Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971) was based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. Wikipedia’s description of the book’s setting: ” a pandemic … has killed most of the human population and turned the remainder into ‘vampires’ that largely conform to their stereotypes in fiction and folklore: they are blood-sucking, pale-skinned, and nocturnal, though otherwise indistinguishable from normal humans.”
The protagonist, Robert Neville, appears to be the only survivor of the pandemic. He spends his days patrolling Los Angeles, looking to kill vampires with wooden stakes. and his nights inside his apartment, looking to stay alive. Matheson says that he occasionally screens movies for himself but doesn’t name them.
Sagal and screenwriters John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington decided to show Neville (Charlton Heston) actually watching a film — not at home but out in the world. (A previous film version was The Last Man on Earth, 1964, with Vincent Price — no movie in movie.) The present day of The Omega Man is 1977; the pandemic had hit seven years earlier, when Woodstock was playing in theaters. Neville, it appears, has developed an odd obsession with that documentary, perhaps because the utopian hippie dreams in it appear so quaint in the light of his harsh world.
He’s equipped one cinema with a generator. We see him power it up, spool the film in a projector, and watch it for the umpteenth time, his rifle lovingly cradled beside him.
His comment at the end of the clip is an example of a cliche made literal.
Matheson’s book got adapted again in 2007, under Francis Lawrence’s direction and with Will Smith as Neville. This time, his much-watched movie is Shrek, and he watches it at home with a mother and son with whom he’s joined forces. That mirrors the Shrek scene, where the characters voiced by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy form an alliance of their own.
The Cider House Rules (1985) is my favorite John Irving novel, and I liked the 1999 film adaptation by Lasse Hallström a lot, too. Preparing this post made me appreciate a particular difference between the two versions. In the book, characters are always reading Victorian novels: Dickens’s David Copperfield, Little Dorritt, and Great Expectations, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. That’s no coincidence, for Irving successfully (in my view) modeled his own book after these older works.
Skimming through the novel, which takes place during World War II, I find only one reference to a film. The main character, Homer Larch, who has been raised in a Maine orphanage run by the obstetrician Dr. Wilber Larch, goes to his first drive-in movie, also, judging by his reaction, his first movie of any kind.
… a gigantic image filled the sky. It is something’s mouth! thought Homer Wells. The camera backed, or rather, lurched away. Something’s head-a kind of horse! thought Homer Wells. It was a camel, actually, but Homer Wells had never seen a camel, or a picture of one; he thought it was a horribly deformed horse-a mutant horse! Perhaps some ghastly fetus-phase of a horse! The camera staggered back farther. Mounted by the camel’s grotesque hump was a black-skinned man almost entirely concealed in white wrapping-bandages! thought Homer Wells. The ferocious black Arab nomad brandished a frightening curved sword; whacking the lumbering camel with the flat of the blade, he drove the beast into a faulty, staggering gallop across such endless sand dunes that the animal and its rider were soon only a speck on the vast horizon. Suddenly, music! Homer jumped. Words! The titles, the names of the actors were written in the sand by an invisible hand.
It turns out to be a pirate picture, and the black man on the horse is never seen again, but Homer comes to identify with him–a Bedouin, a wanderer with no home. (And by the way, I assume Irving had a real pirate movie in mind, and I’d be interested in any thoughts or nominations for what it might have been.)
By contrast, the film version of Cider House (Irving won an Oscar for his screenplay) foregrounds movies. We’re given to understand that on movie night Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) screens the same film for the children and staff, because one movie, made way back in 1933 and showing a lot of wear and tear, is all he has has. Nobody, including Homer (Tobey Maguire), seems to mind. In the clip, the movie scene starts at about the 1:45 mark.
Later, Fuzzy (the boy who says Kong thinks Fay Wray is his mother), ill and under a makeshift oxygen tent, has a private screening of King Kong.
Homer starts dating Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and we see them going to two movies, both starring Laurence Olivier. Here, they watch a scene from Rebecca (1940) where Olivier dances with Joan Fontaine. (The voice over is Dr. Larch, reciting a letter to Homer.)
Another time, they walk out of a theater having seen Wuthering Heights (1939), with Olivier and Merle Oberon, and discuss the movie. For not having seen many films, Homer shows himself to be a pretty sharp film critic.
But you looked as if you liked it.
I *did* like it. All I said was,
"It's not 'King Kong'."
TCM recently had a Charlie Chaplin day in its annual “Summer Under the Stars” festival, and Michael Tisserand alerted me to a nifty sequence in A King in New York (1957), Chaplin’s second-to-last film and the last in which he appeared. (The final film he directed was A Countess from Hong Kong, in 1967.) He plays the king of a mythical country who is forced out by revolution; his name, Shahdav, suggests a reference to the Shah of Iran, who ruled from 1941 till 1979. Shadav’s destination is New York, just like Eddie Murphy’s African king in Coming to America (1988).
As students of cinema know, Chaplin went into semi-voluntary exile from the United States in 1952, not returning until 1972, when he received an honorary Academy Award. As a result, the satire or critique of U.S. culture, politics, and mores that constitutes a great deal of A King in New York is necessarily a bit second-hand. A lot of it is very sharp nonetheless.
In this scene, Shahdov has just arrived in the city and has a night to kill before attending to his principal business, going to a bank and withdrawing his country’s national treasury. Ambassador Jaume (Oliver Johnston) suggests taking in a movie. When they arrive at the theater, a rock-and-roll show is just finishing up. And here’s where a bit of second-hand feel comes in. The supposed rock music sounds more like ’40s hot jazz, and the latter-day bobby-soxers in the audience show their appreciation by clapping and full-throatedly cheering, as if they were at a baseball game; in reality, at least since Elvis’s ascent the year before, screams were de rigeur.
But the satire of movies, seen in the coming attractions, is absolutely on-point, and hilarious. No surprise there — forty years earlier, Chaplin had more or less invented popular cinema, and he had clearly kept a jaundiced eye on its fashions and conventions, notably poor marksmanship.
“I gotta kill ya, honey — it’s for your own good,” is rich.
By the time you get to the end of part III of this post, I hope you’ll agree with me that George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) is the most movie-in-movie movie in the history of movies.
The first data point is relatively straightforward. Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a small-time singer who has been taken under his wing by soon-to-be-fading movie star Norman Maine (James Mason), and is signed to a contract by studio chief Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford — and notable among the bullet points in the movie’s poetic license is that a mogul would be as WASPy as all that). On her whirlwind first day at the studio, even before her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is ushered in to see Niles as he’s screening a Western.
There are several things to say about the scene, first of all, that it’s great. Cukor’s (probably his decision more than screenwriter Moss Hart) choice of movie, The Charge at Feather River (1953), and segment within it is perfect. The fact that it was a real, current film adds verisimilitude; the screaming and general mayhem on view plays up Esther’s nervousness and discomfort, and in addition releases some of the host movie’s built-up tension. And it’s such a great contrast with Cukor’s über-woman’s picture (and I say that with admiration).
I’ll also note that both A Star Is Born and The Charge at Feather River were Warner Brothers pictures, itself a data point in my hypothesis that, for economic reasons, a disproportionate percentage of host movies and “seen” movies come from the same studio.
But back to screaming: the Feather River scene is notable in having given the name to one of the most famous sound effects in Hollywood history, the Wilhelm Scream. The website cinemagumbo explains:
A simple sound effect—a man’s brief, agonizing cry while being attacked by an alligator—has become a Hollywood in-joke, a stock piece of audio for science fiction and western movies, a good luck charm for various filmmakers and has even inspired the name of a Massachusetts-based rock band.
The Wilhelm Scream, as the sound effect is known, was first used in the film Distant Drums (1951), which featured the aforementioned alligator attack (above). It is actually one of a series of six screams the movie’s sound department recorded with singer and actor Sheb Wooley at Warner Bros. Wooley’s distinctive “ah-AYE!-uh” was subsequently used for—and got its name from—The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which a character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow.
The Wilhelm Scream is actually heard a second time in A Star is Born, in Garland’s number “Someone at Last,” where it’s incongruously inserted as an “exotic” African effect (very poor taste now) in her round-the-world musical journey. Probably that was the start of the in-joke. It went on to become a favorite of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and is heard in every Indiana Jones movie and every Star Wars one through The Force Awakens (2015), when it was retired. On the off-chance you’re interested, here’s a compilation of some of the Wilhelm Scream’s Greatest Hits:
I confess that until researching this post, I was unfamiliar with Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons. Like many people, I know and love the Warner Brothers stuff by Avery, Fritz Freling, and Chuck Jones — Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Daffy Duck, and that lot. But I’ve learned that in 1941, Avery left Warner’s for MGM, where his greatest creation was the phlegmatic basset hound Droopy.
Northwest Hounded Police (1946) is like a Road Runner cartoon not so much on steroids as mescaline. A prisoner up in the Yukon, Wolf, escapes and is pursued by a Mountie, Droopy. And I mean pursued. Wolf ventures to the highest mountain peak and the depths of the ocean, and as soon as he arrives, who should he see but the Droop-ster. Wolf does a double and usually a triple take, his eyes bulge out of his head by twenty feet or so, and he hightails it out of there at warp speed.
Both Warner’s and MGM cartoons were larded with self-conscious fourth-wall breaking, and indeed, such a joke was the reason for Avery’s leaving Warner’s. According to Wikipedia, in Avery’s original version of The Hunting Hare (1941)
Bugs and the hunting dog were to fall off a cliff three times, milking the gag to its comic extreme. According to a DVD commentary for the cartoon, the historian and animator Greg Ford explained that the problem [producer Leon] Schlesinger had with the ending was that, just before falling off the third time, Bugs and the dog were to turn to the screen, with Bugs saying “Hold on to your hats, folks, here we go again!”, a punchline to a potentially risqué joke of the day.
In the first scene in his first movie, Dumb-Hounded (1943), Droopy looks at the audience and says, “Hello, all you happy people … you know what? I’m the hero.”
Northwest Hounded Police offers a new level of meta, as Wolf literally runs out of the frame of the film and takes a seat in a movie theater, only to see …
If you’re interested in seven and a half minutes of fun, here’s the whole movie.
Some time back I instituted the “Double Dip” tag, indicating cases where characters in movie a watch movie B, and character in B watch movie C. As of now, there are two examples — Brief Encounter, which is seen in several different movies and in which characters watch (the fictional) Flames of Passion, and The Shining, which is seen in Twister and in which characters watch Summer of ’42.
Well, now it’s down to one, because the Twister/Summer of ‘42/Shining train just got expanded to a new tag, which I’m calling “five-spot.”
It stretches out on both ends. Summer of ’42 , set on Nantucket in that wartime summer, has a scene where the three teenage buddies go to the movies. They probably would have enjoyed another night better: the coming attractions posters are of two Warner Brothers pictures with plenty of action: The Wagons Roll at Night (a circus melodrama and Humphrey Bogart’s follow-up to They Drive By Night) and the Gary Cooper classic Sergeant York. (Oddly, both movies came out in 1941.)
Tonight’s feature, however, is the women’s picture of all women’s pictures, the Bette Davis–Paul Henreid starrer (I love using Variety-speak) Now, Voyager. In some ways, though, it’s a felicitous choice, the uber-romance on screen possibly increasing the chances of the sex-obsessed boys making time with their dates.
In every post on this blog up till now, I have included a clip of the movie-in-movie scene. Summer of ’42 foiled me, however, for technical reasons I won’t get into. (But I will say I am a little ticked off at iTunes.) Instead, here’s a clip of a part of Now, Voyager we see the kids watching, the ending, with its famous last line. And spoiler: it’s got the guy-lighting-two-cigarettes bit, which has been spoofed so often it can’t not look funny.
And finally, I was checking the “Connections” section of Twister‘s entry on IMDB and lo and behold, it says that “extracts” from the film are seen in the 2002 made-for-TV movie Atomic Twister, directed by Bill Corcoran. I’m definitely not able to provide the relevant clip, as I have no access to Atomic Twister. But if anybody does — or can name another five-spot, or even four- — you know where to find me.
Update: I am speaking sincerely when I say it’s nice to have your own personal fact-checker. At least that’s how I think of the linguist, writer and all-around smart guy Ben Zimmer, who frequently helps me out in the area of accuracy quality-control. Ben actually called me out on two mistakes related to the supposed watching of Twister in Atomic Twister. First, the latter is very much accessible — it’s on YouTube in its entirety.
On the second mistake, Ben reports:
I can’t bring myself to watch the whole thing, but flipping through I’m not seeing “Twister” anywhere. (The kids *play* Twister at one point, but they don’t *watch* “Twister.”) The TV in the house is on about 33 minutes in, but it’s showing a western. I wonder if the “extracts” mentioned on IMDb are just reused footage? This is a TBS movie, and Turner had the rights to Warner Bros. movies like “Twister,” so I think it’s possible.
Reading that, and thinking about IMDB’s phrasing (“extracts … are used”), I realize he’s got to be right, and it’s a case of reused footage.
So does this still qualify as a five-spot? Up until now, every post on this blog has been about a movie or TV show where a movie or TV show is actually playing or showing. On the other hand, the title of the blog is “Movies in Movies” and the subheading is, “Films and TV episodes that cleverly incorporate films or TV episodes.” Twister in Atomic Twister qualifies on both counts (except maybe the “cleverly” part).
So I’m going to claim blogger’s prerogative and keep the “five-spot” designation.
The recent post on Scream 4 brought up the question, are there any other cases of a movie in a movie in a movie? Ben Zimmer was quick to bring up Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987) in which Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and other characters watch themselves watching themselves watching themselves… (In a less endlessly recursive way, Blazing Saddles was shown in Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.)
I’d say it merits an asterisk, as does the only other movie-in-movie-in-movie example I’ve found, New York, New York (1977). Actually, I’d give Martin Scorsese’s film two asterisks. The first is because this twelve-minute sequence was cut out of the original theatrical release, only to be restored in 1981. The second … well, I’ll explain. In the movie, set in the 1940s, Liza Minelli plays singer/actress Francine Evans, who, after breaking with saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro), whose middle name should be “Nogood,” hits it big, including landing the starring role in a movie musical called Happy Endings.
In Mean Streetsand Taxi Driverwe learned Scorsese is fond of Times Square marquees, but he takes it to a new level here. At the start of the sequence is an establishing shot.
We know it’s Times Square because of the Hotel Astor (lower left), which was on Broaadway between 44th and 45th Streets. And we know it’s 1949 because that’s the year of the two other (carefully selected) films on the marquees, John Huston’s We Were Strangers and Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave. Happy Endings, meanwhile, is opening at the “New York Music Hall” — a riff on Radio City Music Hall, actually half a mile to the northeast.
We go into the theater only to see a Happy Endings scene set in a movie theater. Francine plays “usherette” Peggy Smith; in the the stylized set (production design by Boris Leven), still more movie marquees (including the Apollo, a Scorsese favorite) are seen behind the audience. Also behind them is a beam of light from a projector — it contains, tantalizingly, the movie within the movie within the movie, which we can’t quite see.
Peggy meets Donald (Larry Kert) who turns out to be a movie producer and makes her a star. There are a series of production numbers, and we see superimposed titles and marquees (more marquees!) of her starring roles: Princess Sargeant, The Girl from Rio (actually the title of a 1969 spy movie), The Long Waltz (possibly a nod to Scorsese’s own The Last Waltz, and inadvertently misspelled in the marquee).
In a Star Is Born–like arc she loses Donald when she eclipses him, but (happy ending) gets him back … but wait, it was all a dream, and she’s back as an usherette. But wait! She meets Donald again — and all of a sudden, Peggy jumps into the movie screen, a la Buster Keaton. So there’s your movie in a movie in a movie. With asterisk.
And if anyone’s interested in seeing the whole twelve-minute sequence, here you go:
In the previous post, I said that Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo(1985) was influenced by Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. That’s certainly true, but Allen also had to have had in mind Pennies from Heaven. I mean the 1981 film version directed by Herbert Ross and starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, rather than the 1978 BBC series with Bob Hoskins on which it was based.
In Pennies — set, like Purple Rose, in the 1930s — Arthur Parker (Martin) is a sheet-music salesman, and has a world view not merely influenced but warped by the pop tunes he peddles. The brilliant conceit of the series and the film — both written by Dennis Potter — is to show this by having Arthur break into song and dance periodically, lip-synching to the original scratchy vinyl of songs like “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” and “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You.” The irony not only drips but pours.
Over the course of the film, Arthur’s world falls apart, largely due to his own selfishness and short-sightedness. For a moment, it seems like he might attain a measure of happiness with Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a schoolteacher. She becomes pregnant but, unknown to him, aborts the baby. They slip into a movie theater and, as in Purple Rose four years later, an Astaire-Rogers movie with music by Irving Berlin is on the screen, in this case Follow the Fleet.
Due to technical challenges, you might not hear what Eileen says at the beginning of the clip. It’s, “I might like to have that baby, and then…” More irony. Arthur, ever the music-addled, cock-eyed optimist, avers that “There’s got to be something on the other side of the rainbow.” In a lovely (though completely unrealistic) touch that shows the permeating power of the movies, Ross has Fred and Ginger’s images reflected on the real wall of the theater. Completely carried away, Arthur can’t help lip-synching to the big production number, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
Then all of a sudden they are on the stage, in front of the screen, dance-synching to Astaire and Rogers. Finally, in the Sherlock Jr. touch, they join their own movie, black and white and elegant and so different from their tawdry reality.
A final note: the (picture-perfect) choreography is credited to Danny Daniels, but Ross surely made a huge contribution. The director started his career as a dancer, then was a choreographer for Broadway musicals, and incorporated dance into many of his movies, including The Turning Point, the biopic Nijnksy, the Baryshnikov vehicle Dancers, and — it must be said — Footloose.
I believe this is the second example in the blog — after Home Alone — of a movie that includes both a real film and a fictional one. And it’s fitting that it follows Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., since that was an obvious inspiration for Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
One difference is that in Sherlock Jr., the projectionist played by Buster steps into the movie being screened in his theater. Purple Rose of Cairo goes the other way. Set in the Depression, it’s about an unhappy waitress and wife named Cecilia (Mia Farrow) who goes to the movies to escape her woes. She develops a fascination with The Purple Rose of Cairo, a (fictional) RKO madcap melodrama centering on a dashing archeologist named Jeff Baxter (Jeff Daniels). She sits through multiple showings, until something very strange happens (at about the two-minute mark of this clip) …
One of the cool things about the sequence is how Allen, famously a movie buff, has captured the look and sound and feel of ’30s films, and chosen actors who fit seamlessly in: John Wood (who could almost be a stand-in for Edward Everett Horton), Edward Herrman, Debra Rush, and Annie Jo Edwards as Delilah, the maid. (The part is a sadly accurate depiction of the sort of roles played by Hattie McDaniel and others, but so distasteful today that I wish Allen had left it out.)
Cecilia shows Tom around her New Jersey town, and he — a la Sherlock Jr. — takes her into the film. A cuckoo love triangle ensues involving Cecilia, Tom, and the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepherd. She chooses Gil (not much future in a romance with a celluloid hero) but gets some bad news as she approaches the theater. (She’s carrying the ukulele because she and Gil have had some great fun dueting.) So she goes in and takes a seat to see the movie that’s just opened, a true-life RKO production, Astaire and Rogers’s Top Hat.
You can see for yourself the effect this transcendent piece of entertainment has on Cecilia. It harks back to the very first film discussed in this blog, Sullivan’s Travels, and in its honor I’ve created a new tag for both movies (and a couple of others): The Transporting Power of Popular Film.
Hard to believe it’s taken me this long to get around one of the first, probably the greatest, and certainly the most influential movie-in-movie movie. (Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is basically a remake.) I refer to Buster Keaton’s 1924 silent classic Sherlock Jr. Buster plays a projectionist who aspires to become a detective and longs for “The Girl” (Kathryn McGuire. Keaton didn’t give names to any characters in the film, perhaps to emphasize a dream-like quality). Unfortunately, “The Sheik” (Ward Crane) steals the Girl’s father’s watch and pins the crime on Buster, who is banished from the house.
Back at the theater, he’s screening a melodrama called Hearts & Pearls. A sign outside displays its subtitle: “Or, the Lounge Lizard’s Lost Love — In Five Parts.” The title, and the length, are digs at the sentimental work of D.W. Griffith, who had made A String of Pearls in 1918 and who directed at least a dozen movies containing the word “heart,” including The Mother’s Heart, Hearts of the World, True Heart Suzie, Tender Hearts, and A Change of Heart. Buster falls asleep, and a transparent phantasm rises out of his body and looks at the film. As if by magic, the male and female lead (uncredited) suddenly turn into The Sheik and The Girl, and he commences making love to her (in the old-fashioned sense). Buster puts on his hat (of course) and descends from the projection booth to the audience. His reaction to what he sees is probably the greatest example I’ve ever witnessed of someone acting with his back.
Note Buster’s practiced tumble when he’s thrown out of the movie, including breaking his fall with his hands. He had, of course, started his career as a little kid on the vaudeville stage, where his principal role was to be violently tossed about in the family act.
He manages to get back into the movie, and the bulk of (the brisk, 45-minute: no five acts here) Sherlock Jr. shows his increasingly surreal adventures. Just as he’s about to drown, he wakes up in the projection booth. Spoiler alert: it was all a dream. Suddenly, the Girl walks in and announces the truth has been revealed and he is forgiven. In a marvelous closing scene, he looks to the screen for his moves, much as Elliot did, with E.T.’s help. And talk about acting. Keaton hilariously expresses volumes with a shrug of his shoulder or a ten-millimeter eyebrow lift; take one look at his jumpy nervousness and you can see where Woody Allen — an acknowledged fan — got most of his physical shtick.