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.
Souls for Sale (1923) takes the comic premise of Mabel’s Dramatic Adventure seriously, and elongates it to feature length. Written and directed by Rupert Hughes (Howard’s uncle), the film also anticipates What Price Hollywood? (1932) and A Star Is Born (1937) and its sequels in telling the story of a young woman’s arrival in Hollywood and rise to stardom. The woman is named Remember “Mem” Steddon (Eleanor Boardman), and her arrival is by a circuitous route, including her honeymoon escape from her nogoodnik husband, played by Lew Cody.
A friendly actress (Barbara La Marr) helps her snag a screen test, and here the two women, along with director Frank Claymore (Richard Dix) and male star Tom Holby (Frank Mayo) watch the results.
Well, Frank does make an actress of her, and, due to a freak injury suffered by the star of a new production, Mem steps into the lead role. (Shades of 42nd Street.) The (unnamed) film is successful enough to be screened as far away as Egypt. Who but nogoodnik husband should be in the in a private box, in the process (he thinks) of ensaring his latest victim, when he sees Mem on screen and nearly does a spit take.
In addition to these scenes and ones shot on-set (including a tour de force conclusion), Souls for Sale has (as Roger Ebert wrote in 2009, when a restored version of the film aired on TCM), “cameo roles showing Charles Chaplin directing a scene while puffing furiously on a cigarette, Erich von Stroheim allegedly working on “Greed” and such other stars as Barbara La Marr, Jean Hersholt, Chester Conklin and Claire Windsor.” All of this adds up to probably the first example of a film taking a serious look at movies and the industry that was growing up to turn them out.
Normally, I don’t write about examples of people watching newsreels (or TV news), but I’m including Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) for the historical record. The film was directed by Harry Edwards and stars Harry Langdon as a guy who enters a cross-country walking race to impress a girl (Joan Crawford!). Apparently, the event is newsy enough to reach the theater frequented by Langdon’s father, played by Alec B. Francis.
I feel a little sheepish to say that up till now, this blog has had only one post on a silent movie — Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. That situation is about to be corrected thanks to Don McHoull. A week or so ago, Michael Tisserand alerted me to this kind of amazing video Mr. McHoull had compiled and tweeted out, under the handle @silentmoviegifs:
I immediately asked McHoull what the movies were, and he promptly responded with a list. One was Sherlock Jr.; I’ve spent a good part of the last week enjoyably sorting out the rest and figuring where they fit into Movies in Other Movies. One that I put aside was Keaton’s A Frozen North. It contains the closing image of the montage — Buster being awakened in a movie theater — but it doesn’t have any actual movies in it. In this post and a following one, I’ll consider the rest — plus two others that emerged in my research — in chronological order. I’ll add that they were a revelation and a delight, in showing me a whole meta level of early movies that I didn’t know existed. Finally, all the films can be seen, in one version or other, on YouTube and/or Vimeo.
Those Awful Hats is a gem, and as far as I know the very first movie-in-movie. Here’s the whole two minutes forty-five seconds of it:
The director was D.W. Griffith, just embarking on his second year of movie-making. (He’d put out about fifty shorts in his first, 1908, so he had already acquired a fair amount of experience.) The movie — before a deus ex machina draws things to a speedy conclusion — is a witty commentary on on hats, on the behavior and etiquette of movie houses, and (judging by what’s on the screen) by the mayhem that could pass for cinematic entertainment in 1909.
Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913), not in the McHoull montage, was put forward by Ben Zimmer (who found it on the Films in Films site) when I raised this topic on Facebook. The short, directed by Mack Sennett, is meta to a high degree. Sennett plays a character named Mack who romantically rejects the family maid, Mabel, played by Mabel Normand. She’s eventually fired and, while job-hunting, somehow finds her way to a Keystone Studios set where a movie is being made. She’s hired to appear in the film, which — kicking the meta up a notch — is At Twelve O’Clock, a real Keystone movie starring the real Normand.
Time passes, during which Mack realizes he loves Mabel. He passes by a movie house, sees an At Twelve O’Clock poster with Mabel’s picture on it, buys a ticket, and goes inside. The clip starts on the movie set, where Mabel has just demonstrated her ability to do a pratfall. (And this makes me realize there could be a blog about movies containing scenes of movies being made. If anyone’s interested, you’re welcome.)
Quite a few things to note here, starting with the blatant product placement of a “Keystone” frame onscreen. (Mack applauds when he sees it.) Then there’s a new comic trope in this subgenre: the idea that, with movies being so new, a spectator might have a hard time telling film from reality.
And there’s the identity of the film within the film — interesting to me because I’d like to be able to name the first instance where movie characters watch a real movie. (All the other examples in this post have fake films-in-films.) Internal clues would suggest that Mack is watching At Twelve O’ Clock (1913), and Films in Films blog asserts this is the case. I don’t think it is (though I can’t be sure because At Twelve O’Clock isn’t extant) for two reasons: what we see of the movie-in-movie doesn’t match published descriptions of At Twelve O’Clock, and what we see is so exaggerated as to suggest a spoof of movies, not a real one.
I posed the question to silent film historian Steve Massa, and he agreed, pointing out that what we see doesn’t match plot description in reviews of At Twelve O’Clock, and that the villain in the movie-in-movie is Fred Mace, while villain in At Twelve O’Clock is Ford Sterling. So my earliest example of a real movie being used, at this point, is still Who Killed Cock Robin? in Hitchcock’s Sabotage(1936).
A Film Johnnie (1914), directed by George Nichols, is an early Charlie Chaplin gem. It also invokes the can’t-tell-movies-from-real-life idea. (“Steals” is such a harsh term, and it’s done better here as well.) In this scene, Charlie’s character has just fallen in love with the actress on the screen (Peggy Pearce) and is driven to action when a brute manhandles her.
I don’t like ending with an anticlimax, but the last to be considered in this post is the weakest of the four, Luke’s Movie Muddle (1916), starring Harold Lloyd and directed by Hal Roach. Lloyd made it early in his career, when he was doing the “Lonesome Luke” character — basically, down to the mustache, a Chaplin knockoff. (A harsh word, but it fits.) Here, Luke is a sort of jackass-of-all-trades at a movie house, where everything that can go wrong does.
Befitting the movie’s lack of distinction is the extremely bland footage that Roach (who would go on to better things) chooses to put on the screen. At one point, it’s just a bunch of people milling around on the street. And then there’s this exciting shot. (At the end of the clip, you can see Lloyd’s Chaplin shtick.)
Next: From shorts to features, and another appearance (sort of) by Harold Lloyd.
Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971) was based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. Wikipedia’s description of the book’s setting: ” a pandemic … has killed most of the human population and turned the remainder into ‘vampires’ that largely conform to their stereotypes in fiction and folklore: they are blood-sucking, pale-skinned, and nocturnal, though otherwise indistinguishable from normal humans.”
The protagonist, Robert Neville, appears to be the only survivor of the pandemic. He spends his days patrolling Los Angeles, looking to kill vampires with wooden stakes. and his nights inside his apartment, looking to stay alive. Matheson says that he occasionally screens movies for himself but doesn’t name them.
Sagal and screenwriters John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington decided to show Neville (Charlton Heston) actually watching a film — not at home but out in the world. (A previous film version was The Last Man on Earth, 1964, with Vincent Price — no movie in movie.) The present day of The Omega Man is 1977; the pandemic had hit seven years earlier, when Woodstock was playing in theaters. Neville, it appears, has developed an odd obsession with that documentary, perhaps because the utopian hippie dreams in it appear so quaint in the light of his harsh world.
He’s equipped one cinema with a generator. We see him power it up, spool the film in a projector, and watch it for the umpteenth time, his rifle lovingly cradled beside him.
His comment at the end of the clip is an example of a cliche made literal.
Matheson’s book got adapted again in 2007, under Francis Lawrence’s direction and with Will Smith as Neville. This time, his much-watched movie is Shrek, and he watches it at home with a mother and son with whom he’s joined forces. That mirrors the Shrek scene, where the characters voiced by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy form an alliance of their own.
The Cider House Rules (1985) is my favorite John Irving novel, and I liked the 1999 film adaptation by Lasse Hallström a lot, too. Preparing this post made me appreciate a particular difference between the two versions. In the book, characters are always reading Victorian novels: Dickens’s David Copperfield, Little Dorritt, and Great Expectations, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. That’s no coincidence, for Irving successfully (in my view) modeled his own book after these older works.
Skimming through the novel, which takes place during World War II, I find only one reference to a film. The main character, Homer Larch, who has been raised in a Maine orphanage run by the obstetrician Dr. Wilber Larch, goes to his first drive-in movie, also, judging by his reaction, his first movie of any kind.
… a gigantic image filled the sky. It is something’s mouth! thought Homer Wells. The camera backed, or rather, lurched away. Something’s head-a kind of horse! thought Homer Wells. It was a camel, actually, but Homer Wells had never seen a camel, or a picture of one; he thought it was a horribly deformed horse-a mutant horse! Perhaps some ghastly fetus-phase of a horse! The camera staggered back farther. Mounted by the camel’s grotesque hump was a black-skinned man almost entirely concealed in white wrapping-bandages! thought Homer Wells. The ferocious black Arab nomad brandished a frightening curved sword; whacking the lumbering camel with the flat of the blade, he drove the beast into a faulty, staggering gallop across such endless sand dunes that the animal and its rider were soon only a speck on the vast horizon. Suddenly, music! Homer jumped. Words! The titles, the names of the actors were written in the sand by an invisible hand.
It turns out to be a pirate picture, and the black man on the horse is never seen again, but Homer comes to identify with him–a Bedouin, a wanderer with no home. (And by the way, I assume Irving had a real pirate movie in mind, and I’d be interested in any thoughts or nominations for what it might have been.)
By contrast, the film version of Cider House (Irving won an Oscar for his screenplay) foregrounds movies. We’re given to understand that on movie night Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) screens the same film for the children and staff, because one movie, made way back in 1933 and showing a lot of wear and tear, is all he has has. Nobody, including Homer (Tobey Maguire), seems to mind. In the clip, the movie scene starts at about the 1:45 mark.
Later, Fuzzy (the boy who says Kong thinks Fay Wray is his mother), ill and under a makeshift oxygen tent, has a private screening of King Kong.
Homer starts dating Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and we see them going to two movies, both starring Laurence Olivier. Here, they watch a scene from Rebecca (1940) where Olivier dances with Joan Fontaine. (The voice over is Dr. Larch, reciting a letter to Homer.)
Another time, they walk out of a theater having seen Wuthering Heights (1939), with Olivier and Merle Oberon, and discuss the movie. For not having seen many films, Homer shows himself to be a pretty sharp film critic.
But you looked as if you liked it.
I *did* like it. All I said was,
"It's not 'King Kong'."
TCM recently had a Charlie Chaplin day in its annual “Summer Under the Stars” festival, and Michael Tisserand alerted me to a nifty sequence in A King in New York (1957), Chaplin’s second-to-last film and the last in which he appeared. (The final film he directed was A Countess from Hong Kong, in 1967.) He plays the king of a mythical country who is forced out by revolution; his name, Shahdav, suggests a reference to the Shah of Iran, who ruled from 1941 till 1979. Shadav’s destination is New York, just like Eddie Murphy’s African king in Coming to America (1988).
As students of cinema know, Chaplin went into semi-voluntary exile from the United States in 1952, not returning until 1972, when he received an honorary Academy Award. As a result, the satire or critique of U.S. culture, politics, and mores that constitutes a great deal of A King in New York is necessarily a bit second-hand. A lot of it is very sharp nonetheless.
In this scene, Shahdov has just arrived in the city and has a night to kill before attending to his principal business, going to a bank and withdrawing his country’s national treasury. Ambassador Jaume (Oliver Johnston) suggests taking in a movie. When they arrive at the theater, a rock-and-roll show is just finishing up. And here’s where a bit of second-hand feel comes in. The supposed rock music sounds more like ’40s hot jazz, and the latter-day bobby-soxers in the audience show their appreciation by clapping and full-throatedly cheering, as if they were at a baseball game; in reality, at least since Elvis’s ascent the year before, screams were de rigeur.
But the satire of movies, seen in the coming attractions, is absolutely on-point, and hilarious. No surprise there — forty years earlier, Chaplin had more or less invented popular cinema, and he had clearly kept a jaundiced eye on its fashions and conventions, notably poor marksmanship.
“I gotta kill ya, honey — it’s for your own good,” is rich.
By the time you get to the end of part III of this post, I hope you’ll agree with me that George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) is the most movie-in-movie movie in the history of movies.
The first data point is relatively straightforward. Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a small-time singer who has been taken under his wing by soon-to-be-fading movie star Norman Maine (James Mason), and is signed to a contract by studio chief Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford — and notable among the bullet points in the movie’s poetic license is that a mogul would be as WASPy as all that). On her whirlwind first day at the studio, even before her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is ushered in to see Niles as he’s screening a Western.
There are several things to say about the scene, first of all, that it’s great. Cukor’s (probably his decision more than screenwriter Moss Hart) choice of movie, The Charge at Feather River (1953), and segment within it is perfect. The fact that it was a real, current film adds verisimilitude; the screaming and general mayhem on view plays up Esther’s nervousness and discomfort, and in addition releases some of the host movie’s built-up tension. And it’s such a great contrast with Cukor’s über-woman’s picture (and I say that with admiration).
I’ll also note that both A Star Is Born and The Charge at Feather River were Warner Brothers pictures, itself a data point in my hypothesis that, for economic reasons, a disproportionate percentage of host movies and “seen” movies come from the same studio.
But back to screaming: the Feather River scene is notable in having given the name to one of the most famous sound effects in Hollywood history, the Wilhelm Scream. The website cinemagumbo explains:
A simple sound effect—a man’s brief, agonizing cry while being attacked by an alligator—has become a Hollywood in-joke, a stock piece of audio for science fiction and western movies, a good luck charm for various filmmakers and has even inspired the name of a Massachusetts-based rock band.
The Wilhelm Scream, as the sound effect is known, was first used in the film Distant Drums (1951), which featured the aforementioned alligator attack (above). It is actually one of a series of six screams the movie’s sound department recorded with singer and actor Sheb Wooley at Warner Bros. Wooley’s distinctive “ah-AYE!-uh” was subsequently used for—and got its name from—The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which a character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow.
The Wilhelm Scream is actually heard a second time in A Star is Born, in Garland’s number “Someone at Last,” where it’s incongruously inserted as an “exotic” African effect (very poor taste now) in her round-the-world musical journey. Probably that was the start of the in-joke. It went on to become a favorite of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and is heard in every Indiana Jones movie and every Star Wars one through The Force Awakens (2015), when it was retired. On the off-chance you’re interested, here’s a compilation of some of the Wilhelm Scream’s Greatest Hits: