‘Four Heads Are Better Than One’ in ‘The Conquerers’

Previous posts have put forth some movie-in-movie firsts (list at the bottom of this post). Today we take a look at the first sound film (or the first I’ve found) to have such a scene. It’s William Wellman’s The Conquerors (1932), a multi-generational epic in which characters played by Richard Dix and Ann Harding go west in the 1870s and go through a remarkable amount of stuff in a mere 86 minutes.

In the scene in question, Harding goes to a picture show with her grandson, Roger (Wally Albright).

Several notable things about this sequence:

  • It’s a sort of early master class in film editing, probably the work of Slavko Vorkapich, known as the master of montage. First we see young Roger paging through a magazine article about the Praxinoscope, an animation device invented in 1877 and considered a precursor to cinema proper. Then we see…
  • Roger and his grandmother enter a movie house to see “Life Size Moving Pictures.” Inside, a title reads, “Ladies, Please Remove Your Hats”–which cannot help bringing to mind the first movie-in-movie movie, “Those Awful Hats.”
  • The movie they watch is George Méliès’ early masterpiece of illusion, “Four Heads Are Better Than One.” It’s a bit anachronistic since the newsreels place the scene in late 1903 or early 1904 and “Four Heads” dates from 1898, but that’s okay.
  • The transition at the end of the clip from the Wright brothers’ flight to the flipping calendars to planes filling the sky is interesting in the light of Wellman’s biography. Like Roger in the film, he was a fighter pilot in World War I, and he went on the make numerous aviation-themed movies, notably Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1927.

So here are the firsts we have so far (all subject to change, of course):

First movie-in-movie: Those Awful Hats (1909).

First real movie-in-movie: Show People (1928).

First movie-in-sound-movie: The Conquerers (1932).

First sound-movie-in-movie: Sabotage (1936).

First non-animated-sound-movie-in-movie (fake): Saboteur (1942).

First non-animated-movie-in-sound-movie (real): White Heat (1949).

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