Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Land Before CGI: 1941

Welcome to another edition of The Land Before CGI. In this edition, we'll be covering 1941, the infamous Steven Spielberg comedy that laid a big box office egg back in 1979. After its disappointing initial run it found success on network and cable television with the extended version. I'm personally not a fan of either but must admit the extended version is infinitely better. Netflix currently has the theatrical version which is so choppy and exits so many scenes before they finish you'll find yourself hitting the "eject" button almost before you begin. The extended version may not tickle anyone's funny bone either but at least it makes sense. It is the extended version that has become a mini-cult classic, mini in that it's not revered like so many low budgets cult-classics of the sixties but still has a faithful following. But this is The Land Before CGI so I'm not here to talk about the film's success or failure at the comedic level but at the miniature and full-scale effects level and there it succeeds mightily.

Special Effects creator and legend A. D. Flowers worked closely with Miniatures Supervisor Gregory Jein and fellow effects legend L.B. Abbott to achieve a seamless flow between live-action shots and miniatures, used interchangeably throughout. The alternate shots between real planes, close-ups of actors in mock-ups and models flying through elaborate miniaturized sets blend together so well that at times the viewer would be hard-pressed to point out where one ends and the other begins. It was in this period, the late seventies through the late eighties that miniature work reached its greatest heights before computer generated imagery would forever relegate it to the dustbin of cinematic history.

While the miniature sets and airplane shots are terrific it is the movie's final two set-pieces that raise the bar as high as they could be raised for such work, the Ferris Wheel sequence and the house by the sea sequence. Neither is particularly funny, mind you, but visually awesome they are indeed. The Ferris Wheel scene was done using a miniature set of an amusement park by the ocean and the house scene was shot using a full-scale gutted mock-up of a real goddamn house, falling over a cliff.

That's Eddie Deezen (with his dummy) and Murray Hamilton in the Ferris Wheel and on the sub giving the order to fire is the great Toshiro Mifune. I chose to start that scene not with the order to fire but a beat before where Deezen proclaims they are trapped, "like beavers," which may be one of the funniest lines in the movie for me (as well as almost everything that comes out of Slim Pickens' mouth).

In the house scene you'll see a trim Ned Beatty with most of the rest of the cast (which you can find at IMDB) if you so desire) but keep an eye out for a very young Mickey Rourke, making his film debut. Enjoy.