‘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.

 

“Summer of ’42” in “The Shining”

I recently presented Brief Encounter as the first Movies in Other Movies Double Dip — defined as a film in which the characters watch a movie, and which itself is watched by characters in another movie. Now, a second DD — Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which is showing on the ill-fated drive-in in Twister.

There’s a lot of television in Kubrick’s horror classic. On three separate occasions, characters watch cartoons directed by the great Chuck Jones — one with the Road Runner, one with Pepé Le Pew, and “To Itch His Own,” with Mighty Angelo the Flea. A purpose, one imagines, is to contrast their particular kind of mayhem with the different and less comic sort Kubrick is about to offer us.

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Mighty Angelo.

For the set-piece movie-in-movie scene, Kubrick chose the 1971 nostalgic melodrama Summer of ’42. Young Danny (Danny Lloyd) and his mother, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), are watching it on an eerily unplugged-in television, in a large common room in the deserted hotel they’re spending the winter in; also eerie is the out-of-sync soundtrack on the film, not to mention the sound of high winds outside. Meanwhile,  father and husband Jack (Jack Nicholson), already exhibiting signs of unusual and disturbing behavior, is asleep in their room. Or so they think.

 

 

 

In Summer of ’42, directed by Robert Mulligan, young Hermie (Gary Grimes) comes of age through a relationship with a beautiful young woman (Jennifer O’Neill) whose husband is away at war. In the scene Wendy and Danny watch (and by the way, this is no movie for a little boy), the two characters have their first conversation. Why did Kubrick choose it? Just a guess — maybe for another contrast, this time between Mulligan’s movie’s gauzy vision of the past and Kubrick’s very different interpretation in The Shining: that is, the past as a literal horror that won’t even stay in the past.

‘Flight to Tangier’ in ‘No Country for Old Men’

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I would include in the b.s. the movie-in-movie scene. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who is described by an IMDB synopsis as a “hunter and welder,” comes home to the trailer he shares with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Mcdonald), carrying a pistol and an attache case, neither of which she has seen before. (And can I just say that if I wanted to know what it would be like to be named Llewelyn or Carla Jean and live in a Texas trailer park, the Coen brothers would definitely not be the sources I’d turn to. Their depictions of these sorts of lives, while they play well — the bros are very accomplished filmmakers — come off to me as voyeuristic and fake.)

Carla is watching on TV the 1953 melodrama Flight from Tangier. The Coens always have a reason for their choices, and in this case I can think of two. The older movie starred Jack Palance (seen onscreen), who died in 2006, and to whom the brothers may have been paying tribute. And Flight from Tangier is about a hunt for a missing $3 million. In No Country, that attache case, soon to become the MacGuffin of intense interest, has $2 million in it.

 

But it’s still b.s., 1, that a Texas TV station in 1980 would be airing this obscure movie, and 2, even if that did happen, that Carla Jean would choose to watch it.

(By the way, the Movies in Movies blog notes that it’s a Technicolor movie being watched on a black and white TV. I judge that detail to be accurate: 1980 was the year when I acquired my own first color television, and Texas trailer parks may not have yet made the transition.)

 

‘Angels with Filthy Souls’ in ‘Home Alone’

Home Alone (1990; directed by Chris Columbus; conceived, written and produced by John Hughes) presses all the buttons. You’ve got your madcap humor, your cartoon violence, your patented John Hughes pathos, your upper-middle-class white Midwestern suburbanite setting, and (possibly the only element that still feels fresh and unpremeditated) your breakout performance by Macaulay Culkin as 8-year-old Kevin, who (it can’t be a spoiler if it’s the title of the movie) is inadvertently left home alone when his family flies to Paris for Christmas.

Ah yes, Christmas — that’s the other big button. Home Alone was conceived in and dedicated to the proposition of being a holiday movie. One way it establishes this is time-honored: having characters watch (on TV) Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and of course It’s a Wonderful Life. (The last is seen by the Kevin-less clan while in Paris, and is dubbed into French.)

There’s one other movie that’s featured in the film: Angels with Filthy Souls. Kevin finds a VHS tape of it and, presumably titillated by the title, slips it into the VCR. (It sure beats the the other choices on top of the player, the boomer rock of Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.)

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He and the audience see what appears to be a 1930s film noir, in black and white of course. A trench-coated guy named Snakes, who has a very gangster look to him, pays a call on a private eye named Johnny. (Even if we couldn’t backwards-read the words “Private Investigator” on his  frosted-glass door, we could tell his occupation by the frosted-glass door itself.) There’s something odd about the clip, however. For one thing, Johnny has a really strong Chicago accent, not something often heard in movies; just listen to the way he says, “He’s upstairs, taking a bey-uth.” For another, Angels with Filthy Souls sounds just a little too over-the-top to be the title of a sequel to the real ’30s movie Angels with Dirty Faces. And finally, the shoot-him-full-of-lead sadistic violence, followed by the gleeful catchphrase-to-be, “Keep the change, ya filthy animal,” would in no way have passed muster with the Hollywood Hays office at the time.

Nevertheless, some people persisted for a long time in believing Angels with Dirty Souls was a real movie–including Seth Rogen, Chris Evans, and Nick Kroll.

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And also including Macaulay Culkin!

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I’m not sure what disabused Rogen of his error, but he would have known the truth had he read a 2015 Vanity Fair article that told the whole story of the conception and production of Angels, down to the care taken to recreate the noir look. Director of Photography Julio Macat

persuaded Columbus to shoot the sequence using the techniques and black-and-white negative film stock of movies from the 40s. The high-key lighting, high-contrast aesthetic would evoke “a cross between film noir and the really crazy stuff you see in early television, like Playhouse 90 or One Step Beyond,” said production designer John Muto.

Like most of the other interior shots in Home Alone, including all the scenes inside the McCallister family home, the sequence was shot on a sound stage in the abandoned New Trier West High School gymnasium. The entire set consisted of just a couple of walls. (Webster suspects that the walls were reused in the “real world” of the movie, for the set of the police office. “We didn’t have the biggest construction budget.”)

Johnny’s office was designed especially for maximum dramatic backlighting potential: pebbly-textured translucent glass on the door and a Palladian window that would sinisterly spotlight him at his desk through Venetian blinds.

As I suggested earlier, Home Alone is a well-oiled machine, and of course, true to the principle of Chekhov’s gun, Angels with Dirty Souls shows up again, and again, used by Kevin as part of his whole-house booby trap strategy. The second time, he’s trying to foil the inept crook Marv (Daniel Stern).

Hughes and Columbus were not done with Angels with Filthy Souls. Its sequel — Angels with Even Filthier Souls — shows up in their 1992 sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and repetitively is used to scare the officious concierge at the Plaza Hotel (Tim Curry).

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in ‘Home Alone,’ ‘Bruce Almighty,’ and, well, practically everything.

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A mashup of this movie and TV series would be called “My So-Called Wonderful Life.”

A couple of posts ago, I suggested that Brief Encounter may hold the record for being used in the most other movies. Ben Zimmer, whom I sometimes think of as my own personal fact-checker, begged to differ. He nominated Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the record-holder, and while I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure Ben is right. The Films in Films blog lists fourteen separate movies containing IAWL clips, starting with Music of the Heart; Bruce Almighty; Gremlins; Android; The Big Picture; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; Money Train; Look Who’s Talking; The Ref; Meet Dave; Menace II Society; Trauma; and Nuovo Cinema Paradiso. In Home Alone, the movie is dubbed into French.

The sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, in a callback, has a Spanish version of IAWL.

The IMDB “Connections” feature, unbelievably, lists fifteen more films in which It’s a Wonderful Life is shown, including Doc Hollywood, Deadly Obsession, and Same Kind of Different For Me. IMDB also says the Capra film is watched by characters in at least twenty television series, including My So-Called Life, Roseanne, Muppet Babies, Cheers, and, of course, The Sopranos.

Every single one of those movies and episodes was made after 1974, and ten of the fourteen movies on the Films in Films list came out between 1974 and 1993. Those dates are significant because during that twenty-year period, through a quirk in copyright law, It’s a Wonderful Life was in the public domain. As a result it aired repeatedly on TV during the Christmas season and came to be seen as the quintessential Christmas movie.

Thus a well-chosen and well-placed clip from the movie can make a potent counterpoint to the doings in any holiday-set film. And best of all, in the twenty-year public domain period, you didn’t have to pay for the rights! As Louisa Mellor wrote on Den of Geek!:

If [a TV] episode needs to quickly establish that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s as easy as inserting a few seconds of Clarence and George into a scene. If a film wants to evoke cynicism around the festive period, then its characters need simply complain, Al Bundy-style, that there’s never anything else on TV. When creatives want to piggyback on some ready-made sentiment or create unlikely juxtapositions then, copyright permitting, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are their guys.

Tom Shadyac directed Bruce Almighty in 2003, at which point It’s a Wonderful Life was no longer in the public domain, but Spyglass Entertainment and Universal Pictures evidently thought they could afford the licensing fee. The film is used not for cynicism, sentiment, or juxtaposition, but for some clever mirroring, similar to the way The Quiet Man is used in E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Despite temporarily becoming God, Bruce (Jim Carrey) is having romantic troubles with his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), not so subtly named Grace. He’s at a party, and wants her to come, but she won’t pick up the phone when she calls. So he does a bit of divine intervention and makes a certain movie come on her TV. Jimmy Stewart’s line “I’ll give you the moon, Mary” is a reference to an earlier romantic moment in Bruce, and is guaranteed to do the trick.

 

“Brief Encounter” in “A Touch of Class,” “84 Charing Cross Road,” and “Truly Madly Deeply”

The 1945 British film Brief Encounter — directed by David Lean, screenplay by Noel Coward, based on his play — may hold the record for the movie that’s watched in the greatest number of other movies. In addition to the three examples discussed in this post, IMDB’s valuable (though sometimes overpopulated) “Connections” department lists it as being featured in The Mirror Has Two Faces, Till There Was You, and Brick Lane, as well as the TV movies The Heidi Chronicles, Daisies in December, and The Care and Handling of Roses, plus various television episodes.

Why the attraction? It’s not simply that Brief Encounter is a classic. (In 1999, the British Film Institute voted it that country’s second best movie of all time, behind only The Third Man.) Beyond that, the film, with its thoroughly decent, stiff-upper-lip, and ultimately self-sacrificing lovers — the black-and-white photography being a kind of spartan objective correlative — is an emblem for a certain vision of romance, and thus a counterpoint to (and occasionally model for) the many, many other kinds of romance that movies portray.

In Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class (1973), the contrast couldn’t be starker. After meeting cute what seems like eleven times, the characters played by the startlingly young, slim, sharply dressed, and good-looking Glenda Jackson (Vickie) and George Segal (Steve) embark on a strictly-for-sex affair. In Brief Encounter both of the lovers are married, but here Vickie is divorced, which hints at the unequal dynamics at play. Steve wants to have it both ways, which is in keeping with his me-me-me sense of the world; he’s always shown scurrying off from the opera intermission to shtup Vickie at their love nest, then hurrying back to his seat next to his wife before the end of the next act. The puzzlement of the movie is why Vickie — who, as a Glenda Jackson character, is required to be clear-eyed and intelligent — doesn’t dump Steve.

The answer — that she has fallen in love with him, and he with her — is supplied in the movie-in-movie scene, in which they watch Trevor Howard breaks bad news to Celia Johnson. The scene is asked to do the work that’s absent in the screenplay, their boo-hooing supposedly showing the relationship has reached a new level of intimacy and care. Then the alarm rings, and Steve scurries back to his family.

David Jones’s 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) is about an American writer, played by Anne Bancroft, who carries on a two-decade correspondence (1950s and ’60s) with the buyer at a London bookshop, played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s married and they never meet; the love that Brief Encounter reflects is her Anglophilia. Her fascination with the film seems to extend to the ash of her cigarette (yes, young’uns, smoking in cinemas used to be allowed), curling and lengthening but so wrapped up in the oh-so-Englishness of the movie that it doesn’t drop.

And now for something different, Anthony Minghella’s 1990 film Truly Madly Deeply. The love story here is between Nina (Juliet Stevenson) and her  boyfriend, Jamie (Alan Rickman), who keeps turning up even though he is dead. But this is no Ghost: Jamie is sniffling, needy, and annoying. And so are his movie-buff mates, who show up at en masse, wrap themselves in cozy duvets, and make trainspotting comments while watching the 1917 Charlie Chaplin comedy Easy Street. (Like many movie buffs, myself include, they are prone to error; one guy identifies the big comic as “Eric Stewart Campbell”; in fact, his given name was Alfred Eric Campbell. It is true that he died in a car crash shortly after making this film.)

The guys may be well-schooled in cinema, but they’re not too sophisticated to be wrapped up in Brief Encounter, reciting the final lines along with the Johnson character’s husband, and slow clapping their approval after “The End” rolls.

 

 

 

 

‘The Quiet Man’ in ‘E.T. the Extraterrestrial’

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Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man”; can of Coors on the table.

Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg are sometimes known as “the film school generation.” De Palma and Spielberg didn’t actually go to film school, but the designation fits because all five are lifetime students and devotees of the directors and movies that came before them.

One of Spielberg’s heroes and mentors is John Ford (1894-1973). The younger director once said, “I try to rent a John Ford film … before I start every movie, simply because he inspires me … He’s like a classic painter:  he celebrates the frame, not just what’s inside it.” Spielberg offered his most explicit Ford homage in  E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). The scene is also an unusual one for Movies in Other Movies. Usually, the film-within-a-film provides an ironic counterpoint or commentary on the main action. But Spielberg veritably mirrors Ford.

The scene takes place early in the film. Young Elliott (Henry Thomas) has encountered, befriended, and brought to his room a lovable alien creature. Being a boy, Elliott has to go to school; E.T.,  left to his own devices, raids the fridge for food and beers. He also gets hold of a Speak & Spell, which Wikipedia calls “one of the earliest handheld electronic devices with a visual display to use interchangeable game cartridges. E. T. will eventually hack the device in his attempt to phone home. For now, he uses it both as a television remote control and, it seems, to mind-meld with Elliott.

(I’ll note here that E.T. includes other movies as well: E.T.  is horrified by the Tom and Jerry short “The Mouse Comes to Dinner” and watches the films This Island Earth and Michael the Brave; Elliott’s sister, Gertie, watches Sesame Street.)

Showing on the TV is a famous scene from Ford’s The Quiet Man (1953). In that movie, John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an American returning to his ancestral Irish home. In the town, he spotted and become intrigued by a fiery (of course) redhead, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). He buys a cottage and when he goes to inspect it, he comes upon Mary Kate, who’s been tidying up in a neighborly act. She’s scared and tries to run away, but he… Well, let’s watch along with E.T., who’s deeply affected by the scene and telepathically directs Elliott to reenact it (as well as to release biology-class frogs from imminent dissection).

 

 

 

 

To contemporary eyes, Sean’s romantic moves (and Elliott’s, too, for that matter) may seem a little grabby. On that point, I introduce the testimony of Sabienna Bowman, writing in the feminist magazine Bustle on the occasion of O’Hara’s death, in 2015 at the age of 95. Bowman says the kiss between Mary Kate and Sean is

not just the most memorable moment, but the one that is impossible to forget thanks to the passion O’Hara infuses into Mary Kate’s actions. To fully appreciate the scene, you must put yourself into a ’50s state of mind: Mary Kate enters Sean’s house unaccompanied (a huge taboo for an unmarried woman at the time) with the intent to clean it — but it is obvious she’s curious about this attractive American.

There is a moment when Sean realizes Mary Kate is in the house that she attempts to flee out into the raging winds. The cinematography only adds to the emotional rawness of the scene as Mary Kate’s red hair ripples in the wind and Sean snatches her arm and pulls her to him. It’s a typical move from the ’50s era idea of the perfect, bold American man that was Wayne, but it is Mary Kate’s response to his actions that makes this scene a classic. He pulls her in and kisses her, and then she throws a solid slap his way. It doesn’t land, but with her temper flaring and indignation written all over her face, O’Hara’s talent is breathtaking.

If you want to judge for yourself, here’s the full scene from The Quiet Man.