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1941: A GREAT COMEDY FOR SLIM PICKENS DAY

by Dennis Cozzalio Aug 27, 2017

On Monday, August 28, 2017, Turner Classic Movies will devote an entire day of their “Summer Under the Stars” series to the late, great Louis Burton Lindley Jr. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, well, then just picture the fella riding the bomb like a buckin’ bronco at the end of Dr. Strangelove…, or the racist taskmaster heading up the railroad gang in Blazing Saddles, or the doomed Sheriff Baker, who gets one of the loveliest, most heartbreaking sendoffs in movie history in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Lindley joined the rodeo circuit when he was 13 and soon picked up the name that would follow him throughout the length of his professional career, in rodeo and in movies & TV. One of the rodeo vets got a look at the lank newcomer and told him, “Slim pickin’s. That’s all you’re gonna get in this rodeo.” Which may on the face of it been true. He worked the rodeo as a performer and clown for some 18 years before making his way to Hollywood and making his first credited appearance in the Errol Flynn oater Rocky Mountain (1950), directed by William Keighley. From there on was a multitudinous succession of B-westerns and, later, TV appearances. But in the early ‘60s Pickens (he adapted the spelling slightly) caught the eye of Marlon Brando, who cast him as one of Karl Malden’s deputies in One-Eyed Jacks. Shortly after that, an appearance in Walt Disney’s Savage Sam (1963), and then his indelible role in Kubrick’s great black comedy of 1964, assured that, alongside the TV appearances which never seemed to dry up, a future in features might just be his for the taking.

TCM highlights Pickens’ early days in westerns with screenings of Rocky Mountain (3:00 a.m. PST), followed by The Story of Will Rogers (1952; 4:45 a.m. PST), and Sidney Salkow’s briskly entertaining Gun Brothers (1956; 6:45 a.m. PST), before moving on to The Glory Guys (1965; 8:30 a.m.), co-starring Tom Tryon, Harve Presnell and Senta Berger.

Up next, it’s a hop, skip and jump right over notable Pickens appearances in films like Major Dundee, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and the entirety of Pickens’ ‘70s output, to get to his work as Garland Ramsey, wanna-be country singer Amy Irving’s dad in Honeysuckle Rose (1980; 10:30 a.m. PST). Then TCM tumbles backward in the time machine to Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972; 12:45 p.m.), Steve Anhat’s The Honkers (1971; 3:00 p.m.—this is the one I’m most looking forward to—Pickens back in rodeo mode, with James Coburn, a picture I’ve never seen), and followed by the underappreciated An Eye for an Eye (1966; 5:00 p.m. PST), directed by Michael D. Moore (The Fastest Guitar Alive) and written by Bing Russell, in which Pickens starred opposite Robert Lansing, Patrick Wayne and Strother Martin.

And then, Prime Pickens Time, which starts off at 7:00 p.m. PST with Blazing Saddles (“Piss on you! I’m workin’ for Mel Brooks!”), followed by Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) at 8:45 pm PST and then, um… Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) at 11:00 p.m.

It is a shame that TCM couldn’t make room for The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Rancho Deluxe or White Line Fever, terrific movies which all feature memorable appearances by this great character actor, whose irascible, gravel-voiced, good-ol’-boy friendliness seemed a given, until he got a bad guy’s role, like the one he chewed up in White Line Fever. But, shoot (as Slim would have said), if you can make it through that 11:00 p.m. screening of Irwin Allen’s unnecessary sequel to his 1972 disaster movie spectacular, TCM has the arguable pearl of Pickens picture-show appearances in store for devotees of the late-late show—Steven Spielberg’s 1941, which bows on TCM at 1:00 a.m.—by then it’ll be Tuesday, August 29). The time slot might seem like a slight, given the movie’s tarnished Hollywood history and reputation as Spielberg’s most bloated disaster. But it’s anything but that, and if you haven’t seen 1941 in a while, or ever, it’s worth the past-your-bedtime excursion (or DVR the darn thing, if you can), and not solely based on Slim Pickens’ participation either.

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The BBC recently published another one of those water-cooler lists, the 100 Greatest Comedies of All Time, another great aggregation of consensus which tend to do nothing but inspire other people to make their own lists on Facebook and complain about the middlebrow choices that stood in place of their own unassailable classics. Naturally, the individual ballots of the 253 critics who were polled were far more interesting and idiosyncratic than what came out in the BBC’s wash. (One poker-faced wag named Barry Lyndon on his list. Rath-ah!) And when I saw those lists, I couldn’t help but tackle this important question on my own terms, meaning largely that, hey, just because these critics were restricted to 10 choices didn’t mean I had to be. So, I picked 22, just because I couldn’t bear to cull it down any further. (And yes, I did think of several picks which should have made it onto my list after the deed was done.)

Here’s my list, in alphabetical order, which I posted on Facebook a few days ago:

The Big Lebowski (1998; Joel and Ethan Coen)

Duck Soup (1933; Leo McCarey)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953; Howard Hawks)

His Girl Friday (1940; Howard Hawks)

Jackass: The Movie (2002; Jeff Tremayne)

The Lady Eve (1941; Preston Sturges)

Love and Death (1975; Woody Allen)

The Man with Two Brains (1983; Carl Reiner)

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983; Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam)

Murder, He Says (1945; George Marshall)

A New Leaf (1971; Elaine May)

1941 (1979; Steven Spielberg)

On Approval (1944; Clive Brook)

One Two Three (1961; Billy Wilder)

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1986; Tim Burton)

Real Life (1979; Albert Brooks)

Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979; Jeff Margolis)

A Serious Man (2009; Joel and Ethan Coen)

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999; Trey Parker, Matt Stone)

To Be or Not to Be (1942; Ernst Lubitsch)

Trouble in Paradise (1932; Ernst Lubitsch)

I know it probably sounds like hopeless contrarianism to see 1941 on any list of the greatest comedies ever made (I’ve heard the charge before), and it shouldn’t be too surprising that Spielberg’s picture was nowhere near the final count—I don’t think it showed up on any individual lists either. And as lists in general go, I have no business pretending that I’m seasoned enough to suggest the 20 greatest anythings, let alone movies, based purely on “objective” analysis.

But after perhaps as many as 25 viewings of Steven Spielberg’s notorious big-budget, epic comedy since its release in December 1979 I’ve come to the conclusion that if this movie doesn’t in some way represent what makes a “great” comedy, hell, a great movie, then the superlatives in my Merriam-Webster’s need some radical revision.

Spielberg has intimated in the past, and it has been reported endlessly, that he felt like he was losing control during the production of 1941, that he was in over his head and that the production was subsumed by creative anarchy and/or at the very least a lack of consistent direction. Well, I would submit that the last thing I would want to see is a movie about the freewheeling anarchy of an optimistic America, under enemy besiegement that is only partially an imagined product of a volatile cocktail of patriotism and paranoia, that is itself measured and controlled and tamped down around the edges. The blistering satiric punch of the script, penned by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale when the duo still had some real fire in their bellies, is exacerbated by American-on-American anarchy—anarchy is its fuel, its lifeblood. 1941 is exhilarating in part precisely because you feel Spielberg flying by the seat of his pants and still marshaling some of the most marvelous, breathtaking comedy (and musical) set pieces imaginable amidst the chaos. Even the perceived bloat of that production seems to work in its favor, not, as traditionally presumed, against it.

But 1941 is not, unlike John Landis’ similarly indulgent The Blues Brothers, all just chaos and cacophony. Nor does 1941 share that film’s insistent deadpan delivery of its material, the good stuff as well as the not-so-good. (The Blues Brothers was released the summer after 1941’s Christmas platform and, surprisingly, given the tenor of the critical response to what was perceived as colossal, immoral waste on Spielberg’s part, enjoyed a much better critical reception, in 1980 and certainly now.) One essential difference between the two may come down to the relative elegance of Spielberg’s direction in opposition to the clunky demolition-derby style on display in The Blues Brothers. In 1941 there’s an eye-boggling comic grace in play, which is hardly negated by the movie’s escalated volume, from the way Wild Bill Kelso’s fighter plane is shot gliding through the sky over the Grand Canyon or shooting out across the night-lit skies above a twinkling (miniature) Los Angeles; to the sight of a bomb rolling toward a gaggle of reporters gathered at Santa Monica Airport to welcome General Stillwell to town; to the way Kelso leaps up onto the wing of his plane and tumbles over the other side to the ground; or to the sight of a Ferris wheel unmoored from its structure careening down Santa Monica Pier like a gigantic ghostly toy escaping from the clutches of its owner.

There’s wit in a miniature-scale skewering of the bigotry of the day when a racist soldier gets his face smeared with engine smoke and ‘switches places’ with a Negro soldier who has been similarly dusted with flour (You must see the movie to understand how this comes about), and in a simple moment during which the smoke puffing from the end of Kelso’s mangled stogie is synchronized to the momentarily ethereal orchestration of John Williams’ hilarious, inspired score (one of his best, easily).

There is, of course, the movie’s centerpiece, justifiably praised by even many of the movie’s detractors, the thrilling USO dance sequence, matched for musical buoyance and insouciance in Spielberg’s career only by the ‘Anything Goes’ number that opens his equally maligned (and equally masterful) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At one point, leading up to a key change in the ‘Swing, Swing, Swing’ number, Spielberg uses a lighter-than-air crane shot to lift the camera up above the dance floor, where it is revealed that the dancers are hoofing it on the painted image of Hitler and Tojo, a shot which is again followed immediately by a similar vertically– and then horizontally– oriented camera move up and over the backs of some of the orchestra players and out across the floor above the dancers. The simple beauty of this combination of camera and action and musical choreography is so blissful, so chill-inducing that the last time I saw the movie it caused me to burst into tears.

And somewhere in the midst of the movie’s all-star cast, there is Slim Pickens as Hollis P. “Hollywood” Wood, a typically happy-go-lucky, perhaps slightly whisky-lubricated Christmas tree farmer who, by virtue of his name, becomes the focus of a abduction by Japanese sailors who are floating just off the Santa Monica shoreline, looking for the coordinates for Hollywood on which they can focus their firepower in an attack on American soil before hightailing it back to the landing of the rising sun. Hollis is brought on board the submarine, which provides occasion for him to share screen space with Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee—Mifune’s naval captain of the vessel must suffer the not only the indignities of an inept crew but also the superior huffings of Lee’s Nazi admiral, along for some reason in a supervisory capacity. (One of the movie’s most subtle gags is how their dialogue is subtitled for us, but is somehow perfectly understandable between the two, even though they never vary from their native tongues.)

Hollis objects to his pockets being emptied by the sailors, who are eager to thwart any possible threat he might be bearing, but also kinda excited to see what sort of American-made goodies he might be carrying. It is soon revealed that Hollis has on his person a package of “dee-licious, nuu-tritious, caramel-coated Popper Jacks,” and the prize inside, a toy compass, is all the evidence the Japanese need that this guy is a spy who can lead their missiles in the right direction. But before you know it, Hollis grabs the compass and swallows it, precipitating the funniest forcible production of evidence I’ve ever seen, in a movie anyway. (“You ain’t gettin’ shit outta me!” the constipated captive growls at his captors.)

One other bonus: Unlike many “director’s” or “extended” cuts of films available on home video, the extended cut of 1941 (featured on the recent Blu-ray), while perhaps not as lithe and snappy in sections as the theatrical cut is, features a classic bit that I really wish would have made the 1979 version: the actual kidnapping of Hollis P. Wood, on American soil, captured by Japanese sailors disguised as Christmas trees who must avoid the drunken swing of Hollis’s harvesting ax in order to get their prize back onto the submarine. This is a great bit of physical comedy that really lays the foundation for Pickens’ more widely recognized comic bull’s-eye once he gets among the company of Mifune and Lee. Pickens’ appearance in 1941 is brief—he’s not integrated into the action the way John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso is. But even so, for folks like me who revere 1941, this beloved character actor’s performance is one of the things that first comes most happily to mind when memories of Spielberg’s gargantuan achievement, and the desire to see again, come bubbling to the surface.

Late show or not, 1941 is a perfect and perfectly apt capper to a day devoted to Slim Pickens, and with no small thanks to the contributions of Pickens and hundreds of others, it ends up being a hell of a movie too, with scene after scene packed full of evidence of the director playing with all the Hollywood toys at his disposal, bending or sometimes outright disregarding the rules to his own purpose and creating something unique, something unrepeatable, something great in the process. In the spirit of Louis Burton Lindley Jr. and the beloved movie star he would become, give 1941 a twirl and a “Yaaa-hoo!” this coming early Tuesday morning on TCM. You’ll soon be singing “Hooray for Hollis P. Wood” too.

About Dennis Cozzalio

DENNIS BIO PIC

Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.