‘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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‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in ‘Home Alone,’ ‘Bruce Almighty,’ and, well, practically everything.

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A mashup of this movie and TV series would be called “My So-Called Wonderful Life.”

A couple of posts ago, I suggested that Brief Encounter may hold the record for being used in the most other movies. Ben Zimmer, whom I sometimes think of as my own personal fact-checker, begged to differ. He nominated Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the record-holder, and while I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure Ben is right. The Films in Films blog lists fourteen separate movies containing IAWL clips, starting with Music of the Heart; Bruce Almighty; Gremlins; Android; The Big Picture; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; Money Train; Look Who’s Talking; The Ref; Meet Dave; Menace II Society; Trauma; and Nuovo Cinema Paradiso. In Home Alone, the movie is dubbed into French.

The sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, in a callback, has a Spanish version of IAWL.

The IMDB “Connections” feature, unbelievably, lists fifteen more films in which It’s a Wonderful Life is shown, including Doc Hollywood, Deadly Obsession, and Same Kind of Different For Me. IMDB also says the Capra film is watched by characters in at least twenty television series, including My So-Called Life, Roseanne, Muppet Babies, Cheers, and, of course, The Sopranos.

Every single one of those movies and episodes was made after 1974, and ten of the fourteen movies on the Films in Films list came out between 1974 and 1993. Those dates are significant because during that twenty-year period, through a quirk in copyright law, It’s a Wonderful Life was in the public domain. As a result it aired repeatedly on TV during the Christmas season and came to be seen as the quintessential Christmas movie.

Thus a well-chosen and well-placed clip from the movie can make a potent counterpoint to the doings in any holiday-set film. And best of all, in the twenty-year public domain period, you didn’t have to pay for the rights! As Louisa Mellor wrote on Den of Geek!:

If [a TV] episode needs to quickly establish that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s as easy as inserting a few seconds of Clarence and George into a scene. If a film wants to evoke cynicism around the festive period, then its characters need simply complain, Al Bundy-style, that there’s never anything else on TV. When creatives want to piggyback on some ready-made sentiment or create unlikely juxtapositions then, copyright permitting, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are their guys.

Tom Shadyac directed Bruce Almighty in 2003, at which point It’s a Wonderful Life was no longer in the public domain, but Spyglass Entertainment and Universal Pictures evidently thought they could afford the licensing fee. The film is used not for cynicism, sentiment, or juxtaposition, but for some clever mirroring, similar to the way The Quiet Man is used in E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Despite temporarily becoming God, Bruce (Jim Carrey) is having romantic troubles with his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), not so subtly named Grace. He’s at a party, and wants her to come, but she won’t pick up the phone when she calls. So he does a bit of divine intervention and makes a certain movie come on her TV. Jimmy Stewart’s line “I’ll give you the moon, Mary” is a reference to an earlier romantic moment in Bruce, and is guaranteed to do the trick.

 

‘Maresi’ (?) in ‘The Third Man’

In writing the previous post, on the use of Brief Encounter in numerous films, I learned that the British Film Institute once chose The Third Man (1949) as the greatest British film of all time. I was therefore happy to have a chance to see Carol Reed’s noir classic recently, on the big screen of the Prytania Theatre in New Orleans, in magnificent black and white.

And what do you know, there is a movie-in-movie scene. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American just arrived in post-war Vienna, finds himself investigating some shady doings. In this scene, accompanied by actress Anna Schmidt (Allida Valli), he is about to question the porter of an apartment building. However, it turns out that the porter is dead, and his little son points to Holly as being the killer. There ensues an almost comically low-speed chase, accompanied by the movie’s defining zither music, with the little kid somehow being the fastest pursuer.

Holly and Anna duck in to a movie theater, which inspired me to add a new tag to the blog: “On the run.”

 

 

As you’ve observed, we don’t see the movie, only hear it. That makes it hard to identify, even more so when (like me) you don’t understand German. A clue is the title on the marquee of the theater:

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IMDB reveals that Maresi was indeed an Austrian film, released in 1948, and starring Maria Schell. The indefatigable Ben Zimmer has unearthed a plot summary (translated from the German by Google Translate): “An aging nobleman shoots his favorite horse, Maresi, who has sunk to the cab of a hawk, to spare him a dignified age – at least to him.”

Of course, movie continuity follows its own rules: the interior scenes might have been shot in a different theater or a sound stage, and the audio might have been from a different film.

So I appeal to speakers of German and/or scholars of Austrian film? What can you tell me about the movie that’s playing while Holly and Anna plot their next move?

Update: Hari List, who runs Bruttofilmlandsprodukt.net, a blog and podcast dedicated to Austrian film and TV, responded to my request for information on Twitter, where his handle is @HariLi. He reported that he was unable to find out anything about the soundtrack we hear when Holly and Anna are in the cinema.

It sounds “old”, as in bad speakers or gramophone. The dialogue is pretty basic, borderline nonsensical. It could be from an old movie that has been badly dubbed, but the dialogue stops when Holly and Anna talk and then resumes. Has to be a nondiegetic track, probably recorded just for that, which makes sense from the filmmakers standpoint. [“Diegetic music in a film or TV programme is part of the action and can be heard by the characters.”–Cambridge English Dictionary.] Also the audience smirks don’t fit, because nothing funny or in anyway emotional was said.  Lastly, the movies listed out front: Irrtum im Jenseits is Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death, Feuervogel is part one of the two-part cinema cut of the western series Miracle Rider (1936) with — as  seen — Tom Mix. On top it probably says Glück muß man haben (You have to be lucky) …which is a German film from 1945, that premiered 1950 – so again some timeline issues but it says “our next movies”, so it’s an announcement. Vier Humoresken was probably an individual comedy shorts program. Btw the cinema still exists, but is a stage theater now.”

 

“Brief Encounter” in “A Touch of Class,” “84 Charing Cross Road,” and “Truly Madly Deeply”

The 1945 British film Brief Encounter — directed by David Lean, screenplay by Noel Coward, based on his play — may hold the record for the movie that’s watched in the greatest number of other movies. In addition to the three examples discussed in this post, IMDB’s valuable (though sometimes overpopulated) “Connections” department lists it as being featured in The Mirror Has Two Faces, Till There Was You, and Brick Lane, as well as the TV movies The Heidi Chronicles, Daisies in December, and The Care and Handling of Roses, plus various television episodes.

Why the attraction? It’s not simply that Brief Encounter is a classic. (In 1999, the British Film Institute voted it that country’s second best movie of all time, behind only The Third Man.) Beyond that, the film, with its thoroughly decent, stiff-upper-lip, and ultimately self-sacrificing lovers — the black-and-white photography being a kind of spartan objective correlative — is an emblem for a certain vision of romance, and thus a counterpoint to (and occasionally model for) the many, many other kinds of romance that movies portray.

In Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class (1973), the contrast couldn’t be starker. After meeting cute what seems like eleven times, the characters played by the startlingly young, slim, sharply dressed, and good-looking Glenda Jackson (Vickie) and George Segal (Steve) embark on a strictly-for-sex affair. In Brief Encounter both of the lovers are married, but here Vickie is divorced, which hints at the unequal dynamics at play. Steve wants to have it both ways, which is in keeping with his me-me-me sense of the world; he’s always shown scurrying off from the opera intermission to shtup Vickie at their love nest, then hurrying back to his seat next to his wife before the end of the next act. The puzzlement of the movie is why Vickie — who, as a Glenda Jackson character, is required to be clear-eyed and intelligent — doesn’t dump Steve.

The answer — that she has fallen in love with him, and he with her — is supplied in the movie-in-movie scene, in which they watch Trevor Howard breaks bad news to Celia Johnson. The scene is asked to do the work that’s absent in the screenplay, their boo-hooing supposedly showing the relationship has reached a new level of intimacy and care. Then the alarm rings, and Steve scurries back to his family.

David Jones’s 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) is about an American writer, played by Anne Bancroft, who carries on a two-decade correspondence (1950s and ’60s) with the buyer at a London bookshop, played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s married and they never meet; the love that Brief Encounter reflects is her Anglophilia. Her fascination with the film seems to extend to the ash of her cigarette (yes, young’uns, smoking in cinemas used to be allowed), curling and lengthening but so wrapped up in the oh-so-Englishness of the movie that it doesn’t drop.

And now for something different, Anthony Minghella’s 1990 film Truly Madly Deeply. The love story here is between Nina (Juliet Stevenson) and her  boyfriend, Jamie (Alan Rickman), who keeps turning up even though he is dead. But this is no Ghost: Jamie is sniffling, needy, and annoying. And so are his movie-buff mates, who show up at en masse, wrap themselves in cozy duvets, and make trainspotting comments while watching the 1917 Charlie Chaplin comedy Easy Street. (Like many movie buffs, myself include, they are prone to error; one guy identifies the big comic as “Eric Stewart Campbell”; in fact, his given name was Alfred Eric Campbell. It is true that he died in a car crash shortly after making this film.)

The guys may be well-schooled in cinema, but they’re not too sophisticated to be wrapped up in Brief Encounter, reciting the final lines along with the Johnson character’s husband, and slow clapping their approval after “The End” rolls.

 

 

 

 

‘The Quiet Man’ in ‘E.T. the Extraterrestrial’

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Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man”; can of Coors on the table.

Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg are sometimes known as “the film school generation.” De Palma and Spielberg didn’t actually go to film school, but the designation fits because all five are lifetime students and devotees of the directors and movies that came before them.

One of Spielberg’s heroes and mentors is John Ford (1894-1973). The younger director once said, “I try to rent a John Ford film … before I start every movie, simply because he inspires me … He’s like a classic painter:  he celebrates the frame, not just what’s inside it.” Spielberg offered his most explicit Ford homage in  E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). The scene is also an unusual one for Movies in Other Movies. Usually, the film-within-a-film provides an ironic counterpoint or commentary on the main action. But Spielberg veritably mirrors Ford.

The scene takes place early in the film. Young Elliott (Henry Thomas) has encountered, befriended, and brought to his room a lovable alien creature. Being a boy, Elliott has to go to school; E.T.,  left to his own devices, raids the fridge for food and beers. He also gets hold of a Speak & Spell, which Wikipedia calls “one of the earliest handheld electronic devices with a visual display to use interchangeable game cartridges. E. T. will eventually hack the device in his attempt to phone home. For now, he uses it both as a television remote control and, it seems, to mind-meld with Elliott.

(I’ll note here that E.T. includes other movies as well: E.T.  is horrified by the Tom and Jerry short “The Mouse Comes to Dinner” and watches the films This Island Earth and Michael the Brave; Elliott’s sister, Gertie, watches Sesame Street.)

Showing on the TV is a famous scene from Ford’s The Quiet Man (1953). In that movie, John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an American returning to his ancestral Irish home. In the town, he spotted and become intrigued by a fiery (of course) redhead, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). He buys a cottage and when he goes to inspect it, he comes upon Mary Kate, who’s been tidying up in a neighborly act. She’s scared and tries to run away, but he… Well, let’s watch along with E.T., who’s deeply affected by the scene and telepathically directs Elliott to reenact it (as well as to release biology-class frogs from imminent dissection).

 

 

 

 

To contemporary eyes, Sean’s romantic moves (and Elliott’s, too, for that matter) may seem a little grabby. On that point, I introduce the testimony of Sabienna Bowman, writing in the feminist magazine Bustle on the occasion of O’Hara’s death, in 2015 at the age of 95. Bowman says the kiss between Mary Kate and Sean is

not just the most memorable moment, but the one that is impossible to forget thanks to the passion O’Hara infuses into Mary Kate’s actions. To fully appreciate the scene, you must put yourself into a ’50s state of mind: Mary Kate enters Sean’s house unaccompanied (a huge taboo for an unmarried woman at the time) with the intent to clean it — but it is obvious she’s curious about this attractive American.

There is a moment when Sean realizes Mary Kate is in the house that she attempts to flee out into the raging winds. The cinematography only adds to the emotional rawness of the scene as Mary Kate’s red hair ripples in the wind and Sean snatches her arm and pulls her to him. It’s a typical move from the ’50s era idea of the perfect, bold American man that was Wayne, but it is Mary Kate’s response to his actions that makes this scene a classic. He pulls her in and kisses her, and then she throws a solid slap his way. It doesn’t land, but with her temper flaring and indignation written all over her face, O’Hara’s talent is breathtaking.

If you want to judge for yourself, here’s the full scene from The Quiet Man.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ in ‘Two Weeks in Another Town’

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Had to create a new tag for this one: “Watching yourself.” Like Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution, Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) has a scene where a character watches an actual movie that the actor playing that character was actually in. In Minnelli’s film, Kirk Douglas plays Jack Andrus, a washed-up star who travels from the loony bin to Rome to help out his old director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson), who’s one costume epic from being washed up himself.

As a sort of pep talk, Kruger screens one of his and Andrus’s past triumphs to his current cigarette-loving troupe. The movie turns out to be The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), also a movie about the movies that starred Douglas, was directed by Minnelli, produced by John Houseman, and written by Charles Schnee.

Got that?

But the ploy backfires, to contemporary eyes and ears, at any rate. The Bad and the Beautiful footage is spitting with energy and riveting, despite the wide lapels, black-and-white stock, and scenery-chewing by Douglas (as a heel of a movie producer) and Lana Turner (as a small-time actress with daddy and alcohol issues). And to be sure, that’s to some extent why it’s here. As Kruger says, “Take a good look at a movie that was made because we couldn’t sleep unless we made it.”

The trouble is, the Bad stuff makes the newer film come off as even weaker than it already shown itself to be, which is saying something. Two Weeks in Another Town was the wrong film at the wrong time. Early ’60s Hollywood was just not up to dealing frankly and cinematically with sexuality, alcoholism, mental illness, despair, and orgiastic Rome parties, to name just a few of the movie’s elements, and their treatment here yields unintentional comedy.  (Actual Italian films, like 8 1/2, released in 1963, were equipped to do a whole lot better with this sort of thing.) And whenever George Hamilton is on screen as an intense James Dean–like young actor, the laugh quotient just gets higher.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. The Bad and the Beautiful got five Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Gloria Grahame), as well as a Best Actor nomination for Douglas. Two Weeks in Another Town got shut out at the Oscars, lost $3 million at the box office and received a well-deserved pan from Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who wrote, “The whole thing is a lot of glib trade patter, ridiculous and unconvincing snarls and a weird professional clash between the actor and director that is like something out of a Hollywood cartoon.”

 

‘Three’s Company’ in ‘Friends’

This scene appeared in 1994, in the second episode (the first, if you don’t count the pilot) of the NBC sitcom Friends.

The fifteen-second sequence suggests some of the things I like, and don’t like, about Friends. On the like side: the reference to Three’s Company is canny. That comedy, which aired from 1977 till 1984, was also about a coed group of young people who lived in proximity to each other (Friends doubled the number to six) and relied a lot on sex jokes and innuendo. But with this early scene, Friends’ creators — David Crane and Marta Kauffman — signaled that this was a new era. Their show would be less broad, smarter, and (I hesitate to use the word) more realistic.

On the don’t-like side: Friends relied way too much on Chandler’s sarcastic wisecracks, and often they weren’t great wisecracks. Like this one: “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” It’s well-crafted, I grant it that — although it would have been better if the writers had respected our intelligence a bit and left out the words “of Three’s Company.

More of a problem is that even in 1994, it was a tired joke. I remember going to comedy clubs in the early ’80s and hearing comedians talk about being in hotel rooms and turning on Gilligan’s Island — “It was the episode where they almost get off the island.” Beyond that, Chandler’s line isn’t specific to Three’s Company. Probably three quarters of all sitcoms, at least before the ’80s, revolved around some kind of misunderstanding.

Of course, Friends doesn’t need my approval. It’s been voted as the greatest sitcom by IMDB and Ranker, and Netflix just paid $100 million for the rights to keep airing it. It even has become the means by which just almost all Spanish-speaking baseball players attempt to learn English.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.