‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ and ‘Top Hat’ in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’

I believe this is the second example in the blog — after Home Aloneof a movie that includes both a real film and a fictional one. And it’s fitting that it follows Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., since that was an obvious inspiration for Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

One difference is that in Sherlock Jr., the projectionist played by Buster steps into the movie being screened in his theater. Purple Rose of Cairo goes the other way. Set in the Depression, it’s about an unhappy waitress and wife named Cecilia (Mia Farrow) who goes to the movies to escape her woes. She develops a fascination with The Purple Rose of Cairo, a (fictional) RKO madcap melodrama centering on a dashing archeologist named Jeff Baxter (Jeff Daniels). She sits through multiple showings, until something very strange happens (at about the two-minute mark of this clip) …

One of the cool things about the sequence is how Allen, famously a movie buff, has captured the look and sound and feel of ’30s films, and chosen actors who fit seamlessly in: John Wood (who could almost be a stand-in for Edward Everett Horton), Edward Herrman, Debra Rush, and Annie Jo Edwards as Delilah, the maid. (The part is a sadly accurate depiction of the sort of roles played by Hattie McDaniel and others, but so distasteful today that I wish Allen had left it out.)

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Horton.

Cecilia shows Tom around her New Jersey town, and he — a la Sherlock Jr. — takes her into the film. A cuckoo love triangle ensues involving Cecilia, Tom, and the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepherd. She chooses Gil (not much future in a romance with a celluloid hero) but gets some bad news as she approaches the theater. (She’s carrying the ukulele because she and Gil have had some great fun dueting.) So she goes in and takes a seat to see the movie that’s just opened, a true-life RKO production, Astaire and Rogers’s Top Hat.

You can see for yourself the effect this transcendent piece of entertainment has on Cecilia. It harks back to the very first film discussed in this blog, Sullivan’s Travels, and in its honor I’ve created a new tag for both movies (and a couple of others): The Transporting Power of Popular Film.

 

‘Hearts & Pearls’ in ‘Sherlock Jr.’

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Buster in magnifying-glass, false-mustache detective mode.

Hard to believe it’s taken me this long to get around one of the first, probably the greatest, and certainly the most influential movie-in-movie movie. (Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is basically a remake.) I refer to Buster Keaton’s 1924 silent classic Sherlock Jr. Buster plays a projectionist who aspires to become a detective and longs for “The Girl” (Kathryn McGuire. Keaton didn’t give names to any characters in the film, perhaps to emphasize a dream-like quality). Unfortunately, “The Sheik” (Ward Crane) steals the Girl’s father’s watch and pins the crime on Buster, who is banished from the house.

Back at the theater, he’s screening a melodrama called Hearts & Pearls. A sign outside displays its subtitle: “Or, the Lounge Lizard’s Lost Love — In Five Parts.” The title, and the length, are digs at the sentimental work of D.W. Griffith, who had made A String of Pearls in 1918 and who directed at least a dozen movies containing the word “heart,” including The Mother’s Heart, Hearts of the World, True Heart Suzie, Tender Hearts, and A Change of Heart. Buster falls asleep, and a transparent phantasm rises out of his body and looks at the film. As if by magic, the male and female lead (uncredited) suddenly turn into The Sheik and The Girl, and he commences making love to her (in the old-fashioned sense). Buster puts on his hat (of course) and descends from the projection booth to the audience. His reaction to what he sees is probably the greatest example I’ve ever witnessed of someone acting with his back.

Note Buster’s practiced tumble when he’s thrown out of the movie, including breaking his fall with his hands. He had, of course, started his career as a little kid on the vaudeville stage, where his principal role was to be violently tossed about in the family act.

He manages to get back into the movie, and the bulk of (the brisk, 45-minute: no five acts here) Sherlock Jr. shows his increasingly surreal adventures. Just as he’s about to drown, he wakes up in the projection booth. Spoiler alert: it was all a dream. Suddenly, the Girl walks in and announces the truth has been revealed and he is forgiven. In a marvelous closing scene, he looks to the screen for his moves, much as Elliot did, with E.T.’s help. And talk about acting. Keaton hilariously expresses volumes with a shrug of his shoulder or a ten-millimeter eyebrow lift; take one look at his jumpy nervousness and you can see where Woody Allen — an acknowledged fan — got most of his physical shtick.

 

‘Vertigo’ in ‘Stuart Little 2’

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Stuart offers Margalo some popcorn.

We’ve encountered the 1958 Hitchcock classic Vertigo as a movie-in-movie before, in Twelve MonkeysThe Films in Films website reports that it’s been used at least four other times: in L.A. Without a MapA Kiss Before DyingMan in the Chair, and Rob Minkoff’s 2002 animated/live-action Stuart Little 2. 

As anyone who has read E.B. White’s novel (or has had it read to them) knows, Stuart (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is a mouse who has inexplicably been born to human parents in New York City. As Stuart Little 2 (a sequel to the original adaptation, from 1999) opens, as Stuart is driving in his roadster, an injured canary named Margalo (Melanie Griffith) falls into the car. And Stuart falls for her, as he nurses her back to health.

The clever movie-in-movie scene takes place on their first date. Stuart has rigged up a sort of personal drive-in on the roof of the Littles’ apartment building. At one point, he tells Margalo that he’s repaired her most prized possession, a stickpin belonging to her mother, which was damaged in the fall. As he explains how he fixed it, Hitchcock’s Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) has a meaningful moment on the California coast with the enigmatic Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak).

The scene actually directly follows the one seen in Twelve Monkeys, probably not intentional on Minkoff’s part.

Vertigo is a funny choice for Stuart Little 2 — both funny unexpected and funny amusing. While Stuart seems to view the Hitchock movie as dreamily romantic, in fact it’s a dark vision of obsession, delusion, and the male gaze. But it was also an appropriate choice for Minkoff and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin. Both Vertigo and Stuart Little 2 warn us that people — especially ladies — aren’t always who they appear to be.

 

 

‘Ace in the Hole’ and ‘Rawhide’ in ‘Jersey Boys’

About midway through Jersey Boys (2014), Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the Four Seasons, the boys have had a hit with “Sherry Darling” but are in desperate need of a follow-up record. They’re in a hotel room with the TV on, as TVs in movie hotel rooms customarily are. Watching are, from left to right, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the group’s two songwriters, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle).

It’s a good story (leaving aside the problematic but probably historically accurate attitudes toward Kirk Douglas smacking Jan Sterling in the kisser) but it’s not true. Or at least the movie on the tube — Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) — is the wrong one. In the corresponding scene in the Broadway show on which Eastwood’s film was based, Gaudio is narrating:

So now I’m a one hit wonder all over again. Only, what I wonder is, where’s the next idea gonna come from? Crewe and I are banging our heads against the wall and nothing’s coming. And then, one night, I’m watching The Million Dollar Movie. Some cheesy John Payne western. He hauls off and smacks Rhonda Fleming across the mouth and says, “What do you think of  that?” She looks up at him, defiant, proud, eyes glistening, and she says: “BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY”

The problem is, “Big girls don’t cry” is not uttered in the one western Payne and Fleming made, Tennesse’s Partner (1955), at least according to Wikipedia. That source cites an alternative origin story from another movie the two actors co-starred in,  also under Allen Dwan’s direction : “According to Bob Crewe, he himself was dozing off is Manhattan home with the television on when he awoke to see John Payne manhandling Rhonda Fleming in Slightly Scarlet, a 1956 film noir based on a James M. Cain story. The line is heard in that film.”

Why Eastwood chose Ace in the Hole instead of either of the Fleming-Payne movies is a mystery. Maybe they weren’t available. Or maybe he picked Ace because it’s a better film.

What actually got me looking into Jersey Boys was another scene, mentioned to me by Andrew Feinberg. Gaudio is in another hotel room watching TV, and what should be on but Rawhide, the 1959-66 western starring none other than a very young Clint Eastwood. “That was my way,” the director said in an interview, “of making a Hitchcock appearance.”

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‘The Searchers’ and ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’ in ‘Mean Streets’

Taxi Driver wasn’t the first time Martin Scorsese had his characters see a movie in a Times Square theater. Mean Streets came out three years earlier, in 1973; if was the director’s third feature, but the one that really put him on the map. The film is set in New York’s Little Italy and could have been titled (as Woody Allen later indeed called a movie) Small Time Crooks. The smallest-time hustle comes when Michael (Richard Romanus) and Tony (David Proval) fleece two teenagers who’ve come downtown from Riverdale — a Bronx neighborhood that’s probably the most well-to-do in New York City — to score some “firecrackuhs.” Flush with their winnings, they spot their pal Charlie (Harvey Keitel).

 

Probably the most important thing to know about Scorsese, other than his movie-making prowess, is that he’s a world-champion film buff. He lets all his buff-ness out in this sequence, which re-imagines early-’70s W. 42nd Street as — unlike the grindhouse reality — a rare and wonderful cinema repertory center. Just check out the extremely eclectic titles we see on the marquees. [For more on this point, see Update, below.]

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Moving left to right, that’s George C. Scott in Rage and Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement; an unknown film that starts with Scho — any nominations?; Tony Curtis in Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came; three French films — Borsalino, And Hope to Die, and Rider on the Rain; and, finally a realistic touch, two porn movies, Rose Bud and Eighteen Carat Virgin. The latter is an actual film, but I haven’t been able to find Rose Bud in any of the usual reference works. Maybe it’s Scorsese’s cinephile joke about what a porno version of Citizen Kane might be called.

Michael, Charlie, and Tony see yet another film, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956); on the screen is an awkward fight scene, an implicit commentary on all the fist-fights in Mean Streets. Fair enough, but it’s inconceivable that this critical darling (ranked as the seventh-greatest movie of all time in a 2012 Sight & Sound survey, and the model for probably half the serious American films of the ’70s) would be playing in a Times Square theater in 1973. In any case, it’s a droll touch that the three buddies are more interested in and amused by the carryings-on of their fellow patrons than the Searchers scene.

As Mean Streets progresses, shit gets realer and realer, with a lot of the trouble stemming from Charlie’s loose-cannon friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in his breakout role), who eventually angers someone he really shouldn’t have angered. Charlie borrows a car and after Johnny Boy dances around a bit to the great Smokey Robinson tune “Mickey’s Monkey,” they head out. Where else? To the movies.

This time, on the screen is a truly horrible film, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). IMDB plot summary: “A man’s obsession with his dead wife drives a wedge between him and his new bride.” Same old same old.

 

A few points worth mentioning. First, in contrast to the Searchers scene, Charlie and Johnny Boy pay rapt attention. That may be a Scorsesean commentary on the power of cheap entertainment, a la Sullivan’s Travels, or it may just be because they really need something to take their mind off their troubles.

Second, Ligeia was directed by schlockmaster Roger Corman (and written by Robert Towne), which is significant because Corman gave Scorsese a directing job on his previous film, Boxcar Bertha (1972).

Finally, the coming attraction posters in the lobby where Charlie makes a phone call are, of course, very carefully chosen. John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) is another critics’ darling, and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), with Ray Milland, is another Roger Corman cult classic. Most significant of all is John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970). This is from a 2010 interview with Scorsese in The Telegraph:

[Scorsese’s] first feature-length film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, in 1968, was a semi-auto­­biographical neighbourhood story of a young Italian-American (Harvey Keitel) who discovers that his girlfriend has been raped. When Cassavetes saw the film he declared it ‘better than Citizen Kane, it’s got more heart’. Cassavetes became a close friend and mentor – unstinting in his support of Scorsese, and unsparing in his criticism. Scorsese remembers that when he made his first feature in Hollywood in 1972 for the producer Roger Corman, the Depression-era exploitation film Boxcar Bertha, Cassavetes told him, ‘You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.’

Thus chastened, Scorsese returned for his next film to the Mean Streets he knew. And the rest is history.

Update: When I put a link to this post on Facebook, the very smart linguist and author Ben Zimmer had some issues, noting, “You think Scorsese at that stage in his career would have had the wherewithal to redo all the marquees with movies of his liking? Those look like the real exteriors to me (and it’s not like he could’ve just CGI-ed them).

I responded (defensively) that I was around New York City in the early ’70s, and certainly did not remember 42nd Street theaters as being a home to foreign and art films. But on reflection I concluded Ben was most probably correct. Subsequently, Mr. Zimmer did some stellar research, reporting:

Assuming these are the real marquees from real location shooting and not the result of some crazy composite, I think the shot would have to be from late 1972 at the earliest, because that’s when “Rage” and “And Hope to Die” got released in NYC (11/22/72 and 11/29/72 respectively). It’s a bit odd that there are also movies from 1970 as well (“Suppose They Gave a War” and “Rider on the Rain”), but I guess they could’ve been still going as second-run releases. “Borsalino” was another 1970 release… In fact, when it opened in NYC, the Apollo on 42nd St. was one of the theaters where it played, according to this Village Voice ad. So at least we know you could see arty French movies on that stretch of theaters at the time…

Here’s a screen shot of part of the 1970 Village Voice ad he mentions:

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It’s fascinating to me that this movie would have played on 42nd Street, in a Manhattan art house (the Greenwich), and suburban theaters as well, including the Main Street in my 1970 residence, New Rochelle, N.Y.!

In conclusion, I concede that that the Mean Street marquees are real. That leave the posters and movies-in-movies, which I still maintain were purposefully chosen by Scorsese. I hope Ben Zimmer agrees.

 

 

 

 

‘Lord Jim’ and ‘Great Catherine’ in ‘My Favorite Year’

Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year (1982) makes nice use of the “Watching yourself” trope. The movie, set in 1954, was produced  by Mel Brooks and was loosely based on his experience as a writer on the Sid Caesar TV comedy series Your Show of Shows, where the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn was once the guest star. Evidently, Flynn’s appearance on the show was uneventful. That is not the case with the Flynn-ish figure in My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), who is usually drunk, rarely on time, and beset by a bad case of stage fright.

In this scene, the writing staff assembles to watch some clips from Swann movies. That staff consists of Sy (Bill Macy, loosely based on Mel Tolkin); Herb (Basil Hoffman; l.b.o. Neil Simon); Alice (Anne De Salvo; Lucille Kaillen); and the “My” of the title, young Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker; Brooks himself).

 

What they see comes from two actual Peter O’Toole movies, Lord Jim (1968) and Great Catherine (1965). Sy isn’t a fan of the performances: “That’s not acting–that’s kissing and jumping and drinking and humping. I don’t know why we’re wasting out eyesight on this crap.” It’s reminiscent of the way Bette Davis’s early work was dumped on in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and, as with Davis, it’s proof that O’Toole was a good sport.

Later, the star of the show, King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna; not so loosely based on Caesar) and the producer, Leo (Adolph Green), join the writers to watch another Swann movie. What they see this time isn’t a real O’Toole film but footage expressly created for My Favorite Year: a convincing (down to the Technicolor, music, and editing) homage to Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939).

 

Later, Benjy watches more of the movie, which is called Defender of the Crown, with a co-worker he’s got a crush on, K.C. (Jessica Harper). They’re both so transfixed by it that it ends up sealing their romance. I guess Alan Swann isn’t such a terrible actor after all.

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‘Day of the Dead’ and ‘Back to the Future’ in ‘Stranger Things’

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Lucas on New Coke: “Sweeter, bolder, better.”

The Netflix series Stranger Things has two things in common with The Sopranos. First, it’s very good. Second, a lot of television is watched in it. I just went through the IMDB “Connections” for the 1980s-set Stranger Things and was reminded that the material visible on characters’ TV sets over the course of three seasons includes the series Knight Rider, All My Children, Magnum P.I., Punky Brewster, Cheers (three times), and Family Feud (twice), and the movies Mr. Mom, Frankenstein, and The Thing (John Carpenter’s 1982 remake).

The show, which was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, collectively known as the Duffer Brothers, is quite smart about all of this, with the TV stuff often implicitly commenting on the characters and action. Thus Hopper (David Harbour), a well-meaning but perpetually frustrated paunchy cop in small-town Hawkins, Indiana, is shown watching Tom Selleck’s glamorous Magnum. And Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is ambivalent about her extraordinary powers, to say the least, is transfixed by Boris Karloff as the monster first imagined by Mary Shelley. As Anna Leskiewicz observed in The New Statesman,

Eleven sits on a sofa, hugging a teddy bear tight to her chest. She’s watching a black and white film on a static-filled TV screen. “Who are you? I’m Maria,” a girl says. “Will you play with me?” It’s the 1931 Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster looks at Maria with the same blank expression Eleven has when she’s learning a new word. As Maria and the monster wonder off, hand in hand, Eleven looks as though she’s on the verge of tears. She’s just a child, but it’s clear that she feels caught between both characters: the monster and the girl.

There’s a lot of what you might call intertextuality going on here. A Terminator trailer turns up on TV in season two, and a major bad guy in season three is Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko), who’s one big Terminator callback, down to the big gun and the Schwarzenegger-esque hairdo. The likable Russian informant Alexei is seen laughing uproariously at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon; a couple of episodes later, he wins a big stuffed Woody Woodpecker at the town fair. The glimpse of John Carpenter’s Thing (a character also has a poster for it in his room) is perhaps an acknowledgement that the demon/monster in Stranger Things is quite Thing-y. In Season 3, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) cracks open a can of New Coke. (Stranger Things’ shamelessness about product placement is part of its cheesy charm.) His buddy asks, “How do even drink that?” Lucas responds: “It’s like Carpenter’s The Thing. The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake … sweeter, bolder, better.”

It goes on. Red Dawn (1984) gets several mentions in season three, because the Soviets-take-over-small-town plot of that film is pretty much what’s going in on ST. And, more broadly, the whole series respectfully and artfully borrows themes, look, and vibe of ’80s kids-against-the world movies like E.T.., The Goonies, and Stand By Me.

But only twice do characters see a movie in the theater, both times in season three. In the first episode, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” (written and directed by the Duffers), Steve (Joe Keery) is working at the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop at the Starcourt Mall, hence the ridiculous sailor suit. He shows the kids a back way to sneak into the mall’s multi-screen theater.

Day of the Dead (1985) was written and directed by George Romero, and is a sort of sequel to his seminal zombie pic Night of the Living Dead. One obvious connection is that zombie-like creatures will indeed show up in Hawkins later in the season. Another is that, as Elena Nicolaou pointed out on Refinery 29, the movie and the series have “uncannily similar music. The Dead Suite, played in the opening scene of Day of the Dead, sure resembles a simplified and slowed-down version of the Stranger Things theme. Those staccato notes in a minor key are staircases to the same conclusion: We’re not headed anywhere good.” The temporary electrical blackout at the mall portends bad happenings as well.

Six episodes later, Steve, his Scoops Ahoy coworker Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and the breakout character of the season, no-nonsense Erica (Priah Ferguson), are sneaking into the mall multiplex again. This time it’s more urgent: they’re on the run from the Russian bad guys, who have given Steve and Robin some nasty bruises and (via a truth serum) a bad case of the giggles.

On the screen, of course, is Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, and Jen Chaney has made the case in Vulture that “Stranger Things 3 Is Basically One Big Back to the Future Homage.” She lists a lot of small and large similarities, including a scene in episode 1 where Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is late for work (the power outage messed up his alarm clock) and has to get dressed in a hurry:

Jonathan, wearing just a pair of briefs, puts one foot into his pants and loses his balance, falling forward out of the frame.

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That is an exact duplicate of what Michael J. Fox, as Marty, does when he tries to get his jeans back on after his first 1955 meeting with the teenage version of his mother, Lorraine. Just in case you didn’t catch these Back to the Future hat tips, the Duffer Brothers, who created the series and wrote and directed this episode, follow them up by blasting a Huey Lewis and the News song — “Workin’ for a Livin’,” not “The Power of Love” — as Nancy marches purposefully to the office.

Vulture.com/via GIPHY

I have to admit I skimmed a lot of her article. That’s because she dealt with how the season ends and I haven’t watched episode eight yet. I’ve enjoyed this show so much I’ve kind of put it off as long as possible.