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.
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):
I don’t believe I’ve ever written about a movie-in-documentary scene. But I couldn’t resist featuring this bit from the third episode of Martin Scorsese Netflix documentary about Fran Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City. Lebowitz is complaining (three words that anyone describing the series will use pretty often) about New York City taxicabs, in particular the little screens built into the back of the front seat on which continuously stream various kinds of content. Lebowitz says she doesn’t know how to turn them off, and we cut to a scene where she tries to and fails:
That’s Scorsese, of course, saying “He just got out of prison.” It didn’t take much searching to discover that the clip is from a public-service announcement that was shown in movie theaters in 2009, encouraging people to turn off their cell phones. So much for the power of advertising.
It’s a pretty delicious in-joke for a series that’s quite elegantly made and is filled with nice touches. And here, for your information, is the whole commercial — whose title, when it went up for awards and such, was simply “Scorsese.”
Parts I and II of this roundup have taken note of a striking degree of self-consciousness in early movies, maybe not surprising considering that the medium was so new and so popular. And there are even more silent movies about the movies than the ones I did and will discuss, including Will Rogers’ Doubling for Romeo (1921), Hollywood (1923), Mary of the Movies (1923), and Fascinating Youth (1926).
As far as I know (none are readily available and Hollywood and FascinatingYouth are lost), none of those have movie-in-movie scenes. Show People (1928) does. It’s in some ways the mirror image of Souls for Sale: they share a storyline of an unknown actress making it in the movies and a lot of inside Hollywood stuff, including many cameos. (Appearing as themselves in the later film are the director, King Vidor, as well as John Gilbert, Mae Murray, Elinor Glyn, Lew Cody, Aileen Pringle, Karl Dane, George K. Arthur, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and William S. Hart.) But Souls for Sale makes the case for pathos and melodrama as the movies’ killer app, while Show People flies the banner of comedy.
Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried in the current Netflix film Mank) is Peggy Pepper, a Georgia girl who wants to make it in pictures. But unlike Mem in Souls for Sale, she’s got a talent for comedy, revealed in her reaction to being sprayed with seltzer in her very first scene. The script called for her to get hit in the face with a pie. But Davies’ lover, William Randolph Hearst, objected to this and Vidor changed the scene. (Not sure if seltzer is more dignified than custard.) And by the way, at least until Mank came along, the widespread sense was that Davies was a no-talent trophy mistress — established mainly by the famous Citizen Kane shot of a stagehand holding his nose at the Davies character’s performance. But she is really good in Show People.
The clip — from Vimeo, with subtitles in Spanish and English — starts with the seltzer scene, then moves on to a sneak preview of the picture. Next to Davies in the theater and (with added mustache) sharing a bicycle with her in the unnamed comedy is Billy Boone (William Haines); the guy punching the air with enthusiasm (and offering the timeless acting advice, “Don’t anticipate!”) is the director of the movie-in-movie, played by Harry Gribbon.
I’ve given this post a “The transporting power of popular film” tag, bestowed when a movie-in-movie, usually a comedy, is shown giving an audience joy. (Sullivan’s Travels, a photo from which is at the top of the blog, is still to me the greatest example.) But the sort of film Peggy wants to act in is exemplified by the feature that follows the sneak preview.
If you didn’t watch the above clip above, I hope you do so now, because I think it’s my favorite of all the dozens on this blog, partly because the brief scene from Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) — with John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman (from Souls for Sale) — represents the very first example I’ve found of a real movie being shown in another movie. But even greater than that is the kind of magnificent humility it shows on Vidor’s part. You see, Vidor also directed Bardelys, and for him to mock it here, to the point of having Billy call it a “punk drama” … well, self-consciousness doesn’t get any better than that.
The clip ends with a delicious Easter Egg featuring a cameo from the biggest movie star of all, who actually was known for collecting autographs.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), which was directed by Anthony Asquith and subsequently retitled Escape from Dartmoor, is a fitting end to the roundup: not only is it on the cusp of the transition to sound films, but it addresses the transition to sound films. The movie-in-movie scene is a whopping twelve and a half minutes long, rivaling those in A Star Is Bornand New York, New York. But, as we’ll see, there’s a key difference.
At a barbershop, customer Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) flirts with manicurist Sally (Norah Baring) and asks (we read in a title), “Will you come with me to a talkie to-night?” She apparently says yes, because in the very next scene, they’re settling into their seats. And here’s the difference from every other movie featured in this blog: from this point till the end of the sequence, we don’t see what’s going on on onscreen, only the reactions of the audience. It’s a tour de force on the part of director Asquith, not entirely successful, but you have to give him credit for trying.
And there’s a lot that’s interesting in the sequence, to be sure. We do get some internal clues as to what they’re watching, including a brief shot of what appears to be a poster:
The Harold Lloyd picture is a silent — and there are plenty of shots of the full orchestra that accompanies it. (The inventive score on the Vimeo print is by Peter Reiter.) Thirteen years on fromLuke’s Movie Muddle, Lloyd has acquired a mature style, stardom, and trademark eyeglasses. This clip starts with the orchestra, moves to on to creepy Joe (Uno Henning), who’s stalking Harry and Sally, and ends with the cleverest bit in the sequence, which is based on the recognizability of Lloyd’s eyewear.
Asquith himself plays the bespectacled moviegoer.
Schlettow was German and Henning Swedish (back in silent days, that type of international casting was easier), and A Cottage on Dartmoor was a joint British-Swedish production. The movie-house scene is quite different in the version released in Sweden, which I haven’t seen. It’s apparently a good seven minutes shorter, and clips of Lloyd’s Hot Water (1924) are actually seen.
As I said, A Cottage on Dartmoor, a silent film, addresses the imminent move to sound films — and not in a positive way. You can tell Asquith’s position on the matter by the poster advertising an “ALL TALKING!! ALL SINGING!! ALL DANCING!!” adaptation of a play by Shakespeare, misspelled. Then there’s the audience reaction — which varies from engagement, to befuddlement (the old woman with an ear trumpet who can’t hear what’s going on), to boredom: the orchestra members pass around beer and sandwiches and play cards, and at least two people in the audience fall asleep.
According to the British Film Institute, this sequence originally had a soundtrack, but it’s now lost. Reiter’s scoring on Vimeo print contains some dialogue supposedly from My Woman. It’s muffled for the most part, but at one point you clearly hear a woman’s voice saying, “I think I’ve lost one of my gloves. I think I left it at the other table.” That sounded familiar to me — and sure enough, it’s from Alfred Hitchock’s Blackmail, which came out a few months earlier than Cottage but was a talkie, British film’s first. Slipping those lines in was an amazing move on Reiter’s part, and I take my hat off to him.