‘A Star Is Born,’ Part II

[You can read Part I here.]

Fast forward. Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) has gotten her big break, a starring role in a movie musical. She and husband Norman Maine (James Mason) go to the sneak preview, watching avidly from the balcony.

The movie doesn’t cut away from this (unnamed, I believe) movie-within-a-movie — the so-called “Born in a Trunk” sequence. Hardly. It stays there for no less than fifteen minutes. The sequence was actually added after director George Cukor had finished his work on A Star Is Born and left the country to scout locations for his next picture. In Cukor’s rough cut, Norman and Vicki are seen going into the theater and then emerging at the end of the preview to wild cheers, a star having been born.  Studio chief Jack Warner decided proof of Vicki’s talent was needed, and hired longtime Garland collaborator and friend Roger Edens to supply it.

If there is a more meta moment in a major American film, I don’t know what it is. Beyond its being a film within a film, the sequence is a version of Vicki’s star-is-born story, but also, more pointedly, a retelling of Garland’s own saga. As Trey Taylor has written, it

is special not only because it was a near-faithful reproduction of [Garland’s] own tumultuous journey to stardom – a classic retelling of the E! True Hollywood Story as narrated and sung by the protagonist herself – but also because it was her onscreen comeback. Who else has made a film about a star who makes a comeback and, as a premonitory result, has a comeback? What better example of art-imitating-life is there?

In the film-within-a-film, Vicki Lester’s character accepts the audience’s cheers and flowers for her show-stopping and -ending performance of “Swanee” (one of a half-dozen vintage tunes in the sequence), and sits on the edge of the stage, surrounded by “garlands” of roses.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 12.02.13 PM

She addresses the audience, speaking rather than speaking (the words are by Leonard Gershe, later the Broadway playwright of Butterflies Are Free):

Thank you, thank you very much
I can’t express it any other way
For with this awful trembling in my heart
I just can’t find another thing to say
I’m happy that you liked the show
I’m grateful you liked me
And I’m sure to you the tribute seemed quite right.
But if you knew of all the years
Of hopes and dreams and tears
You’d know it didn’t happen overnight
Huh, overnight!

And I don’t know if it strikes anyone else this way, but it reminds me of nothing other than the rhyming Munchkins in Garland’s The Wizard of Oz of fifteen years earlier:

We thank you very sweetly
For doing it so neatly
You’ve killed her so completely
That we thank you very sweetly

Anyway, at this point she starts to sing (melody by Edens),

I was born in a trunk
In the Princess Theatre in Pocatella, Idaho
It was during the matinee on Friday
And they used a makeup towel for my didee
When I first saw the light
It was pink and amber
Coming from the footlights on the stage
When my dad carried me out there to say hello
They told me that I stopped the show.

And here art is imitating life imitating art, or some such. The story she sings is less that of Vicki Lester (born Esther Blodgett) than of Judy Garland — born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 1922 and nicknamed “Baby.” According to Garland biographer  John Fricke

Her father managed the town movie theatre; her mother accompanied silent films on the piano. Both parents performed, as did Baby’s two older sisters, and she joined the family act on December 26, 1924, in a song-and-dance routine with her sisters and her own solo, a scheduled one-chorus arrangement of “Jingle Bells.” To the delight of the audience, Baby refused to leave the stage and went into reprise after reprise of the latter number; her grandmother finally had to walk on from the wings and carry the child offstage as she protested, “I wanna sing some more!”

Vicki’s character continues to tell her story, and then …

The cinematic flashback nearly, but not quite, qualifies this as a movie-in-a-movie-in-a-movie, a triple-header seen before only in Scream 4 and New York, New York. And that Martin Scorsese picture offers one more meta angle on A Star Is Born. Far more than I realized when I wrote the post on it, the “Happy Endings” sequence in New York, New York, starring Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli — at 31, she was one year younger than her mother in Star Is Born — is an homage, reworking, imitation, call it what you will, of “Born in a Trunk,” a movie-in-a-movie (twelve minutes long instead of fifteen) showing the rise to stardom of the character her character plays.

And if you want spooky, I’ll give you spooky. Quick, who is this a photo of?

Screen Shot 2020-07-03 at 11.37.28 AM

If you said Garland in “Born in a Trunk,” you’d be right. But if you said Minelli, it would be completely understandable, and just one more example of the reverberations — past, future, and inward — of A Star Is Born.

Next (and last): A Star Is Born goes even mo’ meta.

‘The Charge at Feather River’ in ‘A Star is Born’ (and a lot more): Part I

By the time you get to the end of part II of this post, I hope you’ll agree with me that George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) is the most movie-in-movie movie in the history of movies.

The first data point is relatively straightforward. Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a small-time singer who has been taken under his wing by soon-to-be-fading movie star Norman Maine (James Mason), and is signed to a contract by studio chief Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford — and notable among the bullet points in the movie’s poetic license is that a mogul would be as WASPy as all that). On her whirlwind first day at the studio, even before her name is changed to Vicki Lester,  Esther is ushered in to see Niles as he’s screening a Western.

There are several things to say about the scene, first of all, that it’s great. Cukor’s (probably his decision more than screenwriter Moss Hart) choice of movie, The Charge at Feather River (1953), and segment within it is perfect. The fact that it was a real, current (released in 1953) film adds verisimilitude; the screaming and general mayhem on view plays up Esther’s nervousness and discomfort, and in addition releases some of the host movie’s built-up tension. And it’s such a great contrast with Cukor’s über-woman’s picture (and I say that with admiration).

I’ll also note that both A Star Is Born and The  Charge at Feather River were Warner Brothers pictures, itself a data point in my hypothesis that, for economic reasons, a disproportionate percentage of host movies and “seen” movies come from the same studio.

But back to screaming: the Feather River scene is notable in having given the name to one of the most famous sound effects in Hollywood history, the Wilhelm Scream. The website cinemagumbo explains:

A simple sound effect—a man’s brief, agonizing cry while being attacked by an alligator—has become a Hollywood in-joke, a stock piece of audio for science fiction and western movies, a good luck charm for various filmmakers and has even inspired the name of a Massachusetts-based rock band.

The Wilhelm Scream, as the sound effect is known, was first used in the film Distant Drums (1951), which featured the aforementioned alligator attack (above). It is actually one of a series of six screams the movie’s sound department recorded with singer and actor Sheb Wooley at Warner Bros. Wooley’s distinctive “ah-AYE!-uh” was subsequently used for—and got its name from—The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which a character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow.

The Wilhelm Scream is actually heard a second time in A Star is Born, in Garland’s  number “Someone at Last,” where it’s incongruously inserted as an “exotic” African effect (very poor taste now) in her round-the-world musical journey. Probably that was the start of the in-joke. It went on to become a favorite of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and is heard in every Indiana Jones movie and every Star Wars one through The Force Awakens (2015), when it was retired. On the off-chance you’re interested, here’s a compilation of some of the Wilhelm Scream’s Greatest Hits:


Next: The “Born in a Trunk” sequence and the first case I’ve seen of two movie-in-movies in a single scene!

‘The Cobweb’ in ‘Point Blank’

Dickinson and Marvin: her hair matches her dress.

Veteran film journalist Lewis Beale recommended my doing a post on John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), which he describes as “simply an amazing mix of film noir, existentialism and Euro art-house filmmaking. Truly astonishing it was released by a major studio. My guess is audiences at the time said ‘WTF did I just see?'”

Good call, Lew. Let’s go right to the movie-in-movie scene, one of the WTF-est in Point Blank. Walker (Lee Marvin) is a criminal on a mission to recover a $93,000 MacGuffin, swiped from him after a heist. Angie Dickinson is his sister-in-law, Chris, who’s developed feelings for him and is infuriated that he won’t give up on his dangerous quest.

Whoa. Quite a bit to say about the scene, definitely starting with WTF. The third star is of course, the automated-to-the-max mid-century modern house, which is on 7655 Curson Terrace and was apparently rented by the Beatles in 1966, right about the time the film was shot.

In a 2008 Vanity Fair interview, John Boorman talked about Dickinson’s distinctive look.

I put her in the first miniskirt to hit America. They were already, you know, on the Kings Road in London, but she wore the first one seen in America…. [She] was very unhappy with me about forcing her to change her hair color. I had this maniacal idea that I wanted her hair to be the same color as her dress, and we went through three dyeing jobs to get there. The hairdresser at MGM said, “I can’t go any further, her hair’s starting to break off.”

As for her pummeling Marvin, it has been suggested that she got into it so passionately because she was mad that he (or his character) dangled her over a balcony in a previous film, The Killers. I’m not sure if that’s true but her performance is certainly convincing, and she definitely opened up a gash in Marvin’s cheek with the pool cue.

And here’s a video created by Peter van der Ham showing Dickinson blows scored with a Steve Reich piece called “Clapping Music.”

As for the movie-in-movie moment, it comes after Marvin is flipping channels with the remote control (as Jack Lemmon did in The Apartment), in keeping with the automated-house theme. He lands on Vincente Minelli’s The Cobweb (1955), an MGM (same studio as Point Blank) melodrama set in a psychiatric institution and with a remarkable cast: Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant, Lillian Gish, Gloria Grahame, and Fay Wray.

We see staff member Bacall (her back to the camera) talking with a patient played by John Kerr. When he says, “You figure this will get me over my neurotic intertia or something,” Marvin switches the channel to a Pond’s cold cream commercial

Understandable move.

‘Titanic’ in ‘Love, Actually’


I am not especially a fan of either Titanic (1997) or Richard Curtis’s Love, Actually (2003). In fact, I’m probably one of the few sentient beings not to have watched either film in its entirety. But I had to do a post on this scene after getting a note from one of my all-time favorite students from my teaching career, Meghan Lobdell Gooding.

After I had shared a previous movie-in-movie post on Facebook, Meghan wrote:

I always enjoy when Liam Neeson and his step-son watch the “Jack, I’m flying!” scene from “Titanic” in the movie “Love, Actually” …because the Kate Winslet TV-within-a-TV-screen cameo fulfills my need for the complete foursome from the 1995 “Sense and Sensibility film”: Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant all star in Love Actually … Kate Winslet is the missing piece.

Seems this is one of the bits I missed in my disjointed viewings of Love, Actually, which at one time was on a lot in my house because various members of my family were fans. In honor of their and maybe Meghan’s feelings, I will refrain from discussing how young Sam (Thomas Sangster) is maybe just a little too cute for the circus, and how Curtis’s inclusion of what was then the highest-grossing film of all time was maybe a little on the nose.

I will say, however, that seeing Daniel (Neeson) and Sam act out Winslet and Leonardo DeCaprio’s ship-top scene from the earlier film inspired me to add a new tag, “Re-create,” previously seen in E.T. and Sherlock Jr.

Anyway, this one’s for you, Meghan.

Untitled MGM Cartoon in ‘Northwest Hounded Police’

I confess that until researching this post, I was unfamiliar with Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons. Like many people, I know and love the Warner Brothers stuff by Avery, Fritz Freling, and Chuck Jones — Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Daffy Duck, and that lot. But I’ve learned that in 1941, Avery left Warner’s for MGM, where his greatest creation was the phlegmatic basset hound Droopy.


Northwest Hounded Police (1946) is like a Road Runner cartoon not so much on steroids as mescaline. A prisoner up in the Yukon, Wolf, escapes and is pursued by a Mountie, Droopy. And I mean pursued. Wolf ventures to the highest mountain peak and the depths of the ocean, and as soon as he arrives, who should he see but the Droop-ster. Wolf does a double and usually a triple take, his eyes bulge out of his head by twenty feet or so, and he hightails it out of there at warp speed.

Both Warner’s and MGM cartoons were larded with self-conscious fourth-wall breaking, and indeed, such a joke was the reason for Avery’s leaving Warner’s. According to Wikipedia, in Avery’s original version of The Hunting Hare (1941)

Bugs and the hunting dog were to fall off a cliff three times, milking the gag to its comic extreme. According to a DVD commentary for the cartoon, the historian and animator Greg Ford explained that the problem [producer Leon] Schlesinger had with the ending was that, just before falling off the third time, Bugs and the dog were to turn to the screen, with Bugs saying “Hold on to your hats, folks, here we go again!”, a punchline to a potentially risqué joke of the day.

In the first scene in his first movie, Dumb-Hounded (1943), Droopy looks at the audience and says, “Hello, all you happy people … you know what? I’m the hero.”

Northwest Hounded Police offers a new level of meta, as Wolf literally runs out of the frame of the film and takes a seat in a movie theater, only to see …

If you’re interested in seven and a half minutes of fun, here’s the whole movie.

Special Treat

A Vimeo user who goes by the handle Roman Holiday, but whose name is Matt and who lives in Vancouver, has put together a great video called “Cinematic Film Viewers” that’s very much relevant to this blog. It consists of one-to-three-second clips of people watching movies in no fewer than 128 different films. The editing is very cleverly done, as each film seems to visually lead into the next. And it’s just the visuals from the films; the audio is an affecting score — “Transformation,” by the Cinematic Orchestra — that reminds me of ones used for montages at the Oscars telecasts. In fact, I hereby propose that “Cinematic Film Viewers” be shown at the next Oscars ceremony, if there is one.

Matt has helpfully supplied a second-by-second breakdown of the movies:

00:06 – Sunrise (1927) / Interview With The Vampire (1994)
00:09 – The Wolf Man (1941) / The Sandlot (1993)
00:10 – King Kong (1933) / The Cider House Rules (1999)
00:11 – The Third Man (1949) / Heavenly Creatures (1994)
00:13 – Myrt And Marge (1933) / O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
00:14 – Li’l Abner (1940) / The Notebook (2004)
00:16 – Double Indemnity (1944) / Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
00:17 – Apocalypse Now (1979) / Jarhead (2005)
00:18 – Seven (1995) / The Butterfly Effect (2004)
00:20 – Dirty Harry (1971) / Zodiac (2007)
00:21 – Problem Child (1990) / Cape Fear (1991)
00:23 – Wizard Of Oz (1939) / Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004)
00:24 – South Pacific (1958) / Welcome To Woop Woop (1997)
00:25 – The Sound Of Music (1965) / The Postman (1997)
00:26 – The Shining (1980) / Twister (1996)
00:28 – Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) / Chicken Little (2005)
00:29 – The Evil Dead (1981) / Donnie Darko (2001)
00:31 – Raging Bull (1980) / Arizona Dream (1992)
00:32 – The Godfather Part II (1974) / The Freshman (1990)
00:33 – The Charge At Feather River (1953) / A Star Is Born (1954)
00:35 – The Birds (1963) / Twelve Monkeys (1995)
00:36 – Mon Oncle (1958) / The Illusionist (2010)
00:38 – Sunset Boulevard (1950) / Things We Lost In The Fire (2007)
00:39 – Enter The Dragon (1973) / The Tenant (1976)
00:40 – The Way Of The Dragon (1972) / Limitless (2011)
00:42 – The Lady From Shanghai (1947) / Ghostbusters II (1989)
00:45 – The Last Shot (2004) / Casablanca (1942)
00:48 – It Happened One Night (1934) / Sex And The City 2 (2010)
00:50 – Harvey (1950) / Field Of Dreams (1989)
00:52 – The Ref (1994) / It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
00:55 – To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) / One True Thing (1998)
00:58 – Miracle On 34th Street (1947) / Home Alone (1990)
01:00 – A Star Is Born (1954) / Hearts In Atlantis (2001)
01:01 – War Of The Worlds (1953) / Explorers (1985)
01:02 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) / American Psycho (2000)
01:04 – The Sixth Sense (1999) / 50 First Dates (2004)
01:05 – Night Of The Lepus (1972) / The Matrix (1999)
01:06 – The Good The Bad And The Ugly (1966) / The Tiger And The Snow (2005)
01:08 – Audition (1999) / The Departed (2006)
01:09 – On The Waterfront (1954) / Friends With Benefits (2011)
01:11 – Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) / The American (2010)
01:12 – Dr Strangelove (1964) / Next (2007)
01:14 – Lethal Weapon (1987) / The Last Boy Scout (1991)
01:15 – The Ten Commandements (1956) / Rise Of The Planet of the Apes (2011)
01:17 – The Gold Rush (1925) / Jack (1996)
01:18 – The Thing From Another World (1951) / Halloween (1978)
01:20 – Vampires (1998) / Mystic River (2003)
01:21 – North By Northwest (1959) / Richie Rich (1994)
01:22 – The Princess Bride (1987) / Employee Of The Month (2006)
01:24 – Can’t Hardly Wait (1998) / Prom Night (2008)
01:26 – The Golden Stallion (1949) / Kill Bill Vol 2 (2004)
01:28 – Nam’s Angels (1970) / Pulp Fiction (1994)
01:29 – The Mad Dog Killer (1977) / Jackie Brown (1997)
01:31 – The Terminator (1984) / Encino Man (1992)
01:34 – The Criminal Code (1931) / Targets (1968)
01:37 – Roman Holiday (1953) / You, Me And Dupree (2006)
01:39 – Metropolis (1927) / Android (1982)
01:42 – Nosferatu (1922) / Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
01:44 – Battle For The Planet Of The Apes (1973) / Argo (2012)
01:45 – The Jazz Singer (1927) / Goodfellas (1990)
01:47 – The French Connection (1971) / Big (1988)
01:48 – A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) / Back To The Future Part II (1989)
01:50 – A Christmas Carol (1938) / Rocky (1976)
01:52 – Starman (1984) / Pulse (1988)
01:54 – Young Frankenstein (1974) / Big Daddy (1999)
01:56 – One-Eyed Jacks (1961) / Jimmy Hollywood (1994)
01:58 – Fight Club (1999) / Drillbit Taylor (2008)
02:00 – Forbidden Planet (1956) / Firewall (2006)
02:02 – Point Break (1991) / Hot Fuzz (2007)
02:04 – Night Of The Living Dead (1968) / World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
02:05 – La Dolce Vita (1960) / Lost In Translation (2003)
02:07 – Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) / About A Boy (2002)
02:09 – Sweet Smell Of Success (1957) / Rain Man (1988)
02:12 – Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) / Gremlins (1984)
02:14 – Frankenstein (1931) / Weird Science (1985)
02:16 – 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) / The Cure (1995)

02:18 – Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) / I Love You To Death (1990)
02:21 – Sleepless In Seattle (1993) / The Cable Guy (1996)
02:23 – Saturday Night Fever (1977) / Short Curcuit (1986)
02:25 – Singin In The Rain (1952) / Legal Eagles (1986)
02:26 – The Quiet Man (1952) / E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
02:28 – Hello, Dolly! (1969) / Wall-E (2008)
02:32 – Vertigo (1958) / Stuart Little 2 (2002)
02:35 – Planet Of The Apes (1968) / Dunston Checks In (1996)
02:37 – The Lady Eve (1941) / Road To Nowhere (2010)
02:39 – From Here To Eternity (1953) / 13 Going On 30 (2004)
02:42 – The King And I (1956) / The Iron Lady (2011)
02:44 – Christmas Vacation (1989) / Rocky V (1990)
02:46 – Rebel Without A Cause (1955) / Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)
02:48 – It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) / The Big Chill (1983)
02:49 – Bullitt (1968) / US Marshals (1998)
02:50 – Scrooge (1951) / Lethal Weapon (1987)
02:53 – An Affair To Remember / Sleepless In Seattle (1993)

02:54 – Wall Street (1987) / Boiler Room (2000)
02:55 – Alien (1979) / Clay Pigeons (1998)
02:57 – The Exorcist (1973) / The ‘Burbs (1989)
02:59 – Benji (1974) / Garfield (2004)
03:00 – A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987) / True Romance (1993)
03:02 – The Grapes Of Wrath (1940) / In America (2002)
03:04 – Twelve O’Clock High (1949) / Baby’s Day Out (1994)
03:06 – Gone With The Wind (1939) / All Over The Guy (2001)
03:08 – Brief Encounter (1945) / Truly Madly Deeply (1990)
03:10 – Rambo (1985) / Gremlins 2 (1990)
03:11 – The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939) / When Brendan Met Trudy (2000)
03:13 – White Heat (1949) / Ricochet (1991)
03:15 – Fort Apache (1948) / The Apartment (1960)
03:17 – Scarface (1983) / Meet The Fockers (2004)
03:18 – Die Hard (1988) / 30 Minutes Or Less (2011)
03:19 – The Circus (1928) / Mr Popper’s Penguins (2011)
03:22 – The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (1939) / Easy A (2010)
03:25 – Titanic (1997) / This Means War (2012)

03:28 – Ghostbusters (1984) / Zombieland (2009)
03:31 – Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) / Prometheus (2012)
03:34 – Gilda (1946) / The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
03:37 – Father Of The Bride (1950) / The Last Picture Show (1971)
03:40 – The Sting (1973) / A Little Romance (1979)
03:43 – The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) / The Majestic (2001)
03:47 – A Trip To The Moon (1902) / Hugo (2011)
03:52 – Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933) / Bonnie And Clyde (1967)
03:54 – Goldfinger (1964) / Catch Me If You Can (2002)
03:57 – Manhattan Melodrama (1934) / Public Enemies (2009)
04:01 – Woodstock (1970) / The Omega Man (1971)
04:05 – Citizen Kane (1941) / Suburban Girl (2007)
04:08 – Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) / Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)
04:13 – The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958) / Radio Flyer (1992)
04:16 – This Gun For Hire (1942) / L.A. Confidential (1997)
04:20 – Jaws (1975) / Gray Lady Down (1978)
04:25 – Bicycle Thieves (1948) / The Player (1992)


I’ve covered maybe 20 percent of the 128. I’m definitely not going to pursue a lot of these, including most of the many cases where the “host” movie is so clearly inferior to the one seen it. (I’ll call this the South Pacific / Welcome To Woop Woop syndrome.) But there are a lot of good ideas there. Clearly, my work is cut out for me.




‘Now, Voyager’ in ‘Summer of ’42,’ ‘Twister’ in ‘Atomic Twister,’ and a Five-Movie Chain

Some time back I instituted the “Double Dip” tag, indicating cases where characters in movie a watch movie B, and character in B watch movie C. As of now, there are two examples — Brief Encounter, which is seen in several different movies and in which characters watch (the fictional) Flames of Passion, and The Shining, which is seen in Twister and in which characters watch Summer of ’42.

Well, now it’s down to one, because the Twister/Summer of  ‘42/Shining train just got expanded to a new tag, which I’m calling “five-spot.”

It stretches out on both ends. Summer of ’42 , set on Nantucket in that wartime summer, has a scene where the three teenage buddies go to the movies. They probably would have enjoyed another night better: the coming attractions posters are of two Warner Brothers pictures with plenty of action: The Wagons Roll at Night (a circus melodrama and Humphrey Bogart’s follow-up to They Drive By Night) and the Gary Cooper classic Sergeant York. (Oddly, both movies came out in 1941.)


Tonight’s feature, however, is the women’s picture of all women’s pictures, the Bette Davis–Paul Henreid starrer (I love using Variety-speak) Now, Voyager. In some ways, though, it’s a felicitous choice, the uber-romance on screen possibly increasing the chances of the sex-obsessed boys making time with their dates.

Watch that right arm! Aggie (Katherine Allentuck) and Hermie (Gary Grimes).

In every post on this blog up till now, I have included a clip of the movie-in-movie scene. Summer of ’42 foiled me, however, for technical reasons I won’t get into. (But I will say I am a little ticked off at iTunes.) Instead, here’s a clip of a part of Now, Voyager we see the kids watching, the ending, with its famous last line. And spoiler: it’s got the guy-lighting-two-cigarettes bit, which has been spoofed so often it can’t not look funny.

And finally, I was checking the “Connections” section of Twister‘s entry on IMDB and lo and behold, it says that “extracts” from the film are seen in the 2002 made-for-TV movie Atomic Twister, directed by Bill Corcoran. I’m definitely not able to provide the relevant clip, as I have no access to Atomic Twister. But if anybody does — or can name another five-spot, or even four- — you know where to find me.

Update: I am speaking sincerely when I say it’s nice to have your own personal fact-checker. At least that’s how I think of the linguist, writer and all-around smart guy Ben Zimmer, who frequently helps me out in the area of accuracy quality-control. Ben actually called me out on two mistakes related to the supposed watching of Twister in Atomic Twister. First, the latter is very much accessible — it’s on YouTube in its entirety.

On the second mistake, Ben reports:

I can’t bring myself to watch the whole thing, but flipping through I’m not seeing “Twister” anywhere. (The kids *play* Twister at one point, but they don’t *watch* “Twister.”) The TV in the house is on about 33 minutes in, but it’s showing a western. I wonder if the “extracts” mentioned on IMDb are just reused footage? This is a TBS movie, and Turner had the rights to Warner Bros. movies like “Twister,” so I think it’s possible.

Reading that, and thinking about IMDB’s phrasing (“extracts … are used”), I realize he’s got to be right, and it’s a case of reused footage.

So does this still qualify as a five-spot? Up until now, every post on this blog has been about a movie or TV show where a movie or TV show is actually playing or showing. On the other hand, the title of the blog is “Movies in Movies” and the subheading is, “Films and TV episodes that cleverly incorporate films or TV episodes.” Twister in Atomic Twister qualifies on both counts (except maybe the “cleverly” part).

So I’m going to claim blogger’s prerogative and keep the “five-spot” designation.


‘Happy Endings’ in ‘New York, New York’ (and ‘Spaceballs’ x∞)

The recent post on Scream 4 brought up the question, are there any other cases of a movie in a movie in a movie? Ben Zimmer was quick to bring up Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987) in which Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and other characters watch themselves watching themselves watching themselves… (In a less endlessly recursive way, Blazing Saddles was shown in Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.)


I’d say it merits an asterisk, as does the only other movie-in-movie-in-movie example I’ve found, New York, New York (1977). Actually, I’d give Martin Scorsese’s film two asterisks. The first is because this twelve-minute sequence was cut out of the original theatrical release, only to be restored in 1981. The second … well, I’ll explain. In the movie, set in the 1940s, Liza Minelli plays singer/actress Francine Evans, who, after breaking with saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro), whose middle name should be “Nogood,” hits it big, including landing the starring role in a movie musical called Happy Endings.

In Mean Streets and Taxi Driver we learned Scorsese is fond of Times Square marquees, but he takes it to a new level here. At the start of the sequence is an establishing shot.

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We know it’s Times Square because of the Hotel Astor (lower left), which was on Broaadway between 44th and 45th Streets. And we know it’s 1949 because that’s the year of the two other (carefully selected) films on the marquees, John Huston’s We Were Strangers and Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave. Happy Endings, meanwhile, is opening at  the “New York Music Hall” — a riff on Radio City Music Hall, actually half a mile to the northeast.

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We go into the theater only to see a Happy Endings scene set in a movie theater. Francine plays “usherette” Peggy Smith; in the the stylized set (production design by Boris Leven), still more movie marquees (including the Apollo, a Scorsese favorite) are seen behind the audience. Also behind them is a beam of light from a projector — it contains, tantalizingly, the movie within the movie within the movie, which we can’t quite see.


Peggy meets Donald (Larry Kert) who turns out to be a movie producer and makes her a star. There are a series of production numbers, and we see superimposed titles and marquees (more marquees!) of her starring roles: Princess Sargeant, The Girl from Rio (actually the title of a 1969 spy movie), The Long Waltz (possibly a nod to Scorsese’s own The Last Waltz, and inadvertently misspelled in the marquee).

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In a Star Is Born–like arc she loses Donald when she eclipses him, but (happy ending) gets him back … but wait, it was all a dream, and she’s back as an usherette. But wait! She meets Donald again — and all of a sudden, Peggy jumps into the movie screen, a la Buster Keaton. So there’s your movie in a movie in a movie. With asterisk.


And if anyone’s interested in seeing the whole twelve-minute sequence, here you go:




‘Darkness at Noon’ and ‘Talking at Noon’ in ‘The Good Wife’

Picking up on the thread of TV series with continuing fake TV series, YouTube user Charlie has helpfully put together this montage of scenes from two fake shows — Darkness at Noon and Talking at Noon — that periodically showed up in the CBS drama The Good Wife (2009-2016).

Some good stuff there, as when Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) glances at the screen and asks her daughter, “What’s going on?” The response: “He shot the bald guy, now they’re blaming the other guy, now she’s in trouble.” Pretty elegant recap.

Or the troubled hero’s soliloquy: “People just think there are black hats and white hats, but there are black hats with white linings, and white hats with black linings, and there are hats that change back and forth between white and black, and there are striped hats. Evil rests in the soul of all men… and there is nothing you can do but curse God.”

Another nice touch is the spoiler-dispensing Talking at Noon, the chat show about the show within the show. It’s takeoff on AMC’s Talking Dead, which debuted in 2011 to hash and rehash that network’s The Walking Dead, thus inventing the now-thriving genre of “aftershow.”

According to an IndieWire article, Darkness at Noon began as a shot at another AMC show, Low Winter Sun (which had been cancelled after one season by the time Darkness at Noon appeared, which seems a bit punching down) and “evolved into an ongoing satire of TV-antihero tropes.” To me, the dopey dark existentialism evoked another cable cop show HBO’s True Detective.

In fact, every platform has its pluses and minuses, specifically when it comes to shows about crime, criminals, and the law. The premium cable of HBO and its brethren, with its primo production values and near-total freedom in terms of sex, violence, and language, sometimes seems to rely on, or revel in, those things at the expense of character and plot, and invoke a cheap nihilism. Basic cable — like AMC and FX — to me often hits a sweet spot, in shows like Fargo and Better Call Saul, but even they tend to operate with a surfeit of testosterone (note the Everest-like left breast of the Darkness at Noon corpse) and be overly concerned with who is the biggest “badass” (a favorite approbative word on Talking Noon).

The shortcomings of broadcast TV are pretty well known. Most of them relate to various sorts of unrealisticness. The Good Wife, which was the brainchild of show-runners Robert and Michelle King, was definitely better than most. I watched it for the last two-thirds of its run and enjoyed, among other things, its unusual savviness about politics and the law, the better-than-average use of “ripped from the headlines” plots, and great characters portrayed by Alan Cumming, Christine Baranski, Sarah Steele, and Stockard Channing, among others That list, along with the (not as strong IMHO) title character, suggests the good job it did reversing TV’s traditional gender imbalance.

But the show also had its share, and at times more than its share, of soapy melodrama. To get a small sense of that, here’s Wikipedia’s summary of one of the not-so-great characters:

Blake Calamar (Scott Porter) is a private investigator for the firm who competes with Kalinda. He tries to frame Kalinda for putting a doctor in a coma but fails. He finds out that her former name was Leela Tahiri and Peter helped her change it. In return, she slept with Peter.

When stuff like that happens, as someone once said, there is nothing you can do but curse God.


‘The Terrance and Phillip Show’ in ‘South Park’

Terrance and Phillip

I believe I’ve only covered one instance of a fake TV shows in a real one, The Itchy & Scratchy Show in The Simpsons. But it’s a pretty pervasive phenomenon, as I learned from an Entertainment Weekly article by Chancellor Agard and Ernest Macias. They list the ten best uses of the trope (I think they go in reverse order of best-ness):

  • Chicago Penthouse (spoof of reality shows) in The Good Fight.
  • The Valley (Southern California soap) in (Southern California soap) The O.C.
  • Inspector Spacetime (Dr. Who parody) in Community.
  • El Amor Prohibido (telenovella) in Arrested Development.
  • Terrance and Philip in South Park.
  • Due North (Underground spoof) in Insecure.
  • Defamation (Scandal spoof) in Dear White People.
  • MILF Island in 30 Rock. 
  • Invitation to Love (daytime soap) in Twin Peaks.
  • Darkness at Noon in The Good Wife.

As the list makes clear, this is generally a satire of either specific or generic TV content. (Fake-movies-in-movies are a similar deal.) The spoofs range from blunt to sharp, as spoofs tend to do.  (I cracked up at the tagline for MILF Island, a summer reality show: “Twenty-five super-hot moms. Fifty eighth-grade boys. No rules.”) But the more interesting cases are where the fake shows combine satire with a meta-commentary on the “real” program. That’s definitely the case with Itchy & Scratchy, with Invitation to Love, on Twin Peaks, which I plan to cover in a future post, and I imagine (haven’t seen it yet) with The Valley.

And with Terrance and Phillip, which basically takes all the criticisms of South Park, sees them, and raises them two. Is the animation crude? T and P is even cruder, with characters’ heads that are horizontally cut in half and bob up and down to portray talking. And is the humor crude? Again, even cruder, consisting almost entirely of fart jokes and bad ethnic insults. Here’s a South Park fan site on the characters’ origin story:

The two characters have heavy accents, ostensibly to represent stereotypical American views of Canadians. The “aboot” pronunciation has also been used in The Simpsons and Canadian Bacon. The fact their career is based on an accidental fart Terrance made on the The Ed Sullivan Show at the age of six, because that was the only part of their act Americans understood, may be saying something about Canadian perceptions of Americans.

The duo popularized a catchphrase in the show-within-a-show, as they would invariably say “You FAH-ted!” and then giggle to almost any farting sound.

And here’s a clip from a recent episode. Terrance and Phillip are the ages they would be in 2017, given the Ed Sullivan appearance (an implicit commentary on the convention of animation characters never getting older).  They’ve got a new show, on Netflix, but their humor is the same old thing.

Next: Darkness at Noon (and Talking at Noon) on The Good Wife.