Thursday, October 30, 2008

FIRE AT THAT LARGE INDUSTRIAL STRUCTURE!: A 1941 POSTSCRIPT



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.

15 comments:

blaaagh said...

Ack! I could strangle you out of jealousy, if I weren't so happy for you! Sounds like a wonderful evening, and I'm happy enough thinking that you hung around in line with Clu--whose name and image conjure multiple happy images from movies I've seen--but having your photo taken with Nancy Allen, who does look fantastic, must've been--what is the term--beyond compare.

good times! Wish I had been there.

Megan said...

Fascinating!!

Headquarters 10 said...

Beautiful post, Dennis. Like yourself, I wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to see 1941 on the big screen, even if it is the original truncated version. The over-the-top aspect of it can kill the film the first time you see it, but it's always worth going back to, simply to appreciate just how damn much went into it and how much you've missed the first time. After that, you're hooked.

Speaking of famed character actors, was Dick Miller there the same night you were? I heard he showed up and got a warm reaction from the audience. No offense to the lovely Nancy Allen, but that's someone I would have gotten my picture taken with!

Jack Torrence Lapper, caretaker said...

Just once I want to see a picture of you without the cap on. I'm in constant suspense as to what the top of your head looks like.

If 1941 ever plays on the big screen around here I'm definitely going to give it another look. And I've always liked I Wanna Hold Your Hand and would love to see that again too.

bill r. said...

I guess I'm gonna have to buckle down and give 1941 another chance. And Nancy Allen is lovely. I was watching Carrie again the other day, and I know her character is evil and everything, but...sigh.

And any time I hear Clu Gulager mentioned, I'm reminded of the episode of Mystery Science Theater (I believe it's Touch of Satan), when, during the opening credits, Mike says, "Okay, Crow, you're on Clu Gulager Alert."

aaron said...

First off, Nancy Allen looks as gorgeous today as she ever has! Apart from OUT OF SIGHT ten years ago (really, has it been that long?!), I can't think of a single role -- for shame.

"I had met Clu previously, standing on line this past April for Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy, but I hadn’t seen him since."

I remember this all too well -- I'd seen Gulagher the night before for another one of Dante's screenings, but was far too shy to say anything. I'm so glad we struck up a conversation; it's not too often that you talk to someone who's held their own against Lee Marvin on screen!

Mr. Peel said...

Awesome. Just Awesome.

Adam Ross said...

Like everyone else I have to chime in on how beautiful Nancy Allen looks -- Wow!

Interestingly, the first time I saw "1941" the two things I really took from it were the Ferris Wheel sequence and Wendi Jo Sperber. I went to IMDB while I was watching it just to find out who she was. She had quite a presence in it.

Deno Lao said...

Wow, getting to meet Nancy Allen and seeing 1941 too. I've always loved the movie, and am sad to hear that it couldn't even get a full house of fanatics. But what a lucky experience for you.

Jeremy Richey said...

I'm officially jealous of your meeting with Nancy, and that photograph is just terrific...I have still not recovered from the crush I developed on her (and Amy Irving) in Carrie. She's so terrific and it is great to hear she was so nice and warm in person...I love I Wanna Hold Your Hand as well, so the fact that you got to see her introduce it makes me doubly jealous. To quote my blogging buddy Mr. Peel, "Awesome. Just awesome."

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Blaaagh: Not to rub it in or anything, but as I was standing there with her I couldn't help but think, "I can't wait till Bruce sees this picture!"

HQ10: I missed Dick Miller-- he must have shown up on Monday. He's been there several times, and I've yet to be lucky enough to meet him. But based on the ovation he got when he appeared on screen during IWHYH on Sunday, he must have had a grand time when he stepped into the New Beverly! Hard to think of many other actors who deserve the adoration as much as he does.

Jonathan: By the way, great series over at Cinema Styles in October. If any of you missed it, it's still fun to read about horror in November.

As for the cap, I'm not at all ashamed of my male pattern baldness-- nay, in fact I embrace it. I just think I look better with a black piece of material jutting out from my forehead.

Bill R: (That still feels weird to me): Do give 1941 another try. As you know, I won't think less of you if you don't respond the way I do, but I do think there's a lot to enjoy in there even if your reaction is a bit more tempered than mine. And believe me, I'm not so pure that I didn't think of the opening credits of Carrie, or the ending of Dressed to Kill, in the presence of Ms. Allen. Thankfully, I think I was at least articulate, but beyond apologizing for being such a nerd (to which she responded endearingly) I don't remember a thing I said to her!

Aaron: Clu say hello!

Mr. Peel: You know that it's true!

Adam: One of the things I love about Wendie Jo Sperber, especially in these two films, is her force as a performer, which was never about cheap jokes about her size. Especially in 1941 she has a lithe sexality about her body movements and she matches the movie's template for craziness through the joy in her acting. And it was gratifying to hear Allen and stuntwoman Leslie Hoffman relate stories about how WJS actively resisted being typecast and referred to in the demeaning way that is all too typical of Hollywood's portrayal of women who don't conform to the anorexic size-4 standards set by the run-of-the-mill ingenues. They all seem punched out from the same two-dimensional pattern, and Wendie Jo didn't seem to care that she wasn't. That sounds like the healthy, self-accepting attitude I'd like to pass on to my daughters.

Deno, Jeremy: As I said before, meeting Nancy Allen was a genuine treat, and it was such a relief to find out how sweet she was in person. I've heard nothing but wonderful things about her from people who have met her in the past, and it was a real honor to now be able to count myself among them.

But Dick Miller-- damn!

bill r. said...

I've never met a famous actress, but if I did meet one whose...err...physical presence had appealed to me in the past, I would most likely embarrass myself in some way. So good job on avoiding that, Dennis.

And as shameful a plus as this may be, feel free to check out my Halloween posts, Dennis! Here's a fact that should whet your whistle: They're long-winded!

Now I'm just putting pictures of Naomi Watts and Rosario Dawson that I find on the internet. That's probably for the best.

The Driveindude said...

I'd like to add one last thing to the Nancy Allen love fest.

I never said this to Dennis but I was feeling like an 18 year old when she walked up in front of the theater and Dennis giddily stated "that's Nancy Allen over there!"

Can you hear the quiver in Dennis' voice?

Jonathan Lapper said...

Thanks for the link Dennis. As for me I think I look better in a novelty oversized sombrero, so I wear one everywhere.

Toby Roan said...

I'm always amazed at how people focus on the scale of the film and rag on its lack of characters.

With repeated viewings, you see that many of the characters have all sorts of great bits of business going on — making the film both obnoxious and subtle at the same time.