This scene appeared in 1994, in the second episode (the first, if you don’t count the pilot) of the NBC sitcom Friends.
The fifteen-second sequence suggests some of the things I like, and don’t like, about Friends. On the like side: the reference to Three’s Company is canny. That comedy, which aired from 1977 till 1984, was also about a coed group of young people who lived in proximity to each other (Friends doubled the number to six) and relied a lot on sex jokes and innuendo. But with this early scene, Friends’ creators — David Crane and Marta Kauffman — signaled that this was a new era. Their show would be less broad, smarter, and (I hesitate to use the word) more realistic.
On the don’t-like side: Friends relied way too much on Chandler’s sarcastic wisecracks, and often they weren’t great wisecracks. Like this one: “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” It’s well-crafted, I grant it that — although it would have been better if the writers had respected our intelligence a bit and left out the words “of Three’s Company.”
More of a problem is that even in 1994, it was a tired joke. I remember going to comedy clubs in the early ’80s and hearing comedians talk about being in hotel rooms and turning on Gilligan’s Island — “It was the episode where they almost get off the island.” Beyond that, Chandler’s line isn’t specific to Three’s Company. Probably three quarters of all sitcoms, at least before the ’80s, revolved around some kind of misunderstanding.
Of course, Friends doesn’t need my approval. It’s been voted as the greatest sitcom by IMDB and Ranker, and Netflix just paid $100 million for the rights to keep airing it. It even has become the means by which just almost all Spanish-speaking baseball players attempt to learn English.
I would not have expected Robert Altman to have much of a presence on this blog. I feel that he preferred being in control of all the irony, rather than appropriating it from an interpolated film made by some other hand. And sure enough, only two of his many movies appear on the comprehensive Films in Films website. The first is Short Cuts (1993), in which Monster in the Closet (1986) plays on a television. (Part of the reason Altman chose that slasher flick may be that three members of his unofficial stock company — Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, and Howard Duff — are in it.)
The second is The Player (1992). And sure enough, the main movie-in-movie scene comes from its source material, the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it for the screenplay. In novel and film, the title character, master-of-the-universe movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has been receiving threatening post cards from an anonymous angry screenwriter. He thinks he’s figured out that the correspondent is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and phones him; his girlfriend answers and says that Kahane is at the movies — specifically, the Rialto in Pasadena, watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. (The title literally translates as “Bicycle Thieves,” but it’s commonly known by the singular in the U.S.)
In the novel, Mill slips into the theater for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Tolkin tells us his reactions, which are film-savvy, naturally, but as off as you would expect from a ’90s Hollywood exec giving notes on Italian neo-realism:
Griffin watched a father and son search for the lost bicycle. Knowing the title, it was obvious that someone had stolen the bike, that this poor man needed it, and that he and his son were now, since the movie was almost over, close to finding the bike and the person who had stolen it. It’s a good title, thought Griffin. He liked a movie where the story and the title were the same thing.
He doesn’t like the ending; it’s “so unnecessarily sad.” He wonders: “Was there a sequel?”
Altman has some nice tweaks on the scene. Griffin’s in the theater less than a minute and never once is shown watching the movie; he keeps furtively looking around for Kahane. The Bicycle Thief is so far away from his world as not to exist at all.
When the lights comes on, Griffin spots the screenwriter, and, true to form, tries to bullshit him: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these… cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this!”
The sequence is only a small part of ThePlayer‘s all-encompassing commentary on the movies, which manifests itself in varying levels of explicitness. In the very first scene, Griffin and others at this studio talk about the six and half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — and it’s all part of a eight minute and fifteen second tracking shot that opens The Player. Later, we see the shooting of a noirish feature with Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin, Lonely Room, that’s a counterpoint to the crime story Grifffin finds himself a part of.
A post at Films in Films notes that we see dozens of classic film posters in The Player, many of which offer commentary on the action playing out in front of them.
For me, the reflexive aspect of the film that packed the biggest emotional punch was the array of actors playing themselves, especially the ones that have died in the meantime: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze. It was like spending some good time with ghosts.
The main movie-within-a-movie in The Player is a project called Habeas Corpus. It’s pitched to Griffin early on — a message movie about capitol punishment, with no stars, and a downbeat ending where the main character dies. Needless to say, he passes, for it lacks just about every element (as he says in a different scene) that make up successful movies: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”
For spoiler-related reasons I won’t go into, Habeas Corpus does end up getting made, and at the end of The Player, we see execs screening the ending. Lots of cameos here: Susan Sarandon, Louise Fletcher, Peter Falk, Ray Walston, Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from The Bob Newhart Show), and Altman stalwarts Bert Remsen, Paul Dooley, and Rene Auberjonois are all in the sequence. At the end of a(nother) long tracking shot, the death-row prisoner turns out to be Julia Roberts, showing some leg. She was the very sort of star the screenwriters had vowed would not be in the movie. Her presence is just the first of a host of broken promises, and it kicks off a Hollywood Ending that provides the Hollywood ending to The Player.
With this second post on a film about a gelatinous terror, Movies in Other Movies might start to get known as “The Blob Blog.” (Apologies to “The Bob Loblaw Law Blog” on Arrested Development.) Anyway, when director Chuck Russell and his co-writer, Frank (Shawhank Redemption) Darabont, set about remaking the cult horror classic The Blob, they must have had fun figuring out what movie to have running in their version of the climactic blob-goes-wild-in-movie-theater scene.
In the original, Irvin Yeaworth used the weird and obscure Daughter of Horror. Russell and Darabont, in keeping with their tongue-partly-in-cheek approach, opted to concoct their own, a Halloween/Texas Chainsaw Masssacre pastiche called Garden Tool Massacre. Announcing his plans to see it, youngster Eddie Beckner tells his friend’s mom “It’s your basic slice and dice.”
Mrs. Penny: Your basic what?
Eddie: Well this guy in a hockey mask, he chops up a few teenagers, but don’t worry, there’s no sex or anything bad.
From what we see of the picture, he’s a pretty good film critic. He probably didn’t anticipate that the sound-syncing would be horrible (another sly touch by Russell).
“Wait a minute … hockey season ended months ago”: a great line.
The slob in the Hilti hat (another sly power-tools reference) thinks he knows movies, too, but he doesn’t know enough to keep his mouth shut. And nobody in the audience knew enough to realize they never, ever, should have set foot in that theater.
In an online discussion of movies-in-movies, the critic Tim Page brought up HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007). I didn’t watch the series when it was on, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized Mr. Page had opened up a can of worms. In his book The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign, Franco Ricci talks about the show’s rich use of background images, objects, and actions to provide almost a counterpoint narrative to the main one: “Contemporary pop posters or recognizable artworks surge to the fore and proffer unexpected commentary behind the characters, a television dialogue playing on a distant TV set may fill in the blank spaces of silence in character dialogue.”
The stuff on the TV set is obviously to the point here. Ricci notes that series creator David Chase and the other writers depict the characters, especially Tony Soprano, as forever watching TV, and choose carefully what they’re watching. He writes that what’s on the screen “often faithfully mirror the actions that transpire in that particular episode. Or, they may contradict information previously revealed in the episode and may portend an uncomfortable, unresolved end.”
Looming over the entire series are The Godfather and its sequels. Tony and his boys are obsessed with them, always aspiring to the Corleone family’s style and stature, always aware of how their exploits fall short. In this scene, the guys settle in to watch a bootleg copy of Godfather II, even as Tony says, “I can’t watch this again.”
I can’t decide whether the technical difficulties Chase concocted were because he thought literally seeing the movie would somehow undercut its metaphorical significance, or because he didn’t want to pay Paramount for the rights.
Ricci has an appendix in his book where he itemizes all examples of TVs playing recognizable programs in The Sopranos. There are an astonishing forty-two of them (and that’s not even including cases where commercials or news programs are on), from Tony watching his beloved History Channel in season 1 through Tony and his wife Carmella watching a rerun of Dick Cavett interviewing Katharine Hepburn in one of the last episodes of the final season.
One of the most TV-besotted episodes, if not the most, is “Where’s Johnny?”, from the fifth season in 2004. In the course of the fifty-four minutes running time, characters watch This Old House, a nature documentary about prairie dogs (nature docs are to Uncle Junior what the History Channel is to Tony), a Tony Robbins infomercial (which includes a spurious Henry James quote, “It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined”), an unintelligible talk show, and a scene from the movie His Girl Friday which we don’t see but from which we hear a snatch of dialogue between Abner Biberman, who plays a small-time thug, and Rosalind Russell, as reporter Hildy Johnson: “Hi, Hildy. / Oh, hello, Louie. How’s the big slot-machine king? / Oh, I ain’t doin’ that no more; I’m retired.”
The implicit video commentary is so incessant that at one point, when we glimpse an unturned-on TV set, it’s shocking.
In the most notable use of video, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), who in a subsequent scene proudly declares, “I have cable,” sits down to watch television. Tommy di Palma, who’s looking after him as his dementia worsens, clicks the channels, briefly alighting on a reality show featuring “glass-house couples” and an unidentifiable (by me) black and white film noir. He lands on “The Doll,” an episode of the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Uncle Junior doesn’t only have cable, he has premium cable.) Junior gets some strange notions about what he’s watching.
A couple of ironies, or at least interesting connections, here. First is that the Curb scene is also about uncertain identity. And second, Junior really does look like Larry David, and Bobby really does look like Jeff.
Writing posts on each of the other forty-one TV-in-TV Sopranos scenes for this blog obviously isn’t a smart idea, but I definitely will pick my spots and return to the show from time to time.
The Apartment, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), was presented as a comedy that mocked romantic mores and man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit corporate culture, with its notorious attachment to the suffix “-wise.” But removed from its turn-of-the-decade context, and especially viewed in the light of the Me-Too movement, the film is chilling.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a peon in mammoth Consolidated Life Corp., has pimped out his Upper West Side apartment: he lets a quintet of executives use it for their trysts with secretaries and other female prey, in exchange for vague promises of corporate advancement. His neighbors, hearing the all-hours mayhem but unaware of the arrangement, think he’s a wild and crazy guy! Pretty funny! (Adding to the comic feel, inadvertently, is the fact that the five execs would go on to become staples of 1960s sitcoms: Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons, Ray Walston as My Favorite Martian, David White in Bewitched, and Willard Waterman on Dennis theMenace. David Lewis, meanwhile, played Warden Crichton on Batman, Senator Ames on The Farmer’s Daughter, and three separate roles on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.)
The movie-in-movie scene comes early. The Lewis character has stayed on past the agreed-upon-time, forcing Baxter to roam the chilly New York streets, his body hunched in the classic Jack Lemmon slouch, his tan cotton raincoat turned up around his neck. When he can finally return, he heats up a TV dinner, brings it to the couch, and turns on the TV using a remote control, unusual at the time.
BTW, I got the above image from an online discussion about the remote control in TheApartment, which suggests that any topic, no matter how obscure — or maybe the more obscure, the better — has its own online forum.
When the TV comes on, it shows an unctuous host announcing an imminent showing of the 1932 melodrama Grand Hotel, which Baxter seems to be happy about, maybe because its high-gloss world promises a complete escape from his own sordid one. But then the host presents a word from “our sponsor” and Baxter starts clicking. He successively lands on three different channels showing three different movies. (That is an anachronism. I lived in the New York television market in 1960 and can attest that it wouldn’t have happen that four channels would have movies on at the same time.)
Those three films are all John Wayne oaters: Stagecoach (1939), Angel and the Badman (1947), and Fort Apache (1948). The first and third were directed by John Ford, and I imagine Wilder, a German refugee who never made a Western, had in mind a subtle homage to that great Hollywood movie maker, different from him in just about every way. The scenes that come on Baxter’s screen are all gunfights and bar fights and galloping cavalry, however, which are too much for his nerves at the moment. So he clicks back to Grand Hotel, hopefully. What he encounters actually is funny.
We last encountered Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard. He was having Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, watch one of Norma’s old silent films, only it was one of Gloria’s — Queen Kelly.
Wilder pulls a similar trick in his 1957 courtroom thriller, Witness for the Prosecution, in which Tyrone Power plays Leonard Vole, a World War II veteran in London who has landed in a spot of trouble. We learn in flashbacks that he’s invented a newfangled egg-beater and has been trying to peddle it, without much luck. That is, until he and Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a wealthy widow, meet cute in a shop where she’s buying a smart new hat, and he commences a flirtation with her. I didn’t mention that Leonard is married; his wife, Christine, is played by Marlene Dietrich.
I pause here to say that one of the more mysterious things about Witness for the Prosecution is Vole’s nationality. A commenter on IMDB says that William Holden was Wilder’s first choice for the part, and that Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, and Jack Lemmon were considered before Power, also an American, accepted. He makes no effort to do an English accent, and at least one book on Wilder takes Vole to be an American. Yet the script — by Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus, based on Agatha Christie’s play — makes no mention of his not being British, and even gives him some Britishisms to say.
Three of these appear in the movie-in-movie scene. Discouraged by a lack of eggbeater interest, Vole repairs to a cinema. Who should sit in the row in front of him but Mrs. French, her hat obscuring his view of the shoot-em-up Western on the screen? He invites her to sit next to her, and explains, “That chap on the white horse is called Jesse James. Those others have led him ambush. It’s not at all cricket.”
The film they’re watching was made in 1939 and is called Jesse James. The title character (not discernible in the Witness for the Prosecution scene) was played by Tyrone Power.
No one can say they don’t make movies-in-other movies anymore. The current Blackkklansman (post to come) puts a not especially flattering spotlight on two old films. La La Land (2016), which famously won, then didn’t win, the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, features just one, but it’s in a pivotal scene.
In this musical, aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) don’t-meet cute a couple of times, then manage to connect and have some conversations that suggest they are kindred spirits. Sebastian is movie-besotted. He quotes some lines from Rebel Without aCause, and when he realizes she’s never seen it, he invites her to meet him at the Rialto, where it’s playing, later that week.
Because of plot complications, she arrives at the Rialto — and by the way, both exteriors and interiors were filmed at the real Rialto Theatre, in Pasadena — after the movie has already started. She stands in the front, looking for Sebastian, and he sees her with appropriately cinematic illumination.
They settle in to watch the movie, as the famous Griffith Park scene is about to begin, but just as things are about to heat up between them, something burns up and spoils the mood.
At that point, Mia suggests they take a drive to the real Griffith Park, which they do, director Damien Chazelle’s camera recreating the scene from the original. They break in to the Observatory through in open door and share a celestial dance. It’s a nice movie-loving scene, in a nice movie-loving movie, and if you haven’t seen it I heartily recommend you rent it, or stream it, or, on the off-chance it’s playing at the Rialto, go see it as films were meant to be seen.