So screenwriter Ernest Lehman cooks up a scene for the Hitchockian The Prize (1963) in which Nobel-winning novelist Andrew Craig (Paul Newman), having arrived in Stockholm and gotten involved in some skullduggery, gets a tip to go see a particular guy in his apartment. There’s no answer to a knock on the door, and Andrew walks in to find the television is on.
What should be playing? One can imagine the discussion between Lehman and director Mark Robson. A movie is more interesting than some Swedish TV show, but which one? Should be something from the studio behind The Prize, MGM, for the sake of economy. Beyond that, I can only think that Lehman and Robson opted for a film as dissimilar as can be from theirs.
What they came up with, in any case, was Jean Harlow’s Bombshell, which I discussed here because it has a scene from Red Dust, and which therefore earns this post and that one a “Double dip” tag. To make it even more discordant, it’s the scene where Harlow is telling Lee Tracy how much she wants a baby. (I can figure that out because the Swedish voice artists keeps saying “baby” and “mama.”)
I’d offer a trigger warning for the scene, but if you’ve seen more than a couple of suspense films, you know exactly what’s coming.
This blog has an informal policy of not writing about cases where the movie-in-movie is significantly better than the “host” movie; I’ve called it the South Pacific/Welcome to Woop Woop Rule. I’ll make an exception in the case of Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone (2005). Why? Well, for one thing, both it and Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) are holiday movies and we’re smack dab in the holiday season.
And the other thing is, I find the contrast between the two films interesting. Family Stone has the reputation of being a good movie. I just saw it for the first time and I beg to differ. I found it manipulative, mendacious, hollow, and believable for maybe forty-five seconds. I don’t want to pile on (after all it’s the holiday season) so I’ll just quote Manohla Dargis of the New York Times and move on: “Tolstoy didn’t know the Stones, who are happy in a Hollywood kind of way and unhappy in a self-help kind of way. This tribe of ravenous cannibals bares its excellent teeth at anyone who doesn’t accommodate the family’s preening self-regard.”
Meet Me in St. Louis really is a good movie, maybe a great one. And in this context maybe the most striking thing about it is its honest and affecting sentiment, as opposed to sentimentality. In this Family Stone Christmas Eve scene, Stone family daughter Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) — who’s merely bland, not fake — tells her father, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), that she’s not going to bed because her favorite scene is about to start. Esther (Judy Garland) is dancing with Grandpa (Harry Davenport), also on Christmas Eve.
Basically, The Family Stone is hijacking Meet Me in St. Louis for its emotion. The larceny continues, as we see a montage of the various characters conducting their various Christmas Eve activities, to the tune of the Meet Me In St. Louis song that many people (with justice) consider the best holiday song ever, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
I could go on to say that in addition to everything else, this violates what must be one of the dramatic unities, as in Minelli’s film, it’s sung before the dance scene. But who needs more carping from me? Merry Christmas, everybody.
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.
After I wrote about Janet Leigh doing her best Norma Desmond on Columbo, comments here and elsewhere directed me to two other similar TV episodes. The first (chronologically) is “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” which aired in the first season of The Twilight Zone in 1959 and was directed by Hollywood veteran Mitchell Leisen. Ida Lupino (a great Quizzo answer in being the only person to star in one TZ episode and direct another) is a not-just-fading-but-faded screen star. As the series’ writer and auteur Rod Serling intones in his intro,
Picture of a woman looking at a picture. Movie great of another time, once-brilliant star in a firmament no longer a part of the sky, eclipsed by the movement of earth and time. Barbara Jean Trenton, whose world is a projection room, whose dreams are made out of celluloid. Barbara Jean Trenton, struck down by hit-and-run years and lying on the unhappy pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame.
(Tell me again how this guy got the reputation as a great writer.)
Here’s the opening of the episode:
An immediate distinction between this and both Sunset Boulevard and the Janet Leigh Columbo is that both of those use clips from the star’s own previous work. Here, Lupino is supposed to be watching a Barbara Jean Trenton picture from 1933, A Farewell Without Tears — clearly based on the Hemingway World War I novel A Farewell toArms, with its soldier-nurse love story. But the clip isn’t from an actual vintage film. In fact, it looks like it was shot a couple of days before, and probably was; I’ll think you’ll agree that Lupino doesn’t appear any younger than her 41 years.
By the way, the real movie version of A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, came out in 1932.
I won’t spoil the ending of the episode, which like the entire run of Twilight Zone is available on Netflix, but will just say that it recalls Sherlock Jr.and anticipates The Purple Rose of Cairo.
The other aging star shows up in another Columbo episode with a Twilight Zone-ish title, “Requiem for an Falling Star” (1973), directed by Richard Quine. Anne Baxter plays Nora Chandler, who seems to have plenty of work (we see her shooting several scenes in the course of the episode) and is far from decrepit (Baxter was a youthful-looking 49 when the episode was shot). Nor does she live in the past. It’s Columbo who watches one of her old films on TV (it’s an untitled fake noir); check out her scornful dismissal at the end of the clip.
As you can tell from his reactions, Colombo is a lot more interested. No spoilers, but the clip will end up providing an important clue to solving the murder. (I forgot to mention, there’s a murder.)
A fun bonus in the episode: legendary costume designer Edith Head and her Oscars show up playing themselves.
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:
Veteran film journalist Lewis Beale recommended my doing a post on John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), which he describes as “simply an amazing mix of film noir, existentialism and Euro art-house filmmaking. Truly astonishing it was released by a major studio. My guess is audiences at the time said ‘WTF did I just see?'”
Good call, Lew. Let’s go right to the movie-in-movie scene, one of the WTF-est in Point Blank. Walker (Lee Marvin) is a criminal on a mission to recover a $93,000 MacGuffin, swiped from him after a heist. Angie Dickinson is his sister-in-law, Chris, who’s developed feelings for him and is infuriated that he won’t give up on his dangerous quest.
Whoa. Quite a bit to say about the scene, definitely starting with WTF. The third star is of course, the automated-to-the-max mid-century modern house, which is on 7655 Curson Terrace and was apparently rented by the Beatles in 1966, right about the time the film was shot.
In a 2008 Vanity Fair interview, John Boorman talked about Dickinson’s distinctive look.
I put her in the first miniskirt to hit America. They were already, you know, on the Kings Road in London, but she wore the first one seen in America…. [She] was very unhappy with me about forcing her to change her hair color. I had this maniacal idea that I wanted her hair to be the same color as her dress, and we went through three dyeing jobs to get there. The hairdresser at MGM said, “I can’t go any further, her hair’s starting to break off.”
As for her pummeling Marvin, it has been suggested that she got into it so passionately because she was mad that he (or his character) dangled her over a balcony in a previous film, The Killers. I’m not sure if that’s true but her performance is certainly convincing, and she definitely opened up a gash in Marvin’s cheek with the pool cue.
And here’s a video created by Peter van der Ham showing Dickinson blows scored with a Steve Reich piece called “Clapping Music.”
As for the movie-in-movie moment, it comes after Marvin is flipping channels with the remote control (as Jack Lemmon did in The Apartment), in keeping with the automated-house theme. He lands on Vincente Minelli’s The Cobweb (1955), an MGM (same studio as Point Blank) melodrama set in a psychiatric institution and with a remarkable cast: Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant, Lillian Gish, Gloria Grahame, and Fay Wray.
We see staff member Bacall (her back to the camera) talking with a patient played by John Kerr. When he says, “You figure this will get me over my neurotic intertia or something,” Marvin switches the channel to a Pond’s cold cream commercial
I am not especially a fan of either Titanic (1997) or Richard Curtis’s Love, Actually (2003). In fact, I’m probably one of the few sentient beings not to have watched either film in its entirety. But I had to do a post on this scene after getting a note from one of my all-time favorite students from my teaching career, Meghan Lobdell Gooding.
After I had shared a previous movie-in-movie post on Facebook, Meghan wrote:
I always enjoy when Liam Neeson and his step-son watch the “Jack, I’m flying!” scene from “Titanic” in the movie “Love, Actually” …because the Kate Winslet TV-within-a-TV-screen cameo fulfills my need for the complete foursome from the 1995 “Sense and Sensibility film”: Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant all star in Love Actually … Kate Winslet is the missing piece.
Seems this is one of the bits I missed in my disjointed viewings of Love, Actually, which at one time was on a lot in my house because various members of my family were fans. In honor of their and maybe Meghan’s feelings, I will refrain from discussing how young Sam (Thomas Sangster) is maybe just a little too cute for the circus, and how Curtis’s inclusion of what was then the highest-grossing film of all time was maybe a little on the nose.
I will say, however, that seeing Daniel (Neeson) and Sam act out Winslet and Leonardo DeCaprio’s ship-top scene from the earlier film inspired me to add a new tag, “Re-create,” previously seen in E.T.and Sherlock Jr.
Among the many gaps in my knowledge, one of the gappiest involves slasher/horror films. Like, I’m aware they exist, that some smart people like some of them, and that Wes Craven is a personage, but after that I’m pretty much done. So when a Google search led me to the opening scene of Craven’s Scream 4, (2011) it was all new to me.
Take a look.
Having seen the clip, you might be able to guess what my Google search was: “movie in a movie in a movie.” A few other contenders pop up, but this was the best, as we open with (what turns out to be) a scene from (the fictional) Stab 6, which has been watched by characters (played by Anna Paquin and Kristin Bell) from Stab 7, which has been watched by characters (Aimee Teegarden and Britt Robertson) from the “real” Scream 4.
That Russian-doll setup suggests the very self-aware quality of the whole Scream series (I have learned), in which the eerily similar Stab series serves as a sort of running self-conscious commentary. How can you not like a slasher movie where a slasher-movie-slasher-movie-in-movie character (Paquin), scoffs, “A bunch of articulate teens sit around and deconstruct horror movies until Ghostface kills them one by one. It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware, meta shit. Stick a fork in it.” Right before she gets stabbed in the throat by Kristin Bell, who must have loved playing against nice-girl type.
And speaking of self-aware, meta shit, the Scream films have a generous supply of strategically chosen actual movies in them. According to IMDB Scream‘s got Frankenstein, Halloween, Prom Night, and The Thing from Another World; Sceam 2, Nosferatu; and Scream 4,Shaun of the Dead. (Returning the favor, Halloween H20 has a scene from Scream 2.)
I’ve got another movie within a movie within a movie in mind, but I’m curious to see if anyone has some suggestions of their own.
If you’ve never seen Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), you could think of it as a British Naked Gun (1988), twenty years on. They’re both spoofs of cop movies, but in the interim, the genre pivoted from hard-boiled procedurals to testosterone-fueled, explosion-filled bromances, the ur-texts being Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys.
There are plentiful allusions to both those series in Hot Fuzz, as well as to Mad Max; Man on Fire; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; True Lies; Taxi Driver; and Chinatown. A somewhat subtle reference to the last comes in some dialogue between obsessive London cop Nick Angel (cowriter Simon Pegg), who has been transferred to the picturesque town of Sandford because he’s just too damned good at his job, and his bumbling, portly, adoring partner Danny (Nick Frost). They’re talking about the bad guys’ towering henchman, Lurch (an Addams Family reference):
Danny: Lives in the country with his mum and his sister.
Nick: And are they as big as he is?
Nick: The mum and the sister.
Danny: Same person.
A more obvious shout-out is another Danny line: “Forget it Nicholas, it’s Sandford.”
The movie is a lot of fun, something in strong demand as I write this, in the midst of a pandemic. I’m not sure how much you can trust IMDB’s Trivia section (probably not very) but the one for Hot Fuzz says the original script had a love interest for Nicholas, who was jettisoned, and her lines given verbatim to Danny.
I would believe it on the basis of a scene where, after a hard day on the mean streets of Sandford, the two cops unwind at Danny’s flat.
Nick: I just want to be… good at what I do.
Danny: You are good at what you do, you just need to switch off that big ol’ melon of yours.
Nick: That’s just it Danny, I don’t think I know how.
Danny: I can show you.
The meaning of the line turns out not to be what we imagine. Rather, Danny opens the doors to a closet, revealing a huge DVD collection.
Nick: By the power of Greyskull! [That’s a catchphrase from the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe TV series.]
Danny: Point Break or Bad Boys II?
Nick: Which do you think I’d prefer?
Danny: No I mean which do you want to watch first?
They watch ’em both (and in BBII we hear Martin Lawrence utter the immortal line “Shit just got real”–which I will credit to screenwriter Ron [BullDurham] Shelton). But first up is Point Break (1991), the surfing-set thriller with Keanu Reeves as FBI agent Johnny Utah, and Patrick Swayze as the Reagan-mask-wearing bad guy who, in this scene, he finally gets in his sights.
As you can see, Danny is very into the scene, specifically, as he had said to Nick earlier in the film, the way Reeves “goes to shoot Swayze,but he can’t cause he loves him so much and he fires up in the air and he’s going ‘aaaargh’ … Have you ever fired your gun up in the air and gone ’aaaargh’?”
Nick answers in the negative, but by the end of Hot Fuzz one of the boys will have fired his gun up in the air and gone “aargh.” If you’re reading this close to the time of writing, I suspect you have some time on your hands. So watch the movie (it’s available on YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, and most of the usual suspects), and you can find out which one.
We’ve encountered the 1958 Hitchcock classic Vertigo as a movie-in-movie before, in Twelve Monkeys. The Films in Films website reports that it’s been used at least four other times: in L.A. Without a Map, A Kiss Before Dying, Man in the Chair, and Rob Minkoff’s 2002 animated/live-action Stuart Little 2.
As anyone who has read E.B. White’s novel (or has had it read to them) knows, Stuart (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is a mouse who has inexplicably been born to human parents in New York City. As Stuart Little 2 (a sequel to the original adaptation, from 1999) opens, as Stuart is driving in his roadster, an injured canary named Margalo (Melanie Griffith) falls into the car. And Stuart falls for her, as he nurses her back to health.
The clever movie-in-movie scene takes place on their first date. Stuart has rigged up a sort of personal drive-in on the roof of the Littles’ apartment building. At one point, he tells Margalo that he’s repaired her most prized possession, a stickpin belonging to her mother, which was damaged in the fall. As he explains how he fixed it, Hitchcock’s Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) has a meaningful moment on the California coast with the enigmatic Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak).
The scene actually directly follows the one seen in Twelve Monkeys, probably not intentional on Minkoff’s part.
Vertigo is a funny choice for Stuart Little 2 — both funny unexpected and funny amusing. While Stuart seems to view the Hitchock movie as dreamily romantic, in fact it’s a dark vision of obsession, delusion, and the male gaze. But it was also an appropriate choice for Minkoff and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin. Both Vertigo and Stuart Little 2 warn us that people — especially ladies — aren’t always who they appear to be.