When we left Steven Spielberg, he was putting various movies and TV shows into Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was his second blockbuster in a row, after Jaws. Their success gave him permission to try something completely different, 1941, which I didn’t see when it came out in 1979 and can now report is his mashup of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, in being a madcap, star-studded, slapstick movie about an aborted invasion of the U.S. Also like IAMMMMW (there’s no way to sugarcoat this), it is a mess.
The movie-in-movie scene is one of the quieter ones, and one of the more appealing. General Joseph Stillwell (Robert Stack) — who was actually stationed in California in 1941 — is portrayed as a movie buff and a softie. He sneaks into a Hollywood cinema to see Disney’s 1941 release.
In this clip, young con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) hears himself described as “James Bond of the sky.” Then quick cuts to Goldfinger (Gert Frobe is the other guy in a swim outfit), and a dolly-shot zoom in on DiCaprio watching the movie in a theater.
As you can see, even more humorous edits ensue, culminating with DiCaprio (or his double) at the wheel of an Aston-Martin tooling through New York. It’s an entertaining sequence, yet my ultimate reaction is that it probably wasn’t worth the expense of the dolly shot, licensing Goldfinger and John Barry’s Bond music, and putting the car and a period setting in the middle of Manhattan. Not to mention the suit. Of course, if you’re Spielberg, what’s a few dollars more in the budget?
In Munich (2005), the movie-in-movie is an easy-to-miss grace note. Spielberg has frequently talked about how much he was influenced by John Ford, once saying, “I try to rent a John Ford film, one or two, before I start every movie. Simply because he inspires me and I’m very sensitive to the way he uses his camera to paint his pictures.” He usedThe Quiet Man in a key scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Munich is about Israel’s targeted assassination of those it suspected of involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. More broadly, it’s about the complicated morality and personal costs of such an enterprise.
In an early sequence, the Israeli operatives are following a Palestinian translator and poet living in Rome, who is on their list. We watch them watching him as he goes into a small corner store and buys some groceries. There’s a small TV playing. Presently, the man leaves the store and is murdered.
You wouldn’t know it because the TV is in fact so small, but the film that’s shown is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), one of Ford’s profound meditations on violence, its costs and its arguable necessity. I believe it’s my favorite movie-in-movie in all of Spielberg.
Not surprisingly for a charter member of the Film School Generation of directors, Steven Spielberg has always been a savvy user of movie-in-movies. We’ve already considered E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,Jurassic Park, andMinority Report. This post and the next will look at a few more Spielbergs, in chronological order.
His first feature film, in 1974, was The Sugarland Express, with Goldie Hawn and William Atherton, a low-speed chase movie based on the true story of of a real-life Texas couple who took a cop hostage in their quest to wrest back their toddler from his adoptive parents. It has a real ’70s vibe, with its improv-seeming scenes, use of non-actors, and sense of the American roadscape that’s at once loving and ironic. The last is enhanced by Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, often grainy because of long shots showing an endless trail of police cars. The movie is of a piece with contemporaneous character-centered slices of Americana like Terence Malick’s Badlands, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero.
Spielberg, of course, would quickly pivot to a very different approach, but this movie works best in its small moments (the periodic car wrecks are tiresome), including the movie-in-movie sequence. Hawn and Atherton are hiding out in an RV that’s in a used-car lot overlooking a drive-in-movie. (Talk about the American roadscape!) We only briefly see the film that’s playing, but reliable sources assert that it’s Sssssss (1973), whose premise an IMDB contributor summarizes as: “A college student becomes lab assistant to a scientist who is working on a serum that can transform humans into snakes.”
Sssssss has nothing to do, on any level, with The Sugarland Express, and I’m pretty sure the only reason it was used is that — like Sugarland — it was produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown and released by Universal, and hence cost little or nothing.
The more pointed movie-in-movie is a cartoon that subsequently comes on at the drive-in, the Road Runner short “Whoa, Be Gone!” (1958), directed by Chuck Jones. (This is the third time I’ve noted Jones being used in feature films, the others being The Shining and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins.) “Hey, we got a free movie next door!” says Hawn’s character:
Improbably, Spielberg makes the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote’s antics into a tender moment, and foreshadowing of what lies in store for the young couple.
Spielberg followed up Sugarland Express with Jaws (no movies-in-movie) and, in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is marked by quite a few — and quite varied — inserts. IMDB claims that a Road Runner clip is shown on a TV, but I confess I wasn’t able to spot it. It’s impossible, however, to miss another Chuck Jones short, the classic “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century” (1953), which is on TV as Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) obsessively labors on a his model of a landscape that’s really important, he doesn’t know exactly why. The contrast, of course, is between Jones’s wacky version of spacemen and Roy’s (implicitly) real ones.
In a couple of other moments, the urgency of the scenario is contrasted with the banality of ‘ the 70s TV shows that are playing in the background: Policewoman in one scene, The Days of Our Lives in another.
The tastiest meta set piece is a scene where Roy’s at home with his wife (Teri Garr) and three kids. He gets temporarily distracted from his UFO obsession by the fact that Pinocchio — for some reason one of his favorite movies — is playing at a local theater. The Disney reference isn’t the only one in Spielberg: Gremlins features Snow White and in the next post, you’ll see what’s in 1941. It’s (to me) an odd enthusiasm — I much prefer the madcap and antic Chuck Jones — and I’m with the kids, who vote to play miniature golf instead.
The focus then shifts to Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which is playing on TV. Everybody except Garr is transfixed by it: the kids for unknown reasons, and Roy because Mt. Sinai resembles, of all things, the landscape that’s haunting his consciousness.
Wow. That’s my main reaction after an excursion into the blander side of 1970s television comedy.
It all started when Eric Hanson, a great friend of this blog, alerted me to a 1974 episode of Happy Days in which the gang goes to the movies. The first notable thing was the title of the episode, which is about Fonzie’s young cousin Spike (Danny Butch) taking Richie Cunningham’s young sister Joanie (Erin Moran) on a date: “Not with My Sister, You Don’t.” A quick look at IMDB revealed that four other ’70s and early ’80s sitcoms used this title: The Bob Newhart Show, The Partridge Family, Flo, and Family Ties. Must have been an inside joke around the commissary.
Spike takes Joanie to the movies; Richie (Ron Howard) and his date, Wendy (Misty Rowe), are chaperones. Hilarity ensues.
So right, that’s Tony Randall as the crewneck-sweater-wearing werewolf. I can only imagine that Happy Days creator Garry Marshall was calling in his favors. Randall was the costar of a big Marshall hit, The Odd Couple, and Days, only in its second season, was struggling to find an audience. But the clip is so horrendous, it’s not even good camp, and I can’t imagine it gave the show much of a boost. (But I will say that Howard’s slapstick turn when he returns with popcorn isn’t bad.)
Nevertheless, Happy Days soon found its way and within a couple of years was the top-rated program on television. How that could happen is a mystery to me. And so is the identity of Randall’s love interest in the movie-in-movie. IMDB and other sources don’t have a credit. She reminds me a bit of Cloris Leachman, but if it were Leachman, she’d certainly be named. Any sleuths out there who can come up with a name?
If I say “mid-’60s madcap Peter Sellers comedy, with a theme song by Burt Bacharach and poster art by Frank Frazetta,” what movie comes to mind? Most likely it’s What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), but today’s topic is Pussycat‘s sort of sequel, After the Fox.
I say “sort of” because the movies don’t have common characters or plot elements, just the features listed above and United Artists as a production company. And that allowed the Pussycat reference in the After the Fox poster.
The movie was recommended to me by Eric Hanson, who was inspired to stream it on Amazon Prime because of its noteworthy creators: Sellers as star, Neil Simon as writer (this was his first screenplay), and Vittorio De Sica as director. De Sica also has a cameo as himself, directing a biblical epic with “John Huston” playing Moses. It’s not the real John Huston, just one of many cinematic in-jokes in After the Fox. Earlier in 1966, Huston had played Noah in his own epic, The Bible.
Anyway, Eric had commended it to my attention because of yet another in-joke, the movie-in-movie scene. I will set it up as simply as possible. The movie takes place in Italy and Sellers plays a criminal on the run from the law. Britt Ekland (his wife at the time) is his sister. Victor Mature is Tony Powell, a washed-up American actor who happens to be in Rome at the time and has just been set on by a mob of adoring fans.
If asked to name to the most movie-conscious movie, I probably wouldn’t select Gremlins. But Joe Dante’s 1984 horror-comedy belongs in the discussion.
The film’s best-known movie-in-movie scene occurs when the apparently cute, but actually viciously destructive, title creatures have taken over the local cinema. Initially, there’s some trouble in the projection booth, but that gets sorted out.
The movie the gremlins are watching, of course, is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It’s a knowing choice, showing the striking transition in animated sidekicks from Disney’s lovable dwarfs to Dante’s disgusting critters. But gross as they are, they’re also — in their rapt involvement with what they’re watching — the sort of audience a director can only dream of.
And if you think it’s odd that a 1937 movie should be on offer in an early ’80s cinema, you shouldn’t: Disney re-released Snow White in the Christmas season roughly every decade, the last time in 1983. Gremlins is a Christmas movie as well (though it was rushed to a June release, apparently so that its studio could have some blockbuster competition against Ghostbusters and the second Indiana Jones movie). It has lots of nods to the ultimate Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, including the fact that the main character, Billy (Zack Galligan), works in a bank, and both the look and the name (the Bedford Falls-sounding Kingston Falls) of the town where it’s set.
An early movie-in-movie scene is a more explicit shout-out to Frank Capra’s classic. Billy and his mother (Frances Lee McCain) are in the family kitchen.
I love it that she doesn’t have the sound on: at this point,Wonderful Life is so familiar that it’s really not necessary. And is she crying at the ending of the movie (which would be happy tears, not sad ones, right?), or from the big pile of onions she’s just chopped?
Here are the other movies in the movie, in no particular order. I find all but one of them clever and fun.
Billy and Gizmo, the Mogwai who inadvertently spawned the gremlins, watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) on TV. The parallels are obvious.
Playing in the classroom of the high school science teacher (Glynn Turman) is Hemo the Magnificent, a 1956 documentary about the circulatory system directed by none other than Frank Capra.
Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), who is bitter at foreign imports up to and including the gremlins taking over from American-made products, finds that his TV will only play kind of the ultimate foreign film, Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus.
My favorite Easter egg takes places in the local bar, where the TV is barely visible. IMDB informs me that what’s showing on it is the 1949 Pepe Le Peu cartoon For Scent-imental Reasons, directed by Chuck Jones. And guess who’s the customer walking along the bar, looking at it? Chuck Jones himself. (Phoebe Cates is the waitress, Judge Reinhold the dude on the left.)
The one movie-in-this-movie whose point I can’t quite figure out is To Please a Lady(1950), which looks to be a pretty bad car-racing movie starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. But Gizmo and Billy’s dog clearly don’t share my opinion. There’s probably an in-joke in there somewhere, and if anyone can spot it, please let me know.
I was looking around on the invaluable Films in Films site and came on an entry for Roy Del Ruth’s 1932 movie Taxi. (Films in Films lists it as Taxi! but the original posters and such do not have an exclamation mark.) FIF says the film includes scenes from the same director’s Side Show, released the previous year. This was exciting to me because, up till now, the earliest example I’ve found of a sound film using clips from another sound film is Wild Boys of the Road (1933), which uses Footlight Parade. And Taxi came out more than a year earlier.
The movie-in-movie situation turned out to be a bit more complicated than that, which I’ll get to in a minute. But to start, Taxi (available for rental on Amazon Prime) is a weird, wonderful, and disturbing movie. The bread and butter of impressionists used to be James Cagney saying, “You dirty rat. You killed my brother.” And that started with Taxi, where Cagney plays New York City cabdriver Matt Nolan. As with many famous lines, he didn’t say exactly those words. A bad guy does indeed kill his brother, and in one improbable plot turn, Matt’s wife, Sue (Loretta Young), gives some assistance to the killer. Matt shoves Sue around (he’s always socking people, dames included) and says, “The dirty rat kills Danny and you help him get away with it!” Later, a la R. Kelly, the killer is locked in a closet and Matt exclaims, “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat or I’ll give it to ya through the door!” Spoiler alert: he goes ahead and shoots. Matt’s a true sociopath, and the disturbing thing is the movie pretty much gives him a pass on that.
Taxi also has this kind of amazing scene:
Cagney was born on the Lower East Side and really did speak Yiddish. An article in the Forward summarizes what’s going on here:
The man tells the policeman that he urgently needs to go to Ellis Island because his wife and children are due to arrive and becomes incensed that the cop cannot understand his “plain Mame-Loshn.” After insulting the cop, calling him fat and a dummy — literally: a “gentile head” — the Jewish man asks Matt if he is a fellow member of the tribe. “What else would I be, a sheygets?,” Cagney’s character responds. (Sheygets is the male equivalent of a shiksa.)
And one more little sidelight. In another amazing scene, Sue and Matt enter a foxtrot contest, and who should beat them out but an uncredited George Raft, in one of his first roles?
I came to Taxi after watching Footlight Parade and a bunch of other Warner Brothers pre-Code musicals, and it’s fun to watch members of the Warners stock company like Guy Kibbee and George E. Stone show up in non-musical roles. In this sequence, Matt and Sue go to the movies with Stone (as fellow cabbie Skeets) and Leila Bennett, playing a wise-cracking waitress, Ruby (and stealing the picture).
Gentle fun is poked at Warners star John Barrymore, and slightly less gentle at Paramount’s Fredric March, who had just played a Barrymore-like thespian in The Royal Family of Broadway. Ruby’s favorite, Joe E. Brown, was a comedy star at Warners.
Here’s the movie-in-movie:
In the entire history of movie-in-movies scenes, from silent days up through Mad Men, the predominant theme for the trope has been a contrast between the idealized or hokey, “Hollywood” world that the characters watch, and their own “real” world. (And the enduring richness of the trope, of course, derives from the fact that their world isn’t really real, either.) Here, what’s onscreen is hokey and Hollywood to the max: with stilted acting, lousy synchronization, and melodramatic lines like, “My life seems misspent. The meaning has gone out of everything and left only … ashes.” (The dialogue brings to mind the scene in Harold Pinter’s The Last Tycoon script where Robert DeNiro, playing an Irving Thalberg-like executive, rips a screenwriter for the line he’s penned in response to “I love you” — “And I you!”)
The Taxi characters’ reaction eliminates any doubt we might have about the badness of the movie they and we are watching. And by the way, Cagney’s line in reference to the male lead, Donald Cook –“His ears are too big” — is another in-joke. That was commonly said about another actor from a rival studio, MGM’s Clark Gable.
Now as to the identity of that crummy movie. The marquee says it’s Her Hour of Love — “GREATEST PICTURE OF ALL TIME.” (Hardy har har.) There is no such film, though One Hour of Love was a 1927 silent. Both Films in Films and IMDB say the actual footage is from Side Show, directed by Del Ruth in 1931. That is not true, as I can attest now that I’ve seen Side Show, which is available for rental on YouTube. That film does indeed feature Cook and Evalyn Knapp (the onscreen lovers) but it’s a circus-set comic adventure. Del Ruth, Cook, and Knapp worked up this scene especially for Taxi.
So Wild Boys of the Road still hasn’t been displaced. Taxi does, however, hold the distinction of being the first movie to include clips from a fake movie, and that is not nothing.
The trope of TV characters watching TV has been remarked on, including here and here ). It’s especially common in the angsty cable dramas of the 200s and 2010s, like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, and The Sopranos, where the fakery and cheesiness of what’s on the screen-within-the-screen not only contrasts ironically with the struggles of Tony Soprano, Walter White, et al., but works as clever branding: Look how fake old-time TV is! Our show is real!
It’s rarer on these shows when characters hie themselves to a cinema and watch a movie. One such instance comes in the 2013 Mad Men episode “The Flood,” directed by Chris Manley, set on the day and aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
And here’s the complete spoiler alert. This post will not only reveal plot elements of “The Flood” but also the ending of the movie Don Draper and his son watch. I take pains to point that out, because when the episode first appeared in 2013, people got mad!
At this point in the series, Don (Jon Hamm) is divorced from his first wife, Betty. As the scene opens, his new wife, Megan, has taken two of his kids to Central Park memorial for King. (Such a vigil really took place. It was attended by 20,000 people and it was peaceful, though still doesn’t seem quite the right place to bring a baby.) Bobby Draper (Mason Vale Cotton) stays in the apartment with Don. Even though Bobby has been punished by his mother and isn’t allowed to watch TV, he is in fact watching TV — already, he’s taken on some of the trademark Draper rule-bending. The particular TV show he’s watching is the sitcom McHale’s Navy, with Ernest Borgnine and Joe Flynn, presumably chosen for maximum cheesiness and fakery. (At least it wasn’t Hogan’s Heroes.)
In the last few seconds of the clip, you can see Don’s mental gears trying to figure out how he can bend the no-TV rule, and an audio clue to his solution. We cut to (and here’s one final spoiler alert):
Right, it’s the famous, shocking ending of POTA. You can see how people who hadn’t gotten around to seeing the movie, even after 45 years, might be annoyed.
In any case, it’s a nice moment in Mad Men. There should be a word for the phenomenon at the end of a really good movie when the audience sits in silence for a few seconds — letting it all sink in, maybe drying a tear or two — before saying anything to their companions. That’s what’s going on here, as well as Don’s appreciation of Bobby’s appreciation of the film. As he acknowledges later in the episode, for him, such paternal moments don’t come easily or often.
October 1933 could well be the all-time high point of movies-it-movies. It marked the premiere of Wild Boys of the Road and Footlight Parade, as previously discussed, and also of Bombshell, which opened on the 13th. In my opinion, Bombshell isn’t as good a movie as the other two — it’s pretty mean and sour, and too long — but boy is it meta.
An MGM production directed by Victor Fleming (later to helm The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind), it stars Jean Harlow as Lola Burns, a Hollywood blonde “bombshell” (the movie coined the term) who’s based on part on Harlow herself and in part on Fleming’s ex-lover Clara Bow, aka “The It Girl.” (The phrase is applied to Lola in Bombshell.) The movie-in-movie comes at the start of the picture, after a very nifty and clever montage that shows a little of what goes into being a bombshell. And by the way, that’s the real boxer Primo Carnera sparring with Lola.
The clip we see is a Harlow-Clark Gable clinch from Red Dust, a Fleming MGM picture, set in French Indochina, released the year before. That’s enough to earn this post a “Watching yourself” tag, but soon things get even more self-referential, and weird. Lola is told that because of a request from the Hays Office, she needs to go into the studio to do “retakes on Red Dust.” But that doesn’t make sense! Red Dust is already done and dusted, so to speak; we’ve just seen it playing in the theater. The other strange thing is that before 1934, the Hays Office — the outfit headed by Will Hays that was supposed to keep Hollywood fare moral — had no authority to ask for retakes, or basically anything.
A sign of that is Bombshell itself, where we’re told that Lola is “supposed to wear the dress without the brassiere,” and most definitely does so. And where there’s double entendre dialogue galore. Journalist to Lola, praising the scheduling skills of the studio publicist played by Lee Tracy, with whom she has a romantic history: “He can always fit things in.” Lola, rolling her eyes: “He certainly can.”
One of the most famous examples of pre-Code laxity is the scene in Red Dust where Harlow, clearly naked, takes a bath in a rain barrel. And sure enough, that’s the scene that, in Bombshell, supposedly needs a retake. She shows up on the set, eyes the barrel, and says, “Back in Indochina again. Say, where’s Clark? Isn’t he working this with me.” The answer is no. Apparently, a Gable appearance would be too self-referential even for Bombshell.
I am very excited about writing this post. Why wouldn’t I be? First of all, it moves forward by sixteen years the blog’s first noting of a movie with a scene of a sound movie. Hitherto, it was White Heat, from 1949. But the redoubtable Ben Zimmer pointed me in the direction of these two Warner Brothers pictures from 1933.
And that’s another reason this post blows my wig. (Trying to throw in some thirties slang here.) It deals with my favorite period from my favorite studio. One picture, Footlight Parade, is in my favorite genre, musicals, and I have a history with the other one. When I was in college lo these many years ago, one of the high points of junior year was when the film society screened Wild Boys of the Road (admittedly, I didn’t get out much). And I’m please to say that the movie — available for rental on Amazon Prime or Apple TV — holds up like aces.
As for that question of firsts, it’s a tight race. Footlight opened October 21, 1933, and Wild Boys on October 7, so the latter gets the nod. This is a little confusing since Footlight is the very movie that’s seen in Wild Boys, but Warners obviously had the print and probably saw the opportunity for some cross-promotion for an upcoming title.
And that’s not all when it comes to promotion. Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman, opens up at a high-school dance where the music includes “We’re in the Money,” “Shadow Waltz,” and “Pettin’ in the Park” — all Harry Warren/Al Dubin tunes from the Warners musicals Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street.
Pretty soon the Depression — and I can’t think of a film that confronts it more starkly and strikingly — forces the families of Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) into hard times, and forces to boys to ride the rails in search of work. Wellman follows their journey, including some truly shocking episodes, in almost documentary style. Along the way, the boys befriend a wild girl of the road, Sally, played by Dorothy Coonan, whom Wellman would marry the following year. (She was nineteen at the time of filming, older than she looked.) Coonan’s background was in musicals, and when the group lands in New York, Sally turns out to have some terpsiochorean skills that come in handy. And the song she’s hoofing to? “42nd Street,” from the 1933 Warners musical of the same name.
Meanwhile, Eddie has found a way to make even easier money. A couple of well-dressed guys say they’ll give him five bucks for delivering an envelope to the ticket-taker at at a movie theater across the street. (After he gives her the envelope, he starts whistling “Shadow Waltz.”)
In the scene from Lloyd Bacon’s Footlight Parade that’s playing, Broadway director Chester Kent (James Cagney) is talking to his two financial backers, played by Guy Kibbee (the bald one) and Arthur Hohl.
In Footlight Parade itself, the movie-in-movie scene comes earlier, near the start of the picture. Cagney and his assistant (Gordon Westcott) are on their way to see Kibbee and Hohl for a meeting. And don’t miss, at the start of the clip, that kinetic Cagney walk.
The film on the screen is The Telegraph Trail, a Warners “oater” from earlier in ’33. (The posters outside advertise Slaves of the Desert, but there is no such movie.) And yes, you’re right, that’s young John Wayne kissing the girl in the final scene. His sidekick, seen earlier, is Frank McHugh, who’s also in Footlight Parade. The picture doesn’t come across as the kind of thing that would put an entire art form out of business, and in fact it was a B picture, one of many Wayne churned out every year at that point in his career. Probably, this was a joke on Bacon’s part.
Another joke, and another bit of Warner Brothers cross-promotion, comes in a scene where Cagney, having worked all night, is having breakfast with his secretary (Joan Blondell, wonderful as always). There on the table, big as life, is half a grapefruit. It’s clearly (to me, anyway) a nod to the famous scene in another Warners picture, Public enemy, where Cagney shoved that very same citrus fruit into the kisser of Mae Clarke.
Parts I and II of this roundup have taken note of a striking degree of self-consciousness in early movies, maybe not surprising considering that the medium was so new and so popular. And there are even more silent movies about the movies than the ones I did and will discuss, including Will Rogers’ Doubling for Romeo (1921), Hollywood (1923), Mary of the Movies (1923), and Fascinating Youth (1926).
As far as I know (none are readily available and Hollywood and FascinatingYouth are lost), none of those have movie-in-movie scenes. Show People (1928) does. It’s in some ways the mirror image of Souls for Sale: they share a storyline of an unknown actress making it in the movies and a lot of inside Hollywood stuff, including many cameos. (Appearing as themselves in the later film are the director, King Vidor, as well as John Gilbert, Mae Murray, Elinor Glyn, Lew Cody, Aileen Pringle, Karl Dane, George K. Arthur, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and William S. Hart.) But Souls for Sale makes the case for pathos and melodrama as the movies’ killer app, while Show People flies the banner of comedy.
Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried in the current Netflix film Mank) is Peggy Pepper, a Georgia girl who wants to make it in pictures. But unlike Mem in Souls for Sale, she’s got a talent for comedy, revealed in her reaction to being sprayed with seltzer in her very first scene. The script called for her to get hit in the face with a pie. But Davies’ lover, William Randolph Hearst, objected to this and Vidor changed the scene. (Not sure if seltzer is more dignified than custard.) And by the way, at least until Mank came along, the widespread sense was that Davies was a no-talent trophy mistress — established mainly by the famous Citizen Kane shot of a stagehand holding his nose at the Davies character’s performance. But she is really good in Show People.
The clip — from Vimeo, with subtitles in Spanish and English — starts with the seltzer scene, then moves on to a sneak preview of the picture. Next to Davies in the theater and (with added mustache) sharing a bicycle with her in the unnamed comedy is Billy Boone (William Haines); the guy punching the air with enthusiasm (and offering the timeless acting advice, “Don’t anticipate!”) is the director of the movie-in-movie, played by Harry Gribbon.
I’ve given this post a “The transporting power of popular film” tag, bestowed when a movie-in-movie, usually a comedy, is shown giving an audience joy. (Sullivan’s Travels, a photo from which is at the top of the blog, is still to me the greatest example.) But the sort of film Peggy wants to act in is exemplified by the feature that follows the sneak preview.
If you didn’t watch the above clip above, I hope you do so now, because I think it’s my favorite of all the dozens on this blog, partly because the brief scene from Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) — with John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman (from Souls for Sale) — represents the very first example I’ve found of a real movie being shown in another movie. But even greater than that is the kind of magnificent humility it shows on Vidor’s part. You see, Vidor also directed Bardelys, and for him to mock it here, to the point of having Billy call it a “punk drama” … well, self-consciousness doesn’t get any better than that.
The clip ends with a delicious Easter Egg featuring a cameo from the biggest movie star of all, who actually was known for collecting autographs.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), which was directed by Anthony Asquith and subsequently retitled Escape from Dartmoor, is a fitting end to the roundup: not only is it on the cusp of the transition to sound films, but it addresses the transition to sound films. The movie-in-movie scene is a whopping twelve and a half minutes long, rivaling those in A Star Is Bornand New York, New York. But, as we’ll see, there’s a key difference.
At a barbershop, customer Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) flirts with manicurist Sally (Norah Baring) and asks (we read in a title), “Will you come with me to a talkie to-night?” She apparently says yes, because in the very next scene, they’re settling into their seats. And here’s the difference from every other movie featured in this blog: from this point till the end of the sequence, we don’t see what’s going on on onscreen, only the reactions of the audience. It’s a tour de force on the part of director Asquith, not entirely successful, but you have to give him credit for trying.
And there’s a lot that’s interesting in the sequence, to be sure. We do get some internal clues as to what they’re watching, including a brief shot of what appears to be a poster:
The Harold Lloyd picture is a silent — and there are plenty of shots of the full orchestra that accompanies it. (The inventive score on the Vimeo print is by Peter Reiter.) Thirteen years on fromLuke’s Movie Muddle, Lloyd has acquired a mature style, stardom, and trademark eyeglasses. This clip starts with the orchestra, moves to on to creepy Joe (Uno Henning), who’s stalking Harry and Sally, and ends with the cleverest bit in the sequence, which is based on the recognizability of Lloyd’s eyewear.
Asquith himself plays the bespectacled moviegoer.
Schlettow was German and Henning Swedish (back in silent days, that type of international casting was easier), and A Cottage on Dartmoor was a joint British-Swedish production. The movie-house scene is quite different in the version released in Sweden, which I haven’t seen. It’s apparently a good seven minutes shorter, and clips of Lloyd’s Hot Water (1924) are actually seen.
As I said, A Cottage on Dartmoor, a silent film, addresses the imminent move to sound films — and not in a positive way. You can tell Asquith’s position on the matter by the poster advertising an “ALL TALKING!! ALL SINGING!! ALL DANCING!!” adaptation of a play by Shakespeare, misspelled. Then there’s the audience reaction — which varies from engagement, to befuddlement (the old woman with an ear trumpet who can’t hear what’s going on), to boredom: the orchestra members pass around beer and sandwiches and play cards, and at least two people in the audience fall asleep.
According to the British Film Institute, this sequence originally had a soundtrack, but it’s now lost. Reiter’s scoring on Vimeo print contains some dialogue supposedly from My Woman. It’s muffled for the most part, but at one point you clearly hear a woman’s voice saying, “I think I’ve lost one of my gloves. I think I left it at the other table.” That sounded familiar to me — and sure enough, it’s from Alfred Hitchock’s Blackmail, which came out a few months earlier than Cottage but was a talkie, British film’s first. Slipping those lines in was an amazing move on Reiter’s part, and I take my hat off to him.