‘The Searchers’ and ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’ in ‘Mean Streets’

Taxi Driver wasn’t the first time Martin Scorsese had his characters see a movie in a Times Square theater. Mean Streets came out three years earlier, in 1973; if was the director’s third feature, but the one that really put him on the map. The film is set in New York’s Little Italy and could have been titled (as Woody Allen later indeed called a movie) Small Time Crooks. The smallest-time hustle comes when Michael (Richard Romanus) and Tony (David Proval) fleece two teenagers who’ve come downtown from Riverdale — a Bronx neighborhood that’s probably the most well-to-do in New York City — to score some “firecrackuhs.” Flush with their winnings, they spot their pal Charlie (Harvey Keitel).

 

Probably the most important thing to know about Scorsese, other than his movie-making prowess, is that he’s a world-champion film buff. He lets all his buff-ness out in this sequence, which re-imagines early-’70s W. 42nd Street as — unlike the grindhouse reality — a rare and wonderful cinema repertory center. Just check out the extremely eclectic titles we see on the marquees. [For more on this point, see Update, below.]

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Moving left to right, that’s George C. Scott in Rage and Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement; an unknown film that starts with Scho — any nominations?; Tony Curtis in Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came; three French films — Borsalino, And Hope to Die, and Rider on the Rain; and, finally a realistic touch, two porn movies, Rose Bud and Eighteen Carat Virgin. The latter is an actual film, but I haven’t been able to find Rose Bud in any of the usual reference works. Maybe it’s Scorsese’s cinephile joke about what a porno version of Citizen Kane might be called.

Michael, Charlie, and Tony see yet another film, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956); on the screen is an awkward fight scene, an implicit commentary on all the fist-fights in Mean Streets. Fair enough, but it’s inconceivable that this critical darling (ranked as the seventh-greatest movie of all time in a 2012 Sight & Sound survey, and the model for probably half the serious American films of the ’70s) would be playing in a Times Square theater in 1973. In any case, it’s a droll touch that the three buddies are more interested in and amused by the carryings-on of their fellow patrons than the Searchers scene.

As Mean Streets progresses, shit gets realer and realer, with a lot of the trouble stemming from Charlie’s loose-cannon friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in his breakout role), who eventually angers someone he really shouldn’t have angered. Charlie borrows a car and after Johnny Boy dances around a bit to the great Smokey Robinson tune “Mickey’s Monkey,” they head out. Where else? To the movies.

This time, on the screen is a truly horrible film, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). IMDB plot summary: “A man’s obsession with his dead wife drives a wedge between him and his new bride.” Same old same old.

 

A few points worth mentioning. First, in contrast to the Searchers scene, Charlie and Johnny Boy pay rapt attention. That may be a Scorsesean commentary on the power of cheap entertainment, a la Sullivan’s Travels, or it may just be because they really need something to take their mind off their troubles.

Second, Ligeia was directed by schlockmaster Roger Corman (and written by Robert Towne), which is significant because Corman gave Scorsese a directing job on his previous film, Boxcar Bertha (1972).

Finally, the coming attraction posters in the lobby where Charlie makes a phone call are, of course, very carefully chosen. John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) is another critics’ darling, and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), with Ray Milland, is another Roger Corman cult classic. Most significant of all is John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970). This is from a 2010 interview with Scorsese in The Telegraph:

[Scorsese’s] first feature-length film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, in 1968, was a semi-auto­­biographical neighbourhood story of a young Italian-American (Harvey Keitel) who discovers that his girlfriend has been raped. When Cassavetes saw the film he declared it ‘better than Citizen Kane, it’s got more heart’. Cassavetes became a close friend and mentor – unstinting in his support of Scorsese, and unsparing in his criticism. Scorsese remembers that when he made his first feature in Hollywood in 1972 for the producer Roger Corman, the Depression-era exploitation film Boxcar Bertha, Cassavetes told him, ‘You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.’

Thus chastened, Scorsese returned for his next film to the Mean Streets he knew. And the rest is history.

Update: When I put a link to this post on Facebook, the very smart linguist and author Ben Zimmer had some issues, noting, “You think Scorsese at that stage in his career would have had the wherewithal to redo all the marquees with movies of his liking? Those look like the real exteriors to me (and it’s not like he could’ve just CGI-ed them).

I responded (defensively) that I was around New York City in the early ’70s, and certainly did not remember 42nd Street theaters as being a home to foreign and art films. But on reflection I concluded Ben was most probably correct. Subsequently, Mr. Zimmer did some stellar research, reporting:

Assuming these are the real marquees from real location shooting and not the result of some crazy composite, I think the shot would have to be from late 1972 at the earliest, because that’s when “Rage” and “And Hope to Die” got released in NYC (11/22/72 and 11/29/72 respectively). It’s a bit odd that there are also movies from 1970 as well (“Suppose They Gave a War” and “Rider on the Rain”), but I guess they could’ve been still going as second-run releases. “Borsalino” was another 1970 release… In fact, when it opened in NYC, the Apollo on 42nd St. was one of the theaters where it played, according to this Village Voice ad. So at least we know you could see arty French movies on that stretch of theaters at the time…

Here’s a screen shot of part of the 1970 Village Voice ad he mentions:

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It’s fascinating to me that this movie would have played on 42nd Street, in a Manhattan art house (the Greenwich), and suburban theaters as well, including the Main Street in my 1970 residence, New Rochelle, N.Y.!

In conclusion, I concede that that the Mean Street marquees are real. That leave the posters and movies-in-movies, which I still maintain were purposefully chosen by Scorsese. I hope Ben Zimmer agrees.

 

 

 

 

‘Day of the Dead’ and ‘Back to the Future’ in ‘Stranger Things’

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Lucas on New Coke: “Sweeter, bolder, better.”

The Netflix series Stranger Things has two things in common with The Sopranos. First, it’s very good. Second, a lot of television is watched in it. I just went through the IMDB “Connections” for the 1980s-set Stranger Things and was reminded that the material visible on characters’ TV sets over the course of three seasons includes the series Knight Rider, All My Children, Magnum P.I., Punky Brewster, Cheers (three times), and Family Feud (twice), and the movies Mr. Mom, Frankenstein, and The Thing (John Carpenter’s 1982 remake).

The show, which was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, collectively known as the Duffer Brothers, is quite smart about all of this, with the TV stuff often implicitly commenting on the characters and action. Thus Hopper (David Harbour), a well-meaning but perpetually frustrated paunchy cop in small-town Hawkins, Indiana, is shown watching Tom Selleck’s glamorous Magnum. And Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is ambivalent about her extraordinary powers, to say the least, is transfixed by Boris Karloff as the monster first imagined by Mary Shelley. As Anna Leskiewicz observed in The New Statesman,

Eleven sits on a sofa, hugging a teddy bear tight to her chest. She’s watching a black and white film on a static-filled TV screen. “Who are you? I’m Maria,” a girl says. “Will you play with me?” It’s the 1931 Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster looks at Maria with the same blank expression Eleven has when she’s learning a new word. As Maria and the monster wonder off, hand in hand, Eleven looks as though she’s on the verge of tears. She’s just a child, but it’s clear that she feels caught between both characters: the monster and the girl.

There’s a lot of what you might call intertextuality going on here. A Terminator trailer turns up on TV in season two, and a major bad guy in season three is Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko), who’s one big Terminator callback, down to the big gun and the Schwarzenegger-esque hairdo. The likable Russian informant Alexei is seen laughing uproariously at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon; a couple of episodes later, he wins a big stuffed Woody Woodpecker at the town fair. The glimpse of John Carpenter’s Thing (a character also has a poster for it in his room) is perhaps an acknowledgement that the demon/monster in Stranger Things is quite Thing-y. In Season 3, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) cracks open a can of New Coke. (Stranger Things’ shamelessness about product placement is part of its cheesy charm.) His buddy asks, “How do even drink that?” Lucas responds: “It’s like Carpenter’s The Thing. The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake … sweeter, bolder, better.”

It goes on. Red Dawn (1984) gets several mentions in season three, because the Soviets-take-over-small-town plot of that film is pretty much what’s going in on ST. And, more broadly, the whole series respectfully and artfully borrows themes, look, and vibe of ’80s kids-against-the world movies like E.T.., The Goonies, and Stand By Me.

But only twice do characters see a movie in the theater, both times in season three. In the first episode, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” (written and directed by the Duffers), Steve (Joe Keery) is working at the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop at the Starcourt Mall, hence the ridiculous sailor suit. He shows the kids a back way to sneak into the mall’s multi-screen theater.

Day of the Dead (1985) was written and directed by George Romero, and is a sort of sequel to his seminal zombie pic Night of the Living Dead. One obvious connection is that zombie-like creatures will indeed show up in Hawkins later in the season. Another is that, as Elena Nicolaou pointed out on Refinery 29, the movie and the series have “uncannily similar music. The Dead Suite, played in the opening scene of Day of the Dead, sure resembles a simplified and slowed-down version of the Stranger Things theme. Those staccato notes in a minor key are staircases to the same conclusion: We’re not headed anywhere good.” The temporary electrical blackout at the mall portends bad happenings as well.

Six episodes later, Steve, his Scoops Ahoy coworker Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and the breakout character of the season, no-nonsense Erica (Priah Ferguson), are sneaking into the mall multiplex again. This time it’s more urgent: they’re on the run from the Russian bad guys, who have given Steve and Robin some nasty bruises and (via a truth serum) a bad case of the giggles.

On the screen, of course, is Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, and Jen Chaney has made the case in Vulture that “Stranger Things 3 Is Basically One Big Back to the Future Homage.” She lists a lot of small and large similarities, including a scene in episode 1 where Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is late for work (the power outage messed up his alarm clock) and has to get dressed in a hurry:

Jonathan, wearing just a pair of briefs, puts one foot into his pants and loses his balance, falling forward out of the frame.

Vulture.com/via GIPHY

That is an exact duplicate of what Michael J. Fox, as Marty, does when he tries to get his jeans back on after his first 1955 meeting with the teenage version of his mother, Lorraine. Just in case you didn’t catch these Back to the Future hat tips, the Duffer Brothers, who created the series and wrote and directed this episode, follow them up by blasting a Huey Lewis and the News song — “Workin’ for a Livin’,” not “The Power of Love” — as Nancy marches purposefully to the office.

Vulture.com/via GIPHY

I have to admit I skimmed a lot of her article. That’s because she dealt with how the season ends and I haven’t watched episode eight yet. I’ve enjoyed this show so much I’ve kind of put it off as long as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Sexual Freedom in Denmark’ or ‘Language of Love’ in ‘Taxi Driver’

MarqueeWhen I started this blog, a friend and colleague, John Jebb, had an immediate reaction: “You’ve got to do Taxi Driver.

He was right.

The movie-in-movie scene in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film is strange, unique, and hard to forget. The taxi driver of the title, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), has somehow wangled a date with his dream girl, Betsy (Cybill Shephard at her 1970s dreamiest). Travis isn’t the savviest guy out there, and his choice of activity for the date, a double feature at a 42nd Street grind house, is spectacularly off. (The clip starts with a look at street drummer Gene Palma, a Times Square fixture in the 1970s and ’80s.)

It gets worse. Eventually, Betsy bolts.

At this point a curatorial note is in order. The Lyric marquee lists two films — Sometime Sweet Susan, an actual 1975 porn film, and Swedish Marriage Manual, which isn’t listed in IMDB or any other reference site I could find. IMDB says the movie on the screen in Taxi Driver is Sexual Freedom in Denmark (1969). But I think it’s more likely to be the Swedish Ur kärlekens språk (1969), translated in the U.S. as Language of Love. If anyone knows for sure, I would be interested in hearing from them.

Back to Taxi Driver, I have to say I find this scene a bit much. One has to suspend one’s disbelief enough just to accept that Betsy would agree to go out with Travis, and that he would be so out of touch to think that a skin flick is an appropriate first date. But the idea she would agree to walk into the movie and stay for as long as she does strikes me as way over the top. The genius.com website has a version of Paul Schrader’s screenplay, with some character notes, starting with Travis’s reaction to Betsy’s initial discomfort at the double bill:

Travis seems confused. He is so much part of his own world, he fails to comprehend another’s world. Compared to the movies he sees, this is respectable. But then there’s also something that Travis could not even acknowledge, much less admit: That he really wants to get this pure white girl into that dark porno theatre.

Travis makes an awkward gesture to escort Betsy into the theatre. Betsy looks at the tickets, at the theatre, at Travis. She mentally shakes her head and walks toward the turnstile. She thinks to herself: “What the Hell. What can happen?” She’s always been curious about these pictures anyway, and – like all women, no matter how intelligent – she’s been raised not to offend her date. A perverse logic which applies even more in offsetting circumstances like these.

I don’t know. It seems to me that Schrader and Scorsese were mainly trying to get as much uncomfortable awkwardness into one scene as they possibly could. If so, they succeeded.

Update: Ben Zimmer, a good friend of Movies in Other Movies, found and sent along “‘This is a dirty movie’ – Taxi Driver and ‘Swedish sin,’” a 2011 article by Elisabet Björklund that answers some of the questions I raised above.  She writes:

The film being shown is not an actual Swedish film, but a construction that has been cobbled together. The makers of Taxi Driver have been quite creative in making the film-within-the-film seem Swedish. All the footage is taken from the American sexploitation film Sexual Freedom in Denmark …, but a Swedish soundtrack has been added. This composite may be construed as a parody of Swedish films with sexually explicit content from around the time of the sexual revolution.

She goes on to describe the “added” soundtrack:

The first images show a man sitting at a desk talking to a woman.  In Sexual Freedom in Denmark, the scene is an interview by Ole Lassen – the Danish cicerone or narrator of the film in the parts shot in Denmark – with journalist Lizzie Bundgaard. In Taxi Driver, however, the scene has been manipulated to make it appear that we are watching a therapy session. On the soundtrack a man’s voice informs us in Swedish that many people have been able to eliminate old habits and patterns of behaviour through consultations. Then a woman’s voice says, ‘My parents were very strict. They told me that the body was the house of God. Sex was dirty, something to be ashamed of.’

Did this Swedish dialogue and narration come from another movie, or some other source, or did Scorsese and Schrader concoct it? Björklund acknowledges she doesn’t know, and thus there remains one open question about the sequence.

 

‘The Story of Ruth,’ ‘The Little Colonel,’ etc. in ‘The Shape of Water’

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) is soaked, saturated, inundated with movie love and consciousness, pun definitely intended. The look of the underwater creature around whom the plot revolves, identified in the credits as “Amphibian Man,” is copied from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The beauty-and-the-beast story is a King Kong update. Amphibian Man and Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the heroine, do an imaginary (?) black-and-white dance number that’s based on the Astaire-Rogers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet. (The song they dance to, “You’ll Never Know,” first appeared in the 1943 musical Hello, Frisco, Hello and is more or less the theme song of Shape of Water.)

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A gif of the big dance number, thanks to sixactstructure.com

Elisa’s close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist, has an in-progress drawing of Audrey Hepburn on an easel in his studio. He and Elisa live in apartments above The Orpheum cinema, and del Toro gives us to understand that the movies being projected seep through the floorboards and cast a spell on them.

As the film opens and the credits roll, we get a glimpse of one part of the double bill, the 1960 biblical epic The Story of Ruth (Shape of Water is set in 1962), playing to a near-empty house.

An article on the website Vox finds significance in the director’s choice of this film.

The most famous passage from the Book of Ruth is when Ruth, who is a Moabite, entreats her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her come to Israel with her, even after Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) has passed away. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” Ruth says. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

The words are spoken between a widow and her mother-in-law, but most people know the passage as a familiar reading at weddings. The devotion it expresses — love that transcends the speaker’s home, family, and beliefs about the world — is the purest distillation of what it is to fall in love and give oneself over to the commitment that entails.

It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same.

I can’t argue with any of that but I prefer to heed the filmmaker’s own words, regarding  all the films seen in The Shape of Water. That sizable list includes Mardi Gras (1958), a Pat Boone musical that makes an unlikely Orpheum double bill with Ruth, and four ’40s and ’30s musicals all seen at various times on Giles’s apparently never-turned-off television: That Night in Rio; Sun Valley Serenade; Hello, Frisco, Hello; Coney Island; and The Little Colonel, featuring yet another unlikely couple, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They inspire Elisa to do her own lovely impromptu dance.

Interviewed by Jason Garber shortly after the film’s release, del Toro said,

I spoke to [his friend director Alejandro Iñárritu] and he said to me I think it would be wise that the more obscure the movie, the better it is. The only one that is sort of famous is Little Colonel with Shirley Temple; the rest are really not well-known. Alejandro said that gives the movie a reality even in the fantasy. If everything is heightened, then tonally you’re screwed. I followed his advice and looked for specific movies that were in some instances kind of crappy, like the dancing horse number with Betty Grable or the beautiful but cheesy stuff in The Story of Ruth and the [truly goofy] bouncing giant ball in Mardi Gras.

In other words, sometimes a toga is just a toga. One more thing: Shape of Water was a Fox Searchlight production, and all the movies shown came from its predecessor company, Twentieth Century Fox, making it easier and cheaper to secure permissions.

There’s an interesting tension in The Shape of Water concerning screens. On one side is the big, enveloping one at the ornate Orpheum movie palace (actually the Elgin Theatre in Toronto), which never seems to have more than four or five patrons. On the other are comparatively tiny TV screens, which, when you look closely, are everywhere in this movie. As mentioned, Giles always has his set on, and so does the family of bad guy Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). At various times we see his kids watching the TV shows Hong Kong and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and the 1959 animated Mr. Magoo comedy 1001 Arabian Nights. (How’s that for obscure and cheesy?)

But that’s not all. As Elisa walks to her bus shop, she passes a TV shop with what appear to be nine sets in the window, all showing different hot-button news events of the early 1960s: JFK speaking, civil rights marchers, Vietnam helicopters. Not only is del Toro collapsing time but the very presence of nine TVs with different content is anachronistic: in 1962 there were only three networks and two or three independent stations in a market like Baltimore (the film’s setting); and they would never all be running news at the same time. Of course, you don’t watch a movie like The Shape of Water expecting realism.

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Television turns malignant when the scene moves to the top-secret research center where Amphibian Man is being kept. Whenever we see Strickland in his office, behind him are banks of monitors on which he keeps watch on everything and everyone in the facility. In a film that’s not infrequently heavy-handed, this is a subtle nod to a future (ours) where the promise of privacy is more and more swiftly starting to recede.

 

‘Flames of Passion’ in ‘Brief Encounter’

With this post, I inaugurate a new tag: “Double dip.” It indicates films that have a movie-in-movie scene, and are also watched in a movie-in-movie scene in another film. The only other one I can think of at the moment is The Shining, which has a scene where characters watch Summer of ’42, and which is screening on the doomed drive-in in Twister. Come to think of it, there’s actually a sort of triple dip there: Summer of ’42 has a scene in which characters are watching Now, Voyager. Watch this space for a fuller account.

The topic for today is Brief Encounter, which has been used in more than a dozen films and television shows. The star-crossed, married-to-other people lovers in David Lean’s 1945 classic, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), meet once a week for a day in town, and part of their routine is going to the cinema. We see them there twice. One of the films they watch is real but unidentifiable; the other is deeply fanciful.

First we see Laura and Alec watching a preview for the made-up film, Flames of Passion, evidently a sort of King Kong epic, which is everything Brief Encounter is not, starting with the exclamation-pointed self-proclaiming adjectives: Stupendous!, Colossal!! Gigantic!!! Epoch-Making!!! All the stuff that is repressed and suppressed in Lean’s film (made and released during World War II, set in 1938) is right out there in Flames; with its restive natives, stampeding elephants, and passionate kisses, it’s so blatant and on the nose that even the typeface for the title is made out of flames.

 

This movie is definitely fictional, but Flames of Passion has been used as the title of several films, most prominently a 1922 British melodrama and a 1989 gay love story, very loosely based on Brief Encounter.

The following week, they go back to see Flames of Passion, but first, a Donald Duck short. (IMDB identifies it as the 1938, “Donald’s Better Self,” but there’s no way to know for sure, as all we hear are some Donaldian quacks.)

 

Everybody laughs uproariously at the low comedy, which appears to offer not only relief but a sort of release from the world’s burdens — a familiar motif from Sullivan’s Travels, Sabotage, and Hail, Caesar!. What’s not familiar is the elevated level of Laura and Alec’s analysis, at least to those of us used to in-theater comments on the order of “Don’t go in there, you idiot!” (The screenplay, I should have noted earlier, is by Noel Coward.)

Alec: “The stars can change in their courses, the universe go up in flames, and the world crash around us, but there’ll always be Donald Duck.”

Laura: “I do love him so … his dreadful energy, and his blind, frustrated rages.”

Then the music starts and Alec says, “It’s the big picture now. Here we go. No more laughter. Prepare for tears.”

We see the opening title:

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A lot to parse there. First, the Roman numerals affirm the year as 1938. The apparent 180-degree transformation of Gentle Summer to Flames of Passion is presumably a sardonic commentary on Hollywood’s tendency to bastardize source material. And (the fictional) “Alice Porter Stoughey” refers to the then prominence of three-named, six-syllabled American female authors, such as Alice Duer Miller, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and especially Olive Higgins Prouty, whose 1941 novel Now, Voyager became the aforementioned hit Bette Davis melodrama the following year. (Prouty was an interesting figure, in part because of her subsequent close relationship with the much younger Sylvia Plath. Wikipedia tells us that she “supported Plath financially in the wake of Plath’s unsuccessful 1953 suicide attempt: Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, would later refer in Birthday Letters to how ‘Prouty was there, tender and buoyant moon.’ Many, including Plath’s mother Aurelia, have held the view that Plath employed her memories of Prouty as the basis of the character of ‘Philomena Guinea in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar.“)

Lean and Coward’s final comment on Hollywood is that the next thing we see is Alec and Laura leaving the theater. She says in voiceover narration: “It was a terribly bad picture. We crept out before the end, rather furtively, as though we were committing a crime.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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 Hail, Caesar! 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:

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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-a-vis 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 McDormand) 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.”