (“You ain’t gettin’ shit outta me!”); Robert Stack watching Dumbo and getting interrupted with news of the mania breaking out on Hollywood Boulevard (“Now what?” he mutters); Joe Flaherty as Raoul Lipschitz, emcee of the U.S.O. radio broadcast, surveying the post-melee damage (“Maybe next time we could bring some Negroes in and stage a race riot!”)—stop me before I lose my readership! The spectacle itself on display in 1941 is often funny on its own—that Ferris wheel spiraling toward the ocean after being hit by Japanese torpedoes (“FIRE AT THAT LARGE INDUSTRIAL STRUCTURE!”) is ethereally beautiful, a great moment in the history of special effects in the movies, but it also makes me laugh like hell to think of Hamilton and Deezen (and the Dummy) riding it into the drink. And who doesn’t gasp, in horror and in delight, at the sight of that house sliding off its foundation over the cliff and into the sea?
Do I look as nervous and flustered as I actually was?
Right after the Q & A I managed to muster up the courage to speak to Nancy Allen, who I’ve kinda had a crush on since Carrie, and who couldn’t be less like the uber-bitch Chris Hargensen she played in that movie. Allen graciously indulged my fumbling attempts to express how much I’ve always enjoyed seeing her in movies, in personal favorites like 1941, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill and in surprise appearances like the one she made in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. And I must say, it was not hard to remember how lovely she was in Dressed to Kill by seeing her in person—she is genuinely beautiful, and by all evidence a sweet and sincere person, especially when the subject turns to her dear friend Ms. Sperber, as well as a fine actress who we just don’t see enough of these days. She is the one responsible for this 48-year-old man buzzing through the packed lobby of the New Beverly, just before 1941 started, chirping to anyone who’d listen about how I just got my picture taken with Nancy Allen!
After the lights came up at around 1:15 a.m. and Mr. Peel and I commiserated for a moment or two, I headed home, unaware that there was still a 1941-related delight in store. As I was driving up La Brea Boulevard, nearing Pink’s Hot Dogs, I got a text message from Sal that put a smile on my face. (“I stopped at Pink’s, and guess who’s here—Clu Gulager!”) And as I crossed Santa Monica Boulevard and made my way toward the Fountain Avenue back street that I usually use to avoid Hollywood traffic, I had a spark of inspiration. Rather than take my usual route, I turned right off of La Brea onto Hollywood Boulevard. As I came down the street, which was relatively quiet at that time of night, I could see all the way down the stretch from the Chinese Theater to the Pantages, and for a moment I imagined I was in one of those miniature cars that tooled along the rain-slick streets while Wild Bill Kelso and Captain Birkhead buzzed the boulevard in their fighter planes. It wasn’t exactly a moment of life imitating art, but it was surely one in which life butted up against art, and under the cloak of a quiet night life, for once, ended up not automatically getting the short stick. 1941 was a special movie to me before I ever saw Hollywood Boulevard with my own eyes; now my own eyes gave me just one more reason to hold the movie dear.