‘Hail, Caesar,’ ‘Merrily We Dance,’ and ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ in ‘Hail, Caesar’

The most purely fun movie I’ve seen in the past five years, or maybe longer, is the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016). It’s got a solid story, good performances, and some hilarious moments, but the really special thing about it is the take on peak-studio-era Hollywood, which combines a very knowing spoof with a very knowing appreciation.

The year is more or less 1951, and the main character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who’s based on the real-life Eddie Mannix, for many years a notorious “fixer” at MGM. But the Coens’ Eddie has a grander portfolio: he’s “head of physical production” at (the fictional) Capitol Studios, which involves not only covering up the stars’ imbroglios but managing all details of Capitol’s many offerings, from casting to budgets to editing to locations.

The movie revolves around five in-production Capitol films, all depicted with that knowing mix of spoof and appreciation, and all but one era-appropriate. The eponymous Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ is a religious sandals epic that combines elements of Quo Vadis, The Robe, Spartacus, and Ben-Hur. (The novel Ben-Hur, published in 1880, had the same Tale of the Christ subtitle.) Lazy Ol’ Moon is an “oatuner” — Variety-speak for a cowboy picture, aka “oater,” with music — of the kind Roy Rogers churned out for Republic Pictures through 1950. Jonah’s Daughter is a musical featuring Busby Berkeley-style water ballets, which seems like an odd idea today but was a staple for MGM and Esther Williams, in movies like Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Channing Tatum channels Gene Kelly (in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh) in “No Dames!”, a sailor production number with a hilarious homoerotic-themed subtext. The only movie-in-movie that seems a bit anachronistic is Merrily We Dance, an arch and “sophisticated” black-and-white comedy of manners, something like Design for Living (1933), directed by an Ernst Lubitsch/George Cukor figure flawlessly played by Ralph Fiennes.

I’ll focus on Lazy Ol’ Moon, Merrily We Dance, and Hail, Caesar, since we view finished footage from those three; for the others, we only see scenes being staged and filmed. We take in Moon at its world premiere, attended by its cowboy star, Hobie Doyle (Alben Ehrenreich), a cross between two cowpokes named Rogers: Will (Hobie is a whiz at rope tricks) and the crooning, six-gun-toting horseman Roy. (The latter, born Leonard Slye, chose “Rogers” as his stage name in honor of one of his heroes, as I learned while writing Will Rogers’s biography.) Hobie’s date, arranged by the studio for the publicity value, is the Carmen Miranda-inspired Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osario). Here’s the opening, climaxed by Hobie crooning “Lazy Ol’ Moon,” a tune actually sung by R. Rogers in a 1939 picture, The Arizona Kid.

 

To me, the most striking and somewhat unnerving thing about the scene is the high-contrast color. But it’s true to its models, if not life. As Bill Desowitz observed on IndieWire, for this sequence cinematographer Roger Deakins “emulated the two-strip (red and green) Trucolor process utilized at Republic.” This still of Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, from Sunset in the West (1950) gives the idea:

roy2

The other notable quality of the Lazy Ol’ Moon scene is how dad-burned ridiculous are the carryings-on of Curly (J.R. Horne, doing his best Gabby Hayes.) But Carlotta and the rest of the audience roar with delighted laughter — an example, as in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (a favorite of the Coens), of the grace of silly comedy. As the narrator (voiced by Michael Gambon) intones, the picture is “another wave of gossamer, another movie, another portion of balm for the ache of a toiling mankind.”

Eddie’s headache vis-avis Merrily We Dance is that the head of the studio, the unseen Nicholas Schenk (who actually was the boss of MGM in the early ’50s), decrees that the lead role has to be played by Hobie. It’s a disastrous call, as Hobie and sophistication are polar opposites. After trying to get the lad to make a “mirthless chuckle,” and “trippingly,” “with a certain ruefulness,” say the line, “Would that ’twere so simple,” Laurence Laurentz seems ready to tear out his remaining hairs. But what the boss says goes and the kid stays in the picture.

Eddie goes to visit editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDorman) to look at a cut of Merrily on her Movieola, and manages to do so, after a near-Isadora Duncan-type mishap with her  scarf.

 

Wonder of wonders! Improbably, Hobie’s performance does the trick, even if it doesn’t quite reach Oscar™ proportions. His natural physical grace comes though, and the execrable line “Would that ’twere so simple” has been shortened and improved. And who would have thought it possible — his closing smile is actually rueful. Here’s to the magic of movies.

For the scenes of Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ, as Desowitz describes it, the filmmakers mimicked Technicolor epics — “that gold and red look with warm, rich tones.” There are also the matte backgrounds characteristic of the times, which look especially fake today as computer-aided graphics have become more sophisticated. We look on with Eddie Mannix as he watches a rough cut in the studio screening room. George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock (Robert Taylor, kind of) plays the Roman tribune Autolycus; the narrator is the same Michael Gambon.

 

That missing “DIVINE PRESENCE” remains a problem. Eddie takes a meeting with a rabbi, a minister, a priest and a Greek Orthodox priest to see what sort of representation of the godhead might be inoffensive to them all; the results, perhaps predictably, are a joke. The Coen Brothers didn’t manage to solve the problem either, as we learn at the very end of the movie, seen just as the credits finish rolling. Wedged between thanks to various municipal film boards and assurances that no animals have been harmed is this disclaimer: “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.”

‘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:

MovieTheater1_Porzellangasse19

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 Bicycle Thief’ and ‘Habeus Corpus’ in ‘The Player’

I would not have expected Robert Altman to have much of a presence on this blog. I feel that he preferred being in control of all the irony, rather than appropriating it from an interpolated film made by some other hand. And sure enough, only two of his many movies appear on the comprehensive Films in Films website. The first is Short Cuts (1993), in which Monster in the Closet (1986) plays on a television. (Part of the reason Altman chose that slasher flick may be that three members of his unofficial stock company — Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, and Howard Duff — are in it.)

The second is The Player (1992). And sure enough, the main movie-in-movie scene comes from its source material, the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it for the screenplay. In novel and film, the title character, master-of-the-universe movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has been receiving threatening post cards from an anonymous angry screenwriter. He thinks he’s figured out that the correspondent is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and phones him; his girlfriend answers and says that Kahane is at the movies — specifically, the Rialto in Pasadena, watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. (The title literally translates as “Bicycle Thieves,” but it’s commonly known by the singular in the U.S.)

In the novel, Mill slips into the theater for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Tolkin tells us his reactions, which are film-savvy, naturally, but as off as you would expect from a ’90s Hollywood exec giving notes on Italian neo-realism:

Griffin watched a father and son search for the lost bicycle. Knowing the title, it was obvious that someone had stolen the bike, that this poor man needed it, and that he and his son were now, since the movie was almost over, close to finding the bike and the person who had stolen it. It’s a good title, thought Griffin. He liked a movie where the story and the title were the same thing.

He doesn’t like the ending; it’s “so unnecessarily sad.” He wonders: “Was there a sequel?”

Altman has some nice tweaks on the scene. Griffin’s in the theater less than a minute and never once is shown watching the movie; he keeps furtively looking around for Kahane. The Bicycle Thief is so far away from his world as not to exist at all.

When the lights comes on, Griffin spots the screenwriter, and, true to form, tries to bullshit him: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these… cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this!”

The sequence is only a small part of The Player‘s all-encompassing commentary on the movies, which manifests itself in varying levels of explicitness. In the very first scene, Griffin and others at this studio talk about the six and half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — and it’s all part of a eight minute and fifteen second tracking shot that opens The Player. Later, we see the shooting of a noirish feature with Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin, Lonely Room, that’s a counterpoint to the crime story Grifffin finds himself a part of.

A post at Films in Films notes that we see dozens of classic film posters in The Player, many of which offer commentary on the action playing out in front of them.

MV5BMTkxNjk2MTg5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTc3NTU0NA@@._V1_SX1472_CR0,0,1472,999_AL_
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) below portentous posters.

For me, the reflexive aspect of the film that packed the biggest emotional punch was the array of actors playing themselves, especially the ones that have died in the meantime: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze.  It was like spending some good time with ghosts.

The main movie-within-a-movie in The Player is a project called Habeas Corpus. It’s pitched to Griffin early on — a message movie about capitol punishment, with no stars, and a downbeat ending where the main character dies. Needless to say, he passes, for it lacks just about every element (as he says in a different scene) that make up successful movies: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”

For spoiler-related reasons I won’t go into, Habeas Corpus does end up getting made, and at the end of The Player, we see execs screening the ending. Lots of cameos here: Susan Sarandon, Louise Fletcher, Peter Falk, Ray Walston, Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from The Bob Newhart Show), and Altman stalwarts Bert Remsen, Paul Dooley, and Rene Auberjonois are all in the sequence. At the end of a(nother) long tracking shot, the death-row prisoner turns out to be Julia Roberts, showing some leg. She was the very sort of star the screenwriters had vowed would not be in the movie. Her presence is just the first of a host of broken promises, and it kicks off a Hollywood Ending that provides the Hollywood ending to The Player.

 

 

‘Garden Tool Massacre’ in ‘The Blob’ (1988)

Garden-Tool-Massacre

With this second post on a film about a gelatinous terror, Movies in Other Movies might start to get known as “The Blob Blog.” (Apologies to “The Bob Loblaw Law Blog” on Arrested Development.) Anyway, when director Chuck Russell and his co-writer, Frank (Shawhank Redemption) Darabont, set about remaking the cult horror classic The Blob, they must have had fun figuring out what movie to have running in their version of the climactic blob-goes-wild-in-movie-theater scene.

In the original, Irvin Yeaworth used the weird and obscure Daughter of Horror. Russell and Darabont, in keeping with their tongue-partly-in-cheek approach, opted to concoct their own, a Halloween/Texas Chainsaw Masssacre pastiche called Garden Tool Massacre. Announcing his plans to see it, youngster Eddie Beckner tells his friend’s mom “It’s your basic slice and dice.”

Mrs. Penny: Your basic what?

Eddie: Well this guy in a hockey mask, he chops up a few teenagers, but don’t worry, there’s no sex or anything bad.

From what we see of the picture, he’s a pretty good film critic. He probably didn’t anticipate that the sound-syncing would be horrible (another sly touch by Russell).

 

“Wait a minute … hockey season ended months ago”: a great line.

The slob in the Hilti hat (another sly power-tools reference) thinks he knows movies, too, but he doesn’t know enough to keep his mouth shut. And nobody in the audience knew enough to realize they never, ever, should have set foot in that theater.

‘Jesse James’ in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’

witness-7-620x376
Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), Mrs. French (Norma Varden), and their hats.

We last encountered Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard. He was having Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, watch one of Norma’s old silent films, only it was one of Gloria’s — Queen Kelly.

Wilder pulls a similar trick in his 1957 courtroom thriller, Witness for the Prosecution, in which Tyrone Power plays Leonard Vole, a World War II veteran in London who has landed in a spot of trouble. We learn in flashbacks that he’s invented a newfangled egg-beater and has been trying to peddle it, without much luck. That is, until he and Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a wealthy widow, meet cute in a shop where she’s buying a smart new hat, and he commences a flirtation with her. I didn’t mention that Leonard is married; his wife, Christine, is played by Marlene Dietrich.

I pause here to say that one of the more mysterious things about Witness for the Prosecution is Vole’s nationality. A commenter on IMDB says that William Holden was Wilder’s first choice for the part, and that Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, and Jack Lemmon were considered before Power, also an American, accepted. He makes no effort to do an English accent, and at least one book on Wilder takes Vole to be an American. Yet the script — by Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus, based on Agatha Christie’s play — makes no mention of his not being British, and even gives him some Britishisms to say.

Three of these appear in the movie-in-movie scene. Discouraged by a lack of eggbeater interest, Vole repairs to a cinema. Who should sit in the row in front of him but Mrs. French, her hat obscuring his view of the shoot-em-up Western on the screen? He invites her to sit next to her, and explains, “That chap on the white horse is called Jesse James. Those others have led him ambush. It’s not at all cricket.”

The film they’re watching was made in 1939 and is called Jesse James. The title character (not discernible in the Witness for the Prosecution scene) was played by Tyrone Power.

 

‘Rebel Without a Cause’ in ‘La La Land’

la

No one can say they don’t make movies-in-other movies anymore. The current Blackkklansman (post to come) puts a not especially flattering spotlight on two old films. La La Land (2016), which famously won, then didn’t win, the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, features just one, but it’s in a pivotal scene.

In this musical, aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) don’t-meet cute a couple of times, then manage to connect and have some conversations that suggest they are kindred spirits. Sebastian is movie-besotted. He  quotes some lines from Rebel Without a Cause, and when he realizes she’s never seen it, he invites her to meet him at the Rialto, where it’s playing, later that week.

Because of plot complications, she arrives at the Rialto — and by the way, both exteriors and interiors were filmed at the real Rialto Theatre, in Pasadena — after the movie has already started. She stands in the front, looking for Sebastian, and he sees her with appropriately cinematic illumination.

They settle in to watch the movie, as the famous Griffith Park scene is about to begin, but just as things are about to heat up between them, something burns up and spoils the mood.

At that point, Mia suggests they take a drive to the real Griffith Park, which they do, director Damien Chazelle’s camera recreating the scene from the original. They break in to the Observatory through in open door and share a celestial dance. It’s a nice movie-loving scene, in a nice movie-loving movie, and if you haven’t seen it I heartily recommend you rent it, or stream it, or, on the off-chance it’s playing at the Rialto, go see it as films were meant to be seen.