‘Daughter of Horror’ (‘Dementia’) in ‘The Blob’

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Among the many strange things about Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958) is the notion that the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, could fill nearly all its seats with a midnight showing of the extremely obscure Dementia, a 58-minute dialogue-less reverie of a woman’s nightmare. When that film opened in 1955, Variety said it was “Maybe the strangest film ever offered for theatrical release.” It was recut and retitled, as Daughter of Horror, and a voice-over narration by future Tonight show sidekick Ed McMahon was added, but it didn’t do any better at the box office.

Anyway, another odd thing is that Yeaworth lights the audience at the Colonial (which is still in operation, barely forty miles from where I’m writing this) about as brightly as if they were taking a walk under the noonday sun. And another: when we initially see them, they watching creepy sights and listening to Ed McMahon say, “Now all the images of horror, the demons of your mind, crowd in on you to destroy you.” But they are looking at Daughter of Horror as impassively as if it were a Chevy commercial. This film demands a response! The second reaction shot at least shows them starting to titter, and by the third, they’re laughing uproariously. Unfortunately, by this time, bad things are happening to the Colonial’s projectionist, who is also sunnily lit and who has left himself vulnerable to blobby mischief by burying his nose in a book.

I can laugh all I want at The Blob, but (according to Wikipedia) it had a budget of $110,000 and earned $4 million at the box office, for a return on investment of more than 3500 percent.  Mental Floss’s list of the twenty most profitable movies of all time is topped by Paranormal Activity (2007), with a ROI of 19,749 percent and The Devil Inside (2012) at 3632 percent. The Blob should be number 3 but is absent from the list. Which goes to show, blobs don’t get no respect.

‘An Affair to Remember’ in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’

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Rosie O’Donell and Meg Ryan bonding over “An Affair to Remember”

All movies are about movies, but Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) is about movies more than most. The characters habitually measure their own lives against what they’ve seen onscreen. Sam (Tom Hanks), a recently widowed architect, thinks about inviting a potential date over to look at swatches, but then muses that Cary Grant wouldn’t be caught dead looking at swatches with a woman. His ten-year-old son, Jonah, asks whether Sam will have sex with the swatch-woman; Sam, in a rookie move, says yes. Jonah tells him to be careful: “In movies, women are always scratching up the man’s back and screaming.”

All told, the words “movie” or “movies” appear fifteen times in Ephron’s screenplay.

The most movie-obsessed character, by far, is Annie (Meg Ryan), whom we see in an early scene watching An Affair To Remember (1957), starring the aforementioned Grant, on TV with her best friend, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell). After some portentous dialogue between the impossibly handsome and tanned Grant and Deborah Kerr, Annie laments, “Those were the days when people knew how to be in love…. It was right. It was real. It was …”

Becky breaks in: “… a movie. That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”

In a clever conceit, all females in this film are obsessed with An Affair to Remember, including an Empire State Building Security guard’s wife and Sam’s sister, Suzy (Rita Wilson), who can’t even summarize the plot without breaking into tears. Her husband, Greg (Victor Garber) teams up with Sam for a very funny response.

(In a piece of dialogue that apparently was cut from the shooting script, a detective Annie has hired to stalk Sam says she reminds him of “Glenn Close in that movie,” i.e., Fatal Attraction.)

Ephron has movies on her mind too: Sleepless is a love letter not so much to the ’50s women’s picture weepy An Affair to Remember as to the classic screwball comedies of the ’30s and early ’40s, the best of which, like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, featured Grant. Bill Pullman plays the Ralph Bellamy role–the well-meaning but terminally dull fiancee Walter. Ryan’s a reporter, like Rosalind Russell in Friday and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe. And Hanks and Ryan are the impossibly good-looking (though not tanned) leads, whose love has a supernatural sway over the actions and intentions of mere mortals. Just like in the movies.

(The clip below starts with the movie-on-movie scene, which ends at about the 2:30 mark. Because of technical difficulties, I was unable to trim the rest of the clip. It doesn’t have any movie-watching stuff, but it’s pretty good. In fact, I recommend watching the whole movie if you haven’t seen it recently. As of last week it was streaming for free on Verizon Fios On Demand.)

 

‘Task Force’ in ‘White Heat’

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Verna, Ma, and Cody at the drive-in

The heyday of the American gangster movie lasted eighteen years. It started in 1931 with Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, and The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and ended in 1949 with Cagney’s White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh. (All three are Warner Brothers productions and are on the American Film Institute’s list of the top ten gangster movies of all time. Chronologically, the one after White Heat is Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, also by Warners.)

White Heat pointed the way forward in a number of ways. It had the kind of gritty semi-documentary style scene in crime films of the late ’40s and ’50s like Naked City, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Killing. It had the dark psychological themes of the emerging film noir genre, especially in the portrait of Cagney’s character, sadistic gangster Cody Jarrett. Cody suffers debilitating headaches, comforted only by the Oedipal ministrations of his Ma (Margaret Wycherly), who massages his neck and invites him to sit in her lap.

And it had a modern movie-in-movie scene. It occurs early on, when Cody, Ma, and his girlfriend, Verna (Virginia Mayo), are being chased by the cops. Needless to say, Ma is sitting next to Cody, Verna riding shotgun. He pulls in to the San Val Drive In theater in Burbank (the country’s second drive-in, opened in 1938), as the police cars speed past, sirens blaring. Taking his money, the ticket-taker says, “It happens every night. Ruins the movie.”

The movie is Warner Brothers Task Force, which was still a few weeks from release at the time of White Heat‘s premiere. (And therein lies a goof. A sharp-eyed poster to a website about movie theaters points out that the marquee announces two different 1949 movies, the western South of St. Louis and the exotic fantasy Siren of Atlantis.) I haven’t seen Task Force, but according to the IMDB description, it’s apparently a history of aircraft carriers seen through the eyes of a fictional admiral played by Gary Cooper. In any case, all the explosions and mayhem are too much for Cody, possibly because he feels a headache coming on. After an attendant puts a speaker inside the car (I just barely remember that technology), he orders Verna, “Kill that.”

After Verna’s sarcastic comment about the second feature, Cody outlines his plans for escape. Just before he bolts the car, he kisses both ladies goodbye–lingering just a little more on Ma than on Verna.

 

‘Gilda’ in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

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Rita Hayworth in “Gilda”

I consider The Shawshank Redemption (1994) one of the most entertaining movies of the last twenty-five years, in large part because it has such a great story to tell. And at the heart of that story is the movie-in-movie scene.

As with Sullivan’s Travels and O Brother, Where Art Thou, the movie-watching takes place in a prison. Red (Morgan Freeman) and the other inmates in the Shawshank Penitentiary are raptly taking in Gilda (1946). Specifically, they are taking in the first appearance in the film of Rita Hayworth. Following some banter between Glenn Ford and George Macready, director Charles Vidor shows Hayworth’s glamorous head springing up, nearly filling the frame. The guys in the audience go wild. Inmate Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sidles in and starts to say something but Red shushes him, “This is the part I really like,” he says. “When she does that shit with her hair.”

The scene is one of the key points on which Shawshank‘s writer and director, Frank Darabont, departs from the movie’s source, Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” King, more realistically, has the prison screening the alcohol-is-bad message movie The Lost Weekend (1945). But Gilda works better, both for the hooping-and-hollering reaction and because it works with what Andy has to say to Red, who’s known for procuring all sorts of goods for the inmates.

“What do you want?” he asks Andy.

“Rita Hayworth,” comes the reply. “Can you get her?”

For the few out there who haven’t seen Shawshank, I won’t spoil their pleasure by revealing what Andy means, whether Red comes through, or what the request means for both of their fates.

‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’

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Ginger Rogers, backed up by coin-wielding chorines, is “in the money”

There’s probably no more ironic movie-in-other-movie than the use of a scene from the backstage musical Gold Diggers of 1933 in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Aspirational outlaws Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) graduate from small-time heists to a proper bank robbery but the getaway is delayed because their  driver, C.W., has unaccountably decided to parallel park the car. A lawman jumps on the running board and Clyde shoots him in the face.

Cut to the interior of a movie theater where the three robbers have sought refuge. As Clyde berates C.W., we see the “We’re in the Money” production number from Gold Diggers. In this Busby Berkeley spectacular, the scenery consists of giant legal tender. Ginger Rogers and the other chorus girls wear costumes made of coins; they wield a giant coin in each hand for a sort of fan dance, while a third one covers their private parts. They sing:

We’re in the money,
We’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money,
The sky is sunny;
Old Man Depression, you are through,
You done us wrong!
We never see a headline
‘Bout breadline, today,
And when we see the landlord,
We can look that guy right in the eye.

(Ginger later runs through the whole thing in pig Latin, in extreme and disconcerting close-up.)

Irony number one: far from being “through,” Old Man Depression would stick around another eight years.

Irony number two: while Bonnie and Clyde may be in the money for the moment, it’s a pretty sure bet–given the ineptitude already on display–that it won’t last.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

‘See You Next Wednesday’ and ‘The Muppets Show’ in ‘An American Werewolf in London’

 

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In a Facebook discussion of this blog, a friend, Dan Rubin, suggested writing about the use of See You Next Wednesday in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1983).

See You Next Wednesday didn’t ring a bell so I Googled it and got led down a surprising rabbit hole. SYNW turns out to be a treasured in-joke of Landis’s. There’s a reference to an imaginary movie of that name in sixteen of the films, music videos, and television episodes he’s directed, from his first film, Schlock (1973), to an episode of Masters of Horror that aired in 2006.

Most of the time SYNW appears either in a line of dialogue or on a movie marquee or poster. Here’s a mashup of a bunch of them. According to the boffins at Wikipedia, the ostensibly actual film is seen only in American Werewolf.

(Landis’s better-known running in-joke is his one-up-on-Hitchcock penchant for putting cameos of fellow directors into his movies, sometimes multiple times. Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz are both in The Blues Brothers; Beverly Hills Cop III features Joe Dante, Martha Coolidge, Ray Harryhausen, Arthur Hiller, Barbet Schroeder, John Singleton, and George Lucs; and Amy Hecklerling, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme, Paul Mazursky, Roger Vadim, and Lawrence Kasdan all turn up in Into the Night.)

The movie-in-movie scene comes near the end of American Werewolf. While a wolf, the title character, David (David Naughton), has killed his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne). Now in human form, he sees Jack, in the body of a zombie, beckoning him into a Piccadilly Circus cinema. He finds Jack in the dark theater and they and we watch a bit of the porno See You Next Wednesday.

“Good movie,” comments David, reminiscent of a line in The Last Picture Show. In that film the reference was to Red River and the statement was true. I can’t say I’d apply it either to See You Next Wednesday or the pretty dated American Werewolf in London.

Incidentally, the IMDB page for American Werewolf claims that the See You Next Wednesday scene came from Landis’s earlier Schlock. That’s not true, as Landis explained in an interview with The Guardian. “When I was working [in London] in the 1970s, I went to those little cartoon theaters they had, such as the Eros on Piccadilly,” he said. “So in the original script, I had him going into the Eros and there was a Road Runner cartoon playing. But when I got back to London in 1980, all these theaters had become pornos. So I had to change the script to show a porno called, in the best smutty British tradition, See You Next Wednesday. We made the porno ourselves and it was the first scene we shot. It starred Linzi Drew, who was a Page 3 girl at the time; she went on to have an impressive porn career.”

Elsewhere in the film, David has a nightmare in which a peaceful family viewing of The Muppets Show is interrupted by a home invasion of mutant Nazi zombies.

 

Muppets puppeteer Frank Oz turns up briefly in American Werewolf as an American embassy worker. His line, “These dumb ass kids never appreciate anything you do for them,” is an in-joke reference to the cancellation of The Muppet Show. It was Landis’s first director cameo, and a prescient one, too: Oz wouldn’t direct his first film, The Dark Crystal (a collaboration with Jim Henson) until the following year.

‘Father of the Bride’ and ‘Red River’ in ‘The Last Picture Show’

bogdanovich-last-picture-show1Set in rural Texas in 1951, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) is informed and sometimes seemingly suffused with the entertainment of the period. That’s most noticeable on the soundtrack. Pop music provides a near-continual backdrop, including such songs (according to the American Film Institute website) as

“Blue Velvet,” “Slow Poke,” “A Fool Such as I,” “Kawliga” and “Jambalaya.” The onscreen credits include the following acknowledgment: “For their music we thank Hank Williams; Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, courtesy of MGM Records; Eddy Arnold; Eddie Fisher; Phil Harris; Pee Wee King; Hank Snow, courtesy of RCA Records; Tony Bennett; Lefty Frizzell; Frankie Laine; Johnnie Ray, courtesy of Columbia Records; Johnny Standley; Kay Starr; Hank Thompson, courtesy of Capitol Records, Inc.; Webb Pierce; Jo Stafford, courtesy of Decca Records.”

The list conjures up on a pre-rock-and-roll world and time all by its lonesome. Bogdanovich frequently uses the music as ironic counterpoint to the characters’ world. In one early scene, the town icy beauty, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shephard), applies cold cream to her face while Tony Bennett’s Hank Williams cover “Cold, Cold Heart” plays on the radio.

And in Jacy’s house the television set is constantly going; on it we see scenes from Your Show of Shows and Strike It Rich. As her parents are wealthy and miserable, the latter game show counts for more ironic commentary.

But the movies are key. Although The Last Picture Show was adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel, both the title and theme were perfect for Bogdanovich, a movie critic before he started directing and, then and now, a champion of classic American film. Both plot developments and the era see to it that the “picture show”–in better times the center of town life–must close. As the cashier/popcorn vendor/manager tells high school friends Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), “Nobody wants to come to the shows no more. Baseball in the summer, television all the time.”

The Last Picture Show is anchored by two movie-in-movie scenes in which the idealized material on the screen contrasts ironically (again) with the grim reality the characters are living. In McMurtry’s novel, the characters go to the movies to see the 1951 Ronald Reagan-Doris Day melodrama Storm Warning, described this way by IMDB:

Marsha Mitchell, a traveling dress model, stops in a southern town to see her sister who has married a Ku Klux Klansman. Marsha sees the KKK commit a murder and helps District Attorney Burt Rainey in bringing the criminals to justice.

Bogdanovich switches it, big time. Early on Sonny meets his steady girlfriend, Charlene (Sharon Taggert) at the picture show to watch a scene in the affectionate comedy Father of the Bride (1950) in which the Spencer Tracy character greets his daughter, Elizabeth Taylor.

Tracy: What’s happened to you? You look different.

Taylor: I do?

Tracy: Yeah. You look all lit-up inside. You’re not wearing your usual deadpan look, your how-did-I-get-in-this-family? look.

Sonny and Charlene move to the back row for a make-out session. All the while Sonny keeps his eyes on the illuminated visage of the girl of his and so many young men’s dreams, Elizabeth Taylor.

At the end of the novel, McMurtry’s characters watch an Audie Murphy western, The Kid from Texas. Bogdanovich swaps this one Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. One possible reason for the switch is that the Hawks film is in black and white, as is The Last Picture Show–a daring move for a studio film in 1971. Another is that Red River is one of the greatest westerns of all time, maybe the greatest. And the scene that unfolds before Sonny and Duane and the other one or two patrons  is one of the most thrilling examples of anticipation and release–and use of close-up montage–in the history of movies, the start of the cattle drive. As Duane says to Sonny as they walk out, “That was a good movie.”

One final touch. Outside the picture show lobby in the Father of the Bride scene is a poster advertising a coming attraction, another western, John Ford’s Wagon Master.  It happens to have been the first starring role of one of Ford’s company of “players,” Ben Jonson. It’s the same Ben Jonson who plays the moral center of The Last Picture Show, Sam “the Lion,” stealing the picture and winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.