There are movies that are plainly hysterical—throw a rock and you’re likely to hit anything from Armageddon to Zathura that might conceivably qualify under this umbrella of nerve-racking exhaustion, with stops along the alphabet for treats like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 300 and Santa Sangre, just for starters. Rare is the film that embodies a certain hysterical style while dealing with hysteria as its actual subject. But in the late ‘70s, a trio of movies written by the young screenwriting team of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale did just that-- I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980), directed by Zemeckis, and 1941 (1979), directed by Steven Spielberg, are among the best comedies of their generation, serving up a classically framed, goosed-up examination of American obsession, desire and panic. Together, Zemeckis and Gale trafficked in the kind of nasty, caustic characters which, combined with the Bobs' authorial in-your-face prankishness and glee (especially in Used Cars), linked them directly to the morally adrift protagonists found populating late-period Billy Wilder comedies like Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie and One Two Three. The foul-mouthed abandon of Used Cars, suffused with loyalty to a vision of corruption and thoughtless ambition as key elements the quintessential American biography, particularly on the eve of the Reagan era, was equal parts chilling and exhilarating, like a belly laugh at the edge of the abyss.
(The Bobs’ vision steered into the mainstream with the success of the Back to the Future movies, which were exhilarating in their own way, but driven, as Pauline Kael suggested, by a much more conventional set of values than the ones at the dark, blistered heart of Used Cars. On his own, Zemeckis has moved further and further toward meaningless technical experiments like The Polar Express and Beowulf. Gale, on the other hand, has worked primarily as a writer in television and video games, yet he managed to direct and release a whimsical fantasy called Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road in 2002 that has the closest thing to the old Zemeckis-Gale bite of any of their projects since 1980— the movie opens with Michael J. Fox’s yammering yuppie getting run over by a bus, while his wish-granting angel played by Gary Oldman looks on with a “what-can-you-do?” shrug.)
Used Cars plays out in a happily curdled present which entirely justifies the nostalgically tinged panic and mass hysteria at the center of the Bobs’ first two produced collaborations, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and 1941. Wild-eyed Americans running wartime Los Angeles like their own personal madhouse in 1941 most certainly could have spawned the perhaps more tempered hysterics who make their way from New Jersey to Manhattan to see the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in the first Zemeckis-Gale movie. I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a reflection of the relatively innocent genesis of Zemeckis and Gale’s generation, yet it’s built around the women, not the men, who made the Beatles their primary obsession. All the elements are there—Nancy Allen’s Pam and her diligent responsibility to, and eventual libidinous rebellion against, her fiancé and the white-picket-fence future in store for her; the sober careerism of Theresa Saldana’s Grace, a journalism student who may not be able to do everything it takes to get exclusive pics of the Fab Four; the anti-establishment leanings of Susan Kendall Newman’s Janis, which give way more easily than we might be comfortable with to the charms of a mop top; and Wendie Jo Sperber’s Rosie, anchored more solidly in the values of the ‘50s but more willing than any of her other friends to submit to the crazed pleasures the music of the Beatles brings roaring to her consciousness. Bobby Di Cicco’s relentlessly annoying greaser Tony Smerko (Smirko?), milquetoasty Larry Dubois (Marc McClure) and psychotic fan “Ringo” Klaus (Eddie Deezen) fill out the broadly stroked, none-too-flattering picture Zemeckis and Gale paint of the men in their ranks. I Wanna Hold Your Hand sees the hysteria of a generation of young people whose heads and hearts were turned by the Beatles as a necessarily positive phenomenon, a hysteria whose energy would, in some cases, be channeled into more sobering, challenging pursuits as the decade’s promise began to turn sour. It’s a giddy jewel of a movie, the only Zemeckis-Gale movie to have even the slightest patina of golden-hued optimism—and at its best it makes clear just why and how this music and these musicians could reduce an entire generation into a near pre-verbal state of worshipful enthusiasm. The enthusiasm carries over from the filmmakers themselves; in I Wanna Hold Your Hand they seem inseparable from their subjects.
I’ve written so often and so worshipfully myself about 1941 that to go on about it yet again might seem redundant. But I’ve never balked at repeating myself, either literally or in spirit, so let me just say that I was among the many who figured 1941 for some sort of large-scale cultural crime when I first saw it (three times—mm-hmm!) on the big screen when it came out during the Christmas of 1979. I was among those clucking that Spielberg had it coming. But for what, exactly? For making three terrific movies in a row? The movie’s sheer gigantism blinded me, I think, to the multitude of charms, both large- and small-scale, that it had to offer, and though I did pay to see it three times, and even though I remembered great huge chunks of it better than I remembered some movies I professed to love, I continued to insist that it was a disaster. The wild-eyed vision of an American public susceptible to mass hysteria—this time inspired not by Beatlemania, but by rampant paranoia based on fear of the Other and near-fatally mixed up with a potent nationalism (inspired in part by social impotence)—was clearly of a piece with the thrumming, not entirely tonal vibrations at the heart of I Wanna Hold Your Hand. But I was too overwhelmed by the noise of the movie itself—to say nothing of the noise of the conventional wisdom about it jangling just as loudly in the press over that Christmas break—to have anything like a genuine response to what I was seeing. Here’s what I wrote in May 2007 about encountering the movie again some three years later:
“I encountered 1941 on HBO, and somehow, scaled down to a 19-inch TV screen, stripped of the deafening soundtrack and rumble of artillery and exploding bombs coming at me from every which way, I discovered myself laughing. A couple more viewings and I became convinced I was completely wrong about this movie from the start. How could I have missed the brilliance of the USO dance set-piece? Or the maniacal wonder of Warren Oates’s sputtering Colonel “Madman” Maddox? Or the subversive glee in which Spielberg, and just as importantly scenarists Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, dismantle a nation’s paranoia and jingoistic fury in the context of this nation’s last great, justifiable war? Or the way the movie comedically embraces and simultaneously dismantles prevalent racist stereotypes of the era? Or the way John Williams’ score (his best and most joyous, in my opinion) dances about and accentuates the big moments as well as the small? (I collapsed in delight upon noticing the flourishes of flutes that sonically decorate puffs of smoke erupting from the cigar of psychotic pilot Wild Bill Kelso, played by John Belushi as Bluto Squared, and furious.)
I’ve seen 1941 at least 20 times in various formats since its 1979 release—I even got to create the closed-captions for the re-release on video and laserdisc of the uncut version that Universal unveiled in the mid ‘90s. And though the conventional critical wisdom is still largely negative, it was absolutely wonderful to discover some years later than Pauline Kael, who never wrote a full review of the movie, was a fan of 1941. In her review of Used Cars (which she also loved, God bless her), she wrote of Spielberg’s movie:
“1941 had a choppy beginning; it seemed to start with the story already under way, and Spielberg overdid some of the broad, cartoon aspects—some of the performers seemed to be carrying placards telling you what was wacko about them. But the U.S.O. jitterbug number is one of the greatest pieces of film choreography I’ve ever seen, and the film overall is an amazing, orgiastic comedy, with the pop culture of an era compacted into a day and a night. Its commercial failure in this country didn’t make much sense to me. It was accused of gigantism, and it did seem huge, though part of what was so disarmingly fresh about it was the miniature recreation of Hollywood Boulevard at night in 1941, with little floodlights illuminating the toy cars tootling around the corners and toy planes flying so low they were buzzing through the streets.”
And I was delighted to find out online friend and film critic Paul Matwychuk is quoted on RottenTomatoes.com as proclaiming 1941 as ‘the most underrated film of Steven Spielberg's entire career.’
But for all of my experience with 1941 since its original release, the irony is, I’ll probably never again get the opportunity to see it the way it was meant to be seen-- on the big screen. I’d love another chance to experience 1941 the way I should have back in 1979, with my newfound appreciation, and the movie’s gigantism, intact. And in this time of war, I wonder if Spielberg and Zemeckis and Gale’s none-too-flattering picture of American patriotic fervor and fear of The Other turned in on itself might find a more sympathetic audience.”
Read the first sentence of that last paragraph again. You will now understand completely why I am so elated to relate that, confounding all my fatalist projections, I will be given the chance to see a very rare screening on 1941 and I Wanna Hold Your Hand this coming weekend, and you will too. This coming Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, October 26, 27 and 28, Michael Torgan and the good folks at the the New Beverly Cinema will be screening the two films on a glorious double feature (the 35-mm print of I Wanna Hold Your Hand has been struck brand-new), and for an exceptionally good cause.
This year is, of course, the 30th-anniversary of Zemeckis and Gale’s first produced collaboration, and the New Beverly will be celebrating not only the films, but also a woman who starred in both of them. Wendie Jo Sperber, the delightful actress who was a member of the Zemeckis-Gale stock company from I Wanna Hold Your Hand all the way through the Back to the Future series, died four years ago after an eight-year battle with breast cancer. In conjunction with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the screenings this weekend are being held as a benefit for weSPARK, the support group Sperber founded in the shadow of her own diagnosis with breast cancer. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the life and talent of this wonderful spark plug of an actress than by coming to the New Beverly sometime this weekend and enjoying some of the best work, particularly in Hand, that she ever did on the big screen.
And if you come out Sunday evening you can raise a large cup of Diet Coke and a buttered popcorn to Sperber’s memory in the presence of some of those who knew and loved her most. Appearing live at the New Beverly Sunday evening only will be Nancy Allen, who appeared memorably in Carrie, Blow Out, Robocop and The Last Detail and costarred with Sperber in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and who now acts as programming director for the weSPARK organization. Also at the New Beverly Sunday will be Bob Gale, who will undoubtedly have at least 17 great stories to tell about Sperber and the movies they made together. Rounding out Sunday night’s bill of luminaries will be renowned Leslie Hoffman, who often worked as Sperber’s stunt double (and who I suspect may be responsible for that hilarious moment in Hand when Wendie Jo hurls herself out of a moving car in order to get to a pay phone and call in to hopefully win Beatles tickets); and veteran actors Perry Lang (1941) and Read Morgan (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai). Camera technician Andy Romanoff, who pioneered the Louma Crane that was used extensively in 1941 will appear with Hoffman at Monday night’s screenings.
More information on the weekend screenings is available from Lee Christian, who is organizing the event and has created a website devoted to the 30th anniversary of I Wanna Hold Your Hand. A multitude of thanks in advance is due to Lee and to Michael Torgan for making this once-in-a-lifetime double feature available to us fans of these underappreciated movies who could never reasonably expect that we would ever again have the chance to see them screened the way they were meant to be seen. And to be able to see them and also make a small difference in the operations of weSPARK, and by extension perhaps the lives of other women who are suffering under the same diagnosis that took Wendie Jo Sperber from us four years ago, well, that is a special honor indeed. There are many wonderful movies out right now and coming out this weekend (Let the Right One In and Changeling, to name just two) that I am happily anticipating. But this double feature of 1941 and I Wanna Hold Your Hand really is a dream come true, and as such unmissable. It will rank right up there with Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy as one of the essential movie experiences of the year. And what a coincidence—that one happened at the New Beverly too. Folks, come on out this weekend, and every week after this one, and show Michael Torgan and everyone at the New Beverly just how much we appreciate everything they do to keep this kind of exciting revival cinema alive in Los Angeles. They are not the only game in town anymore, and thank God for that, but they’ve been doing it longer than anyone else, and there’s a real community spirit at this venue that really should be experienced. In that way the New Beverly Cinema is unlike any other theater in the city, and the spirit of appreciation, tribute and hilarity that will be rippling through the auditorium Sunday night will be just one more convincing moment of evidence as to why. See you there!