‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’ in ‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’; ‘The African Queen’ in ‘The Road to Bali’

The idea of the fourth wall is commonly thought to have originated with the French philosopher Denis Diderot, though he didn’t give it a number. Diderot wrote in 1758: “When you write or act, think no more of the audience than if it had never existed. Imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.”

Today, when the fourth wall is invoked, it’s usually in reference to “breaking” it — that is, writers or characters who disobey Diderot, acknowledge the audience’s existence, and directly speak to it. And it’s invoked a lot, as we live in a very meta age, where art both high (Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lighness of Being) and low (virtually every episode of Family Guy) are concerned.

Even before it had a name, fourth-wall-breaking had a long history — Chaucer and Shakespeare do it, to name two luminaries — but in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it had a very special province in American comedy (plus Monty Python). Early on, it served anarchic, transgressive ends, for example in Marx Brothers movies. As Arts & Popular Culture describes, “In their 1932 film Horse Feathers … when Chico sits down at a piano to begin a musical interlude, Groucho turns to the camera and deadpans ‘I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.'”

In the truly weird Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1942), W.C. Fields, playing himself, unsuccessfully tries to sell a script to a movie executive named Mr. Pangborn, played by Franklin Pangborn. He goes to an ice cream parlor to drown his sorrows and talks directly to the camera: “This scene is supposed to be in a saloon, but the censor cut it out.” And Warner Brothers cartoons are full of moments when Bugs Bunny and other characters make wisecracks intended solely for us, the audience.

The fourth wall got pretty much obliterated in the television series The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In the early years of its 1950-’58 run, when it was filmed live, Burns (playing comedian George Burns) would stand to the side and comment to the audience about the action. Through 1953, Fred Clark played the part of Harry Morton. In an espisode that year, Wikipedia says:

George walks on-stage and freezes the scene just before Harry’s entrance and explains that Clark has left the show to perform on Broadway. He introduces Larry Keating, who enters, and then calls over Bea Benaderet to introduce the two saying, “This is Larry Keating and he is going to be your husband now”. The pair greet and chat briefly, complimenting each other on their previous work. George remarks that if they are going to be so nice to each other, no one will believe they are married. Burns then gives a cue, Blanche resumes her position, and the scene continues where it stopped as if nothing had happened.

In the later years of the series, in a rather eerie Big Brother move, George would repair to his study and spy on the other characters on a TV screen.

 

The insult-the-wife’s-cooking humor hasn’t aged well. (By the way, that’s Larry Keating as Harry.) Later in the scene, George switches to another channel in an effort to locate his wife, Gracie.

 

Part of the humor is that the audience knew — or at least knew the shtick — that Benny was a cheapskate, and that he and Burns were buddies.

This sort of insider knowledge — more comfortable than Marxian comic iconoclasm — is the basis for a lot of the many instances of wall-breaking in the seven “Road” movies Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour made between 1940 and 1962. One or the other of the boys is constantly looking at the camera and joking about Crosby’s golf playing, Hope’s inability to win an Oscar, and the studio that produced all but one of the pictures, Paramount. Arts & Popular culture notes:

In Road to Utopia, they are traveling across frozen land on dogsled, when a mountain appears. Hope says, “Get a load of that bread and butter!” Crosby remarks, “Bread and butter? That’s a mountain!” Then the words “Paramount Pictures” appear on the mountain and Hope comments, “It may be a mountain to you, but it’s bread and butter to me!”

In Road to Bali (1952), directed by Hal Walker, as some music starts to play, Hope looks at the camera and says, “He’s gonna sing, folks. Now’s the time to go out and get the popcorn.” Later, the trio are shipwrecked on a desert island when all of a sudden a guy in white-hunter outfit and pith helmet strolls in, raises a shotgun, fires it, and walks away. Crosby remarks, “That’s my brother Bob. I promised him a shot in my next picture.” Then,

 

It’s actually a clip from Bogart in The African Queen, which won the Best Picture Academy Award the previous year. Bogie clearly was a good sport, allowing his image to appear not only here but in the Bugs Bunny classic Slick Hare (1947).

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‘Hail, Caesar,’ ‘Merrily We Dance,’ and ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ in ‘Hail, Caesar’

The most purely fun movie I’ve seen in the past five years, or maybe longer, is the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016). It’s got a solid story, good performances, and some hilarious moments, but the really special thing about it is the take on peak-studio-era Hollywood, which combines a very knowing spoof with a very knowing appreciation.

The year is more or less 1951, and the main character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who’s based on the real-life Eddie Mannix, for many years a notorious “fixer” at MGM. But the Coens’ Eddie has a grander portfolio: he’s “head of physical production” at (the fictional) Capitol Studios, which involves not only covering up the stars’ imbroglios but managing all details of Capitol’s many offerings, from casting to budgets to editing to locations.

The movie revolves around five in-production Capitol films, all depicted with that knowing mix of spoof and appreciation, and all but one era-appropriate. The eponymous Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ is a religious sandals epic that combines elements of Quo Vadis, The Robe, Spartacus, and Ben-Hur. (The novel Ben-Hur, published in 1880, had the same Tale of the Christ subtitle.) Lazy Ol’ Moon is an “oatuner” — Variety-speak for a cowboy picture, aka “oater,” with music — of the kind Roy Rogers churned out for Republic Pictures through 1950. Jonah’s Daughter is a musical featuring Busby Berkeley-style water ballets, which seems like an odd idea today but was a staple for MGM and Esther Williams, in movies like Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Channing Tatum channels Gene Kelly (in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh) in “No Dames!”, a sailor production number with a hilarious homoerotic-themed subtext. The only movie-in-movie that seems a bit anachronistic is Merrily We Dance, an arch and “sophisticated” black-and-white comedy of manners, something like Design for Living (1933), directed by an Ernst Lubitsch/George Cukor figure flawlessly played by Ralph Fiennes.

I’ll focus on Lazy Ol’ Moon, Merrily We Dance, and Hail, Caesar, since we view finished footage from those three; for the others, we only see scenes being staged and filmed. We take in Moon at its world premiere, attended by its cowboy star, Hobie Doyle (Alben Ehrenreich), a cross between two cowpokes named Rogers: Will (Hobie is a whiz at rope tricks) and the crooning, six-gun-toting horseman Roy. (The latter, born Leonard Slye, chose “Rogers” as his stage name in honor of one of his heroes, as I learned while writing Will Rogers’s biography.) Hobie’s date, arranged by the studio for the publicity value, is the Carmen Miranda-inspired Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osario). Here’s the opening, climaxed by Hobie crooning “Lazy Ol’ Moon” (a tune actually sung by R. Rogers in a 1939 picture, The Arizona Kid).

 

To me, the most striking and somewhat unnerving thing about the scene is the high-contrast color. But it’s true to its models, if not life. As Bill Desowitz observed on IndieWire, for this sequence Hail, Caesar! cinematographer Roger Deakins “emulated the two-strip (red and green) Trucolor process utilized at Republic.” This still of Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, from Sunset in the West (1950) gives the idea:

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The other notable quality of the Lazy Ol’ Moon scene is how dad-burned ridiculous are the carryings-on of Curly (J.R. Horne, doing his best Gabby Hayes.) But Carlotta and the rest of the audience roar with delighted laughter — an example, as in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (a favorite of the Coens), of the grace of silly comedy. As the narrator (voiced by Michael Gambon) intones, the picture is “another wave of gossamer, another movie, another portion of balm for the ache of a toiling mankind.”

Eddie’s headache vis-a-vis Merrily We Dance is that the head of the studio, the unseen Nicholas Schenk (who actually was the boss of MGM in the early ’50s), decrees that the lead role has to be played by Hobie. It’s a disastrous call, as Hobie and sophistication are polar opposites. After trying to get the lad to make a “mirthless chuckle,” and “trippingly,” “with a certain ruefulness,” say the line, “Would that ’twere so simple,” Laurence Laurentz seems ready to tear out his remaining hairs. But what the boss says goes and the kid stays in the picture.

Eddie goes to visit editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand) to look at a cut of Merrily on her Movieola, and manages to do so, after a near-Isadora Duncan-type mishap with her  scarf.

 

Wonder of wonders! Improbably, Hobie’s performance does the trick, even if it doesn’t quite reach Oscar™ proportions. His natural physical grace comes though, and the execrable line “Would that ’twere so simple” has been shortened and improved. And who would have thought it possible — his closing smile is actually rueful. Here’s to the magic of movies.

For the scenes of Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ, as Desowitz describes it, the filmmakers mimicked Technicolor epics — “that gold and red look with warm, rich tones.” There are also the matte backgrounds characteristic of the times, which look especially fake today as computer-aided graphics have become more sophisticated. We look on with Eddie Mannix as he watches a rough cut in the studio screening room. George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock (Robert Taylor, kind of) plays the Roman tribune Autolycus; the narrator is the same Michael Gambon.

 

That missing “DIVINE PRESENCE” remains a problem. Eddie takes a meeting with a rabbi, a minister, a priest and a Greek Orthodox priest to see what sort of representation of the godhead might be inoffensive to them all; the results, perhaps predictably, are a joke. The Coen Brothers didn’t manage to solve the problem either, as we learn at the very end of the movie, seen just as the credits finish rolling. Wedged between thanks to various municipal film boards and assurances that no animals have been harmed is this disclaimer: “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.”

‘Angels with Filthy Souls’ in ‘Home Alone’

Home Alone (1990; directed by Chris Columbus; conceived, written and produced by John Hughes) presses all the buttons. You’ve got your madcap humor, your cartoon violence, your patented John Hughes pathos, your upper-middle-class white Midwestern suburbanite setting, and (possibly the only element that still feels fresh and unpremeditated) your breakout performance by Macaulay Culkin as 8-year-old Kevin, who (it can’t be a spoiler if it’s the title of the movie) is inadvertently left home alone when his family flies to Paris for Christmas.

Ah yes, Christmas — that’s the other big button. Home Alone was conceived in and dedicated to the proposition of being a holiday movie. One way it establishes this is time-honored: having characters watch (on TV) Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and of course It’s a Wonderful Life. (The last is seen by the Kevin-less clan while in Paris, and is dubbed into French.)

There’s one other movie that’s featured in the film: Angels with Filthy Souls. Kevin finds a VHS tape of it and, presumably titillated by the title, slips it into the VCR. (It sure beats the the other choices on top of the player, the boomer rock of Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.)

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He and the audience see what appears to be a 1930s film noir, in black and white of course. A trench-coated guy named Snakes, who has a very gangster look to him, pays a call on a private eye named Johnny. (Even if we couldn’t backwards-read the words “Private Investigator” on his  frosted-glass door, we could tell his occupation by the frosted-glass door itself.) There’s something odd about the clip, however. For one thing, Johnny has a really strong Chicago accent, not something often heard in movies; just listen to the way he says, “He’s upstairs, taking a bey-uth.” For another, Angels with Filthy Souls sounds just a little too over-the-top to be the title of a sequel to the real ’30s movie Angels with Dirty Faces. And finally, the shoot-him-full-of-lead sadistic violence, followed by the gleeful catchphrase-to-be, “Keep the change, ya filthy animal,” would in no way have passed muster with the Hollywood Hays office at the time.

Nevertheless, some people persisted for a long time in believing Angels with Dirty Souls was a real movie–including Seth Rogen, Chris Evans, and Nick Kroll.

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And also including Macaulay Culkin!

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I’m not sure what disabused Rogen of his error, but he would have known the truth had he read a 2015 Vanity Fair article that told the whole story of the conception and production of Angels, down to the care taken to recreate the noir look. Director of Photography Julio Macat

persuaded Columbus to shoot the sequence using the techniques and black-and-white negative film stock of movies from the 40s. The high-key lighting, high-contrast aesthetic would evoke “a cross between film noir and the really crazy stuff you see in early television, like Playhouse 90 or One Step Beyond,” said production designer John Muto.

Like most of the other interior shots in Home Alone, including all the scenes inside the McCallister family home, the sequence was shot on a sound stage in the abandoned New Trier West High School gymnasium. The entire set consisted of just a couple of walls. (Webster suspects that the walls were reused in the “real world” of the movie, for the set of the police office. “We didn’t have the biggest construction budget.”)

Johnny’s office was designed especially for maximum dramatic backlighting potential: pebbly-textured translucent glass on the door and a Palladian window that would sinisterly spotlight him at his desk through Venetian blinds.

As I suggested earlier, Home Alone is a well-oiled machine, and of course, true to the principle of Chekhov’s gun, Angels with Dirty Souls shows up again, and again, used by Kevin as part of his whole-house booby trap strategy. The second time, he’s trying to foil the inept crook Marv (Daniel Stern).

Hughes and Columbus were not done with Angels with Filthy Souls. Its sequel — Angels with Even Filthier Souls — shows up in their 1992 sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and repetitively is used to scare the officious concierge at the Plaza Hotel (Tim Curry).

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.