Contrast is almost a prerequisite when it comes to effective movie-in-movies. It would be hard to find one more pronounced than in Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison melodrama from Universal Brute Force. Actually, you’d think that whoever does the cinematic programming at this pen should be fired, as probably the last movie Burt Lancaster and his fellow hardened cons would be expected to enjoy would be The Egg and I. That comedy is also from Universal and was released just a few months before Brute Force. It’s also unlikely that a prison would get its hands on such a recent movie, but chalk that up to poetic license.
The Egg and I is about the wacky misadventures of a couple from the city (Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert) when they decide to go into the chicken-farming business. The inmates have a surprising reaction.
“decided one night to show both films — first Brute Force, until the moment where the men go to see the movie, at which point he interpolated The Egg and I in its entirety. Yes, all 104 minutes of it. During commercials, he’d intone, “You are watching Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn” — though someone who’d tuned in late would swear that he was watching The Egg and I.
“Finally, after that light comedy finished up, our programmer returned to the scene in Brute Force where the guys are getting up from the table after having watched the movie…. The programmer then continued with the rest of Brute Force, giving viewers a 199-minute orgy of 1947 Hollywood!”
If asked to name to the most movie-conscious movie, I probably wouldn’t select Gremlins. But Joe Dante’s 1984 horror-comedy belongs in the discussion.
The film’s best-known movie-in-movie scene occurs when the apparently cute, but actually viciously destructive, title creatures have taken over the local cinema. Initially, there’s some trouble in the projection booth, but that gets sorted out.
The movie the gremlins are watching, of course, is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It’s a knowing choice, showing the striking transition in animated sidekicks from Disney’s lovable dwarfs to Dante’s disgusting critters. But gross as they are, they’re also — in their rapt involvement with what they’re watching — the sort of audience a director can only dream of.
And if you think it’s odd that a 1937 movie should be on offer in an early ’80s cinema, you shouldn’t: Disney re-released Snow White in the Christmas season roughly every decade, the last time in 1983. Gremlins is a Christmas movie as well (though it was rushed to a June release, apparently so that its studio could have some blockbuster competition against Ghostbusters and the second Indiana Jones movie). It has lots of nods to the ultimate Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, including the fact that the main character, Billy (Zack Galligan), works in a bank, and both the look and the name (the Bedford Falls-sounding Kingston Falls) of the town where it’s set.
An early movie-in-movie scene is a more explicit shout-out to Frank Capra’s classic. Billy and his mother (Frances Lee McCain) are in the family kitchen.
I love it that she doesn’t have the sound on: at this point,Wonderful Life is so familiar that it’s really not necessary. And is she crying at the ending of the movie (which would be happy tears, not sad ones, right?), or from the big pile of onions she’s just chopped?
Here are the other movies in the movie, in no particular order. I find all but one of them clever and fun.
Billy and Gizmo, the Mogwai who inadvertently spawned the gremlins, watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) on TV. The parallels are obvious.
Playing in the classroom of the high school science teacher (Glynn Turman) is Hemo the Magnificent, a 1956 documentary about the circulatory system directed by none other than Frank Capra.
Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), who is bitter at foreign imports up to and including the gremlins taking over from American-made products, finds that his TV will only play kind of the ultimate foreign film, Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus.
My favorite Easter egg takes places in the local bar, where the TV is barely visible. IMDB informs me that what’s showing on it is the 1949 Pepe Le Peu cartoon For Scent-imental Reasons, directed by Chuck Jones. And guess who’s the customer walking along the bar, looking at it? Chuck Jones himself. (Phoebe Cates is the waitress, Judge Reinhold the dude on the left.)
The one movie-in-this-movie whose point I can’t quite figure out is To Please a Lady(1950), which looks to be a pretty bad car-racing movie starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. But Gizmo and Billy’s dog clearly don’t share my opinion. There’s probably an in-joke in there somewhere, and if anyone can spot it, please let me know.
I was looking around on the invaluable Films in Films site and came on an entry for Roy Del Ruth’s 1932 movie Taxi. (Films in Films lists it as Taxi! but the original posters and such do not have an exclamation mark.) FIF says the film includes scenes from the same director’s Side Show, released the previous year. This was exciting to me because, up till now, the earliest example I’ve found of a sound film using clips from another sound film is Wild Boys of the Road (1933), which uses Footlight Parade. And Taxi came out more than a year earlier.
The movie-in-movie situation turned out to be a bit more complicated than that, which I’ll get to in a minute. But to start, Taxi (available for rental on Amazon Prime) is a weird, wonderful, and disturbing movie. The bread and butter of impressionists used to be James Cagney saying, “You dirty rat. You killed my brother.” And that started with Taxi, where Cagney plays New York City cabdriver Matt Nolan. As with many famous lines, he didn’t say exactly those words. A bad guy does indeed kill his brother, and in one improbable plot turn, Matt’s wife, Sue (Loretta Young), gives some assistance to the killer. Matt shoves Sue around (he’s always socking people, dames included) and says, “The dirty rat kills Danny and you help him get away with it!” Later, a la R. Kelly, the killer is locked in a closet and Matt exclaims, “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat or I’ll give it to ya through the door!” Spoiler alert: he goes ahead and shoots. Matt’s a true sociopath, and the disturbing thing is the movie pretty much gives him a pass on that.
Taxi also has this kind of amazing scene:
Cagney was born on the Lower East Side and really did speak Yiddish. An article in the Forward summarizes what’s going on here:
The man tells the policeman that he urgently needs to go to Ellis Island because his wife and children are due to arrive and becomes incensed that the cop cannot understand his “plain Mame-Loshn.” After insulting the cop, calling him fat and a dummy — literally: a “gentile head” — the Jewish man asks Matt if he is a fellow member of the tribe. “What else would I be, a sheygets?,” Cagney’s character responds. (Sheygets is the male equivalent of a shiksa.)
And one more little sidelight. In another amazing scene, Sue and Matt enter a foxtrot contest, and who should beat them out but an uncredited George Raft, in one of his first roles?
I came to Taxi after watching Footlight Parade and a bunch of other Warner Brothers pre-Code musicals, and it’s fun to watch members of the Warners stock company like Guy Kibbee and George E. Stone show up in non-musical roles. In this sequence, Matt and Sue go to the movies with Stone (as fellow cabbie Skeets) and Leila Bennett, playing a wise-cracking waitress, Ruby (and stealing the picture).
Gentle fun is poked at Warners star John Barrymore, and slightly less gentle at Paramount’s Fredric March, who had just played a Barrymore-like thespian in The Royal Family of Broadway. Ruby’s favorite, Joe E. Brown, was a comedy star at Warners.
Here’s the movie-in-movie:
In the entire history of movie-in-movies scenes, from silent days up through Mad Men, the predominant theme for the trope has been a contrast between the idealized or hokey, “Hollywood” world that the characters watch, and their own “real” world. (And the enduring richness of the trope, of course, derives from the fact that their world isn’t really real, either.) Here, what’s onscreen is hokey and Hollywood to the max: with stilted acting, lousy synchronization, and melodramatic lines like, “My life seems misspent. The meaning has gone out of everything and left only … ashes.” (The dialogue brings to mind the scene in Harold Pinter’s The Last Tycoon script where Robert DeNiro, playing an Irving Thalberg-like executive, rips a screenwriter for the line he’s penned in response to “I love you” — “And I you!”)
The Taxi characters’ reaction eliminates any doubt we might have about the badness of the movie they and we are watching. And by the way, Cagney’s line in reference to the male lead, Donald Cook –“His ears are too big” — is another in-joke. That was commonly said about another actor from a rival studio, MGM’s Clark Gable.
Now as to the identity of that crummy movie. The marquee says it’s Her Hour of Love — “GREATEST PICTURE OF ALL TIME.” (Hardy har har.) There is no such film, though One Hour of Love was a 1927 silent. Both Films in Films and IMDB say the actual footage is from Side Show, directed by Del Ruth in 1931. That is not true, as I can attest now that I’ve seen Side Show, which is available for rental on YouTube. That film does indeed feature Cook and Evalyn Knapp (the onscreen lovers) but it’s a circus-set comic adventure. Del Ruth, Cook, and Knapp worked up this scene especially for Taxi.
So Wild Boys of the Road still hasn’t been displaced. Taxi does, however, hold the distinction of being the first movie to include clips from a fake movie, and that is not nothing.
The trope of TV characters watching TV has been remarked on, including here and here ). It’s especially common in the angsty cable dramas of the 200s and 2010s, like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, and The Sopranos, where the fakery and cheesiness of what’s on the screen-within-the-screen not only contrasts ironically with the struggles of Tony Soprano, Walter White, et al., but works as clever branding: Look how fake old-time TV is! Our show is real!
It’s rarer on these shows when characters hie themselves to a cinema and watch a movie. One such instance comes in the 2013 Mad Men episode “The Flood,” directed by Chris Manley, set on the day and aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
And here’s the complete spoiler alert. This post will not only reveal plot elements of “The Flood” but also the ending of the movie Don Draper and his son watch. I take pains to point that out, because when the episode first appeared in 2013, people got mad!
At this point in the series, Don (Jon Hamm) is divorced from his first wife, Betty. As the scene opens, his new wife, Megan, has taken two of his kids to Central Park memorial for King. (Such a vigil really took place. It was attended by 20,000 people and it was peaceful, though still doesn’t seem quite the right place to bring a baby.) Bobby Draper (Mason Vale Cotton) stays in the apartment with Don. Even though Bobby has been punished by his mother and isn’t allowed to watch TV, he is in fact watching TV — already, he’s taken on some of the trademark Draper rule-bending. The particular TV show he’s watching is the sitcom McHale’s Navy, with Ernest Borgnine and Joe Flynn, presumably chosen for maximum cheesiness and fakery. (At least it wasn’t Hogan’s Heroes.)
In the last few seconds of the clip, you can see Don’s mental gears trying to figure out how he can bend the no-TV rule, and an audio clue to his solution. We cut to (and here’s one final spoiler alert):
Right, it’s the famous, shocking ending of POTA. You can see how people who hadn’t gotten around to seeing the movie, even after 45 years, might be annoyed.
In any case, it’s a nice moment in Mad Men. There should be a word for the phenomenon at the end of a really good movie when the audience sits in silence for a few seconds — letting it all sink in, maybe drying a tear or two — before saying anything to their companions. That’s what’s going on here, as well as Don’s appreciation of Bobby’s appreciation of the film. As he acknowledges later in the episode, for him, such paternal moments don’t come easily or often.
My wife is obsessed with all things Italian, and through one of her email subscriptions heard about an online showing of a 2019 film called Citizens of the World (Italian title: Lontano Lontano), to benefit the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society. It seemed like a good cause and a good film, so we paid our $12.50 and streamed it.
Good choice. The movie, directed by Gianni Di Gregorio, is a very well-observed, funny, gentle and (most important) un-cliched character study of three Roman retirees who decide that the only way to make their pensions cover their living costs would be to move abroad. Complications ensue. (By the way, it’s also available for rental on Amazon.)
As a bonus, there’s an early movie-in-movie scene. One of the guys, played by the director, is a retired teacher known only as “Il Profesore.” We see him in his apartment, preparing dinner. And then:
The choice of movie serves a couple of purposes: one, the comedy of the professor’s sleeping through a shoot-’em-up and, two, more subtly, the implication that perhaps that his time, the time of black and white westerns, has passed by.
My only problem is that I can’t i.d. the movie. It’s listed neither in the Films in Films website nor the user-generated “Connections” sections of IMDB. If anyone can name the movie the professor is dozing to, I’ll put it up on IMDB myself.
Update: Shortly after posting this, I made a plea on Facebook and Twitter for help in identifying the movie. Within minutes, three separate people — Francie Halderman, Lewis Beale and Nancy Friedman (Twitter @fritinancy) — had pegged it as Howard Hughes’s infamous The Outlaw (1943), starring Jane Russell. That adds to the joke, as the Professor even sleeps through Russell’s va-va-voomitude.
I immediately filed the Connection with UMDB. Grazie tutti!
As anyone who’s seen it or even read about it knows, the Disney TV series WandaVision is heavily into “Easter eggs,” in jokes, arcane references, and all sorts of meta stuff. Now, part of the deal with Easter eggs is that they’re not easy to to spot, which in movies and TV shows often translates into going by really fast. That’s the case in episode eight, “Previously On” (even the episode titles are meta!), where, in addition to seeing characters watching old episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Malcolm in the Middle, we’re shown an extremely brief shot of a movie marquee. I had to go through the scene four or five times, pausing and starting, before I finally snagged this fuzzy screen shot.
I had no idea what “Tannhauser Gate” signified, until I googled it and discovered it’s not the title of a movie nor areal place but a reference to some lines in the 1982 film Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” The indispensable website TVTropes reports that “References to the Gate crop up repeatedly in other [science fiction] media as a Shout-Out to Blade Runner.”
The movie-in-movie scene I’m here to tell you about takes place in episode six, “All-New Halloween Spooktacular,” directed by Matt Shakman, and is also short enough to qualify as an Easter egg. There’s a Halloween festival going on in the town where WandaVision takes place, Westview, and projected against a building is a black and white movie. We see a second and a half of it, tops, and most of the time only a fraction of the screen in the background. (If you want to know what’s going on in the foreground, with the kid and the lady in the witch costume, you have to watch the show.)
Other than the fact that it looked like some kind of monster was walking around, I had no idea what the movie was. The usually reliable Connections feature of IMDB was no help, probably because the episode was so new. So I made an appeal on Twitter, and sure enough, in 53 minutes, I had an answer, courtesy of Andrea Fiamma (@failflame). She reported that the website Nerds and Beyond had i.d.-ed the movie as The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).
Now why did director Matt Shakman choose this movie, which was the second sequel to The Creature from The Black Lagoon? Nerds and Beyond, after identifying the film, makes the cryptic comment, “And suddenly it all makes sense.” But how? Why? If any nerd out there has an answer, I’d be happy to hear it.
When my daughter Maria was little, after reading her a bedtime story, I’d hang around in her room and we’d have what she dubbed “chat time,” where we’d talk about this and that. At the end, we’d sometimes recap what she (again) called “the train” — how the first subject led to the next, and so on, to the end. A Movies-in-Other-Movies train starts with Bombshell, where the movie-in-movies was Red Dust. Then Bombshell was used in The Prize.
And today we have The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), directed by Vincente Minelli, who was previously represented on this blog by his clever use of The Bad and the Beautiful in Two Weeks in Another Town. I had never seen The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, only the Bill Bixby sitcom that based on it, one of a bewildering number of late ’50s and ’60s shows about widowers or other single father figures raising kids — Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, Family Affair, Bonanza. (Widowed mothers — demographically more common — didn’t arrive till Diahann Carroll’s Julia in 1968. And divorced people … forget about it.)
The train is that the film Minelli chooses to have lonely and wistful Tom Corbett (Glenn Ford) watch on TV is John Ford’s Mogambo (1953), a remake of Red Dawn in which Clark Gable recreated his original role and (older guys being okay as Hollywood love interests, older women not so much) Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (shown here) took the Jean Harlow and Mary Astor parts. The scene is notable for having Tom use a wireless remote control, just as Jack Lemmon did in The Apartment.
And just to finish up the train, Eddie is of course played by Ronny (later) Ron Howard, whose birthday is today!
So screenwriter Ernest Lehman cooks up a scene for the Hitchockian The Prize (1963) in which Nobel-winning novelist Andrew Craig (Paul Newman), having arrived in Stockholm and gotten involved in some skullduggery, gets a tip to go see a particular guy in his apartment. There’s no answer to a knock on the door, and Andrew walks in to find the television is on.
What should be playing? One can imagine the discussion between Lehman and director Mark Robson. A movie is more interesting than some Swedish TV show, but which one? Should be something from the studio behind The Prize, MGM, for the sake of economy. Beyond that, I can only think that Lehman and Robson opted for a film as dissimilar as can be from theirs.
What they came up with, in any case, was Jean Harlow’s Bombshell, which I discussed here because it has a scene from Red Dust, and which therefore earns this post and that one a “Double dip” tag. To make it even more discordant, it’s the scene where Harlow is telling Lee Tracy how much she wants a baby. (I can figure that out because the Swedish voice artists keeps saying “baby” and “mama.”)
I’d offer a trigger warning for the scene, but if you’ve seen more than a couple of suspense films, you know exactly what’s coming.
October 1933 could well be the all-time high point of movies-it-movies. It marked the premiere of Wild Boys of the Road and Footlight Parade, as previously discussed, and also of Bombshell, which opened on the 13th. In my opinion, Bombshell isn’t as good a movie as the other two — it’s pretty mean and sour, and too long — but boy is it meta.
An MGM production directed by Victor Fleming (later to helm The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind), it stars Jean Harlow as Lola Burns, a Hollywood blonde “bombshell” (the movie coined the term) who’s based on part on Harlow herself and in part on Fleming’s ex-lover Clara Bow, aka “The It Girl.” (The phrase is applied to Lola in Bombshell.) The movie-in-movie comes at the start of the picture, after a very nifty and clever montage that shows a little of what goes into being a bombshell. And by the way, that’s the real boxer Primo Carnera sparring with Lola.
The clip we see is a Harlow-Clark Gable clinch from Red Dust, a Fleming MGM picture, set in French Indochina, released the year before. That’s enough to earn this post a “Watching yourself” tag, but soon things get even more self-referential, and weird. Lola is told that because of a request from the Hays Office, she needs to go into the studio to do “retakes on Red Dust.” But that doesn’t make sense! Red Dust is already done and dusted, so to speak; we’ve just seen it playing in the theater. The other strange thing is that before 1934, the Hays Office — the outfit headed by Will Hays that was supposed to keep Hollywood fare moral — had no authority to ask for retakes, or basically anything.
A sign of that is Bombshell itself, where we’re told that Lola is “supposed to wear the dress without the brassiere,” and most definitely does so. And where there’s double entendre dialogue galore. Journalist to Lola, praising the scheduling skills of the studio publicist played by Lee Tracy, with whom she has a romantic history: “He can always fit things in.” Lola, rolling her eyes: “He certainly can.”
One of the most famous examples of pre-Code laxity is the scene in Red Dust where Harlow, clearly naked, takes a bath in a rain barrel. And sure enough, that’s the scene that, in Bombshell, supposedly needs a retake. She shows up on the set, eyes the barrel, and says, “Back in Indochina again. Say, where’s Clark? Isn’t he working this with me.” The answer is no. Apparently, a Gable appearance would be too self-referential even for Bombshell.
I am very excited about writing this post. Why wouldn’t I be? First of all, it moves forward by sixteen years the blog’s first noting of a movie with a scene of a sound movie. Hitherto, it was White Heat, from 1949. But the redoubtable Ben Zimmer pointed me in the direction of these two Warner Brothers pictures from 1933.
And that’s another reason this post blows my wig. (Trying to throw in some thirties slang here.) It deals with my favorite period from my favorite studio. One picture, Footlight Parade, is in my favorite genre, musicals, and I have a history with the other one. When I was in college lo these many years ago, one of the high points of junior year was when the film society screened Wild Boys of the Road (admittedly, I didn’t get out much). And I’m please to say that the movie — available for rental on Amazon Prime or Apple TV — holds up like aces.
As for that question of firsts, it’s a tight race. Footlight opened October 21, 1933, and Wild Boys on October 7, so the latter gets the nod. This is a little confusing since Footlight is the very movie that’s seen in Wild Boys, but Warners obviously had the print and probably saw the opportunity for some cross-promotion for an upcoming title.
And that’s not all when it comes to promotion. Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman, opens up at a high-school dance where the music includes “We’re in the Money,” “Shadow Waltz,” and “Pettin’ in the Park” — all Harry Warren/Al Dubin tunes from the Warners musicals Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street.
Pretty soon the Depression — and I can’t think of a film that confronts it more starkly and strikingly — forces the families of Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) into hard times, and forces to boys to ride the rails in search of work. Wellman follows their journey, including some truly shocking episodes, in almost documentary style. Along the way, the boys befriend a wild girl of the road, Sally, played by Dorothy Coonan, whom Wellman would marry the following year. (She was nineteen at the time of filming, older than she looked.) Coonan’s background was in musicals, and when the group lands in New York, Sally turns out to have some terpsiochorean skills that come in handy. And the song she’s hoofing to? “42nd Street,” from the 1933 Warners musical of the same name.
Meanwhile, Eddie has found a way to make even easier money. A couple of well-dressed guys say they’ll give him five bucks for delivering an envelope to the ticket-taker at at a movie theater across the street. (After he gives her the envelope, he starts whistling “Shadow Waltz.”)
In the scene from Lloyd Bacon’s Footlight Parade that’s playing, Broadway director Chester Kent (James Cagney) is talking to his two financial backers, played by Guy Kibbee (the bald one) and Arthur Hohl.
In Footlight Parade itself, the movie-in-movie scene comes earlier, near the start of the picture. Cagney and his assistant (Gordon Westcott) are on their way to see Kibbee and Hohl for a meeting. And don’t miss, at the start of the clip, that kinetic Cagney walk.
The film on the screen is The Telegraph Trail, a Warners “oater” from earlier in ’33. (The posters outside advertise Slaves of the Desert, but there is no such movie.) And yes, you’re right, that’s young John Wayne kissing the girl in the final scene. His sidekick, seen earlier, is Frank McHugh, who’s also in Footlight Parade. The picture doesn’t come across as the kind of thing that would put an entire art form out of business, and in fact it was a B picture, one of many Wayne churned out every year at that point in his career. Probably, this was a joke on Bacon’s part.
Another joke, and another bit of Warner Brothers cross-promotion, comes in a scene where Cagney, having worked all night, is having breakfast with his secretary (Joan Blondell, wonderful as always). There on the table, big as life, is half a grapefruit. It’s clearly (to me, anyway) a nod to the famous scene in another Warners picture, Public enemy, where Cagney shoved that very same citrus fruit into the kisser of Mae Clarke.