‘The Creature Walks Among Us’ in ‘WandaVision’

As anyone who’s seen it or even read about it knows, the Disney TV series WandaVision is heavily into “Easter eggs,” in jokes, arcane references, and all sorts of meta stuff. Now, part of the deal with Easter eggs is that they’re not easy to to spot, which in movies and TV shows often translates into going by really fast. That’s the case in episode eight, “Previously On” (even the episode titles are meta!), where, in addition to seeing characters watching old episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Malcolm in the Middle, we’re shown an extremely brief shot of a movie marquee. I had to go through the scene four or five times, pausing and starting, before I finally snagged this fuzzy screen shot.

I had no idea what “Tannhauser Gate” signified, until I googled it and discovered it’s not the title of a movie nor areal place but a reference to some lines in the 1982 film Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” The indispensable website TVTropes reports that “References to the Gate crop up repeatedly in other [science fiction] media as a Shout-Out to Blade Runner.”

The movie-in-movie scene I’m here to tell you about takes place in episode six, “All-New Halloween Spooktacular,” directed by Matt Shakman, and is also short enough to qualify as an Easter egg. There’s a Halloween festival going on in the town where WandaVision takes place, Westview, and projected against a building is a black and white movie. We see a second and a half of it, tops, and most of the time only a fraction of the screen in the background. (If you want to know what’s going on in the foreground, with the kid and the lady in the witch costume, you have to watch the show.)

Other than the fact that it looked like some kind of monster was walking around, I had no idea what the movie was. The usually reliable Connections feature of IMDB was no help, probably because the episode was so new. So I made an appeal on Twitter, and sure enough, in 53 minutes, I had an answer, courtesy of Andrea Fiamma (@failflame). She reported that the website Nerds and Beyond had i.d.-ed the movie as The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).

Now why did director Matt Shakman choose this movie, which was the second sequel to The Creature from The Black Lagoon? Nerds and Beyond, after identifying the film, makes the cryptic comment, “And suddenly it all makes sense.” But how? Why? If any nerd out there has an answer, I’d be happy to hear it.

‘Scorsese’ in ‘Pretend It’s a City’

I don’t believe I’ve ever written about a movie-in-documentary scene. But I couldn’t resist featuring this bit from the third episode of Martin Scorsese Netflix documentary about Fran Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City. Lebowitz is complaining (three words that anyone describing the series will use pretty often) about New York City taxicabs, in particular the little screens built into the back of the front seat on which continuously stream various kinds of content. Lebowitz says she doesn’t know how to turn them off, and we cut to a scene where she tries to and fails:

That’s Scorsese, of course, saying “He just got out of prison.” It didn’t take much searching to discover that the clip is from a public-service announcement that was shown in movie theaters in 2009, encouraging people to turn off their cell phones. So much for the power of advertising.

It’s a pretty delicious in-joke for a series that’s quite elegantly made and is filled with nice touches. And here, for your information, is the whole commercial — whose title, when it went up for awards and such, was simply “Scorsese.”

Silent Round-up, Part II: ‘Souls for Sale,’ ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp’

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.



Next: Show People and A Cottage on Dartmoor.

‘Monster on the Campus’ in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

Like a lot of people, I guess, I’ve been able over the last nine months or so to catch up with some (not enough) movies I somehow never got around to seeing. A few weeks ago, I watched Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and enjoyed it quite a bit, including learning that the title is a quote from the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope.

The movie has an ingenious premise and plot, which gradually reveals itself, so I’ll try to resist any spoilers, only say that in this scene, some ragtag scientists (played by Mark Rufalo, Tom Wilkinson and Kirsten Dunst) have hooked Joel (Jim Carrey) up to a machine that extracts memories, and thus the movie-in-movie scene is a flashback. Joel and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are at a drive-in — actually outside a drive-in — where for some reason the feature is a 1958 exploitation flick, Monster on the Campus. (IMDB plot summary: “The blood of a primitive fish exposed to gamma rays causes a benign research professor to regress to an ape-like, bloodthirsty prehistoric hominid.”)

Here’s a clip (you can ignore the opening seconds, where a tiny Carrey is submerged in a sink):

One notable thing about the scene is that, as Carrey improvises some Mystery Science Theater 3000-type dialogue to the absurd happenings on the screen, it’s the only moment in the film (as I recall) that he exercises his considerable comedy skills. Another is that, surprisingly enough, Monster on the Campus was never actually featured on MST3K–although, according to one fan of the show, it should have been.

‘King Kong’ and ‘Rebecca’ in ‘The Cider House Rules’

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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.

CANDY
		(disappointed)
	But you looked as if you liked it.

			HOMER
		(smiling)
	I *did* like it. All I said was, 
	"It's not 'King Kong'."

More Aging Sirens

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 to Arms, 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.

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By the way, the real movie version of A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, came out in 1932.

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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.

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‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ in ‘Columbo’

The other day I read a New York Times piece in which Elisabeth Vincentelli extolled the virtues of Columbo, which ran on television in various forms from 1968 till 2003, and is now available on NBC’s new free streaming service, Peacock. It made me want to sample the show, an entire episode of which I had unbelievably never watched. (I guess I was more into Kojak, Harry O, and The Rockford Files.)

And then I came to this line: “In the episode “Forgotten Lady,” [Janet] Leigh is simultaneously chilling and poignant as a Norma Desmond-like older actress who rewatches her past oeuvre — including the actual Leigh movie ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ — on a loop.”

Wait, what?!

As soon as was logistically possible, I had downloaded Peacock, searched for the episode, and pressed play. It was pretty amazing. As Vincentelli noted, it was in some ways a takeoff on Sunset Boulevard, in which silent film star Desmond (Gloria Swanson) lives in the past, in part through obsessive screenings of her own films (the ones we see are Swanson’s own). In “Forgotten Lady” — which originally aired in 1975 and was directed by Henry Hart and written by Bill Driscoll — Leigh plays Grace Wheeler, a former stage and screen musical star who hasn’t been in any shows for some time, for reasons not immediately clear but will prove important to the plot. Leigh was a mere 48 at the time and though Grace favors Norma Desmond–style caftans and cigarette holders (no headdresses, thankfully), she looks youthful and lithe enough to hoof it all night long.

As Vincentelli suggests, we’re meant to understand that she watches one of her movies every evening. Maurice Evans as the butler, Raymond, plays the Erich von Stroheim role and mans the projection booth.

As in Sunset Boulevard, we see Grace watching a Janet Leigh movie, Walking My Baby Back Home (1953). In it, Donald O’Connor plays an World War II vet who comes home and, in a classic case of terrible timing, wants to start a dance band. The plan inevitably fails but at least he gets the girl, Leigh’s Chris Hall. (Interestingly, in “Forgotten Lady,” her character in the film is referred to as “Rosie” — which is the name of Leigh’s character in another movie, Bye Bye Birdie.) From the clips seem throughout the episode, Walking looks fun enough but surely the reason it was used is cost: it and Columbo were both Universal productions.

I found “Forgotten Lady” fascinating (not surprisingly) because meta self-consciousness runs through it. Photos of Grace — Leigh at various stages of her career — abound in the home she shares with the gone-before-the first-commercial husband, Dr. Henry Willis (Sam Jaffe — who started out in the Yiddish theater, starred as Dr. Zorba on Ben Casey, pioneered the Jewish Afro, and deserves more than a parenthesis).

Columbo-Forgotten_Lady-1975-VCSS1-086

And there’s a book-in-movie aspect. Henry’s bedtime reading, which becomes an important plot point, is a novel called The Transformation of Mrs. McTwig. No such book exists, though the cover is a perfect rendition of a style favored by ’50s and ’60s comic novels, and an Internet sleuth has discovered that the plot description given in the episode also fits a real book, Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (1958).

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Another key plot point is that Raymond and his wife, the maid (Linda Scott), watch and relish The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (on NBC, like Columbo), and director Hart gives us a generous portion featuring frequent guest Della Reese and Carson’s classic reaction takes.

The denouement of the episode is a second screening of Walking My Baby Back Home, to which Columbo and Grace’s old partner, Ned Diamond (John Payne — yet another old pro), have been invited. It’s a striking scene and the way Hart shows the film projected on Grace and Ned’s faces is a remarkable rendition of the way the movies have almost literally inscribed themselves on these characters.

Before you press play, two notes. First, Hart (understandably) cheats a little bit in having the sound from the movie suddenly and mysteriously muted as Grace and Ned have an emotional confrontation. (Surprisingly, this isn’t noted in the “Goofs” section of the IMDB entry on the episode.) And second, speaking of sound — you may want to mute the whole scene if you intend to watch “Forgotten Lady,” as I heartily recommend you do. As the saying goes, it contains spoilers.

‘The Charge at Feather River’ in ‘A Star is Born’ (and a lot more): Part I

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:

 

Next: The “Born in a Trunk” sequence.

‘Jaws’ in ‘Jurassic Park’

I instituted the tag “Watching yourself” for movies in which an actor (A) plays an actor (B) and B watches a film in which A actually appeared. So, for example, in Two Weeks in Another Town, Kirk Douglas plays washed-up Hollywood star Jack Andrus, who in one scene watches a clip, supposedly of one of his old movies, but really of Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful. Click on “Watching yourself” in the Tag Cloud at bottom right if you want to see more examples.

I now realize “watching yourself” can apply to directors as well as writers. After all, Vincente Minelli directed both The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, so the clip of the former in the latter could be considered a sort of Hitchcockian cameo. I’ve got another example, which I learned about via the sleuthing of Jeremy James Prutchick on YouTube. It’s a brief scene (don’t blink) from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). The creator of the cloned-dinosaur park, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), is admonishing lead programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight–Seinfeld‘s Newman).

 

Don’t feel bad if you missed it — but in the last image, on the left side of Dennis’s computer monitor, is a scene from Spielberg’s first big hit, Jaws (1975): the one where Quint and Brody, on a boat, see the killer shark for the first time.

At another point, there’s another, totally out-of-sequence Jaws moment on the monitor, showing Roy Scheider as Chief Martin Brody. Prutchick helpfully enlarges it:

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Here’s Prutchick’s frame-by-frame breakdown of the scene, which also includes a second Jaws moment on the monitor.

 

 

‘Lord Jim’ and ‘Great Catherine’ in ‘My Favorite Year’

Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year (1982) makes nice use of the “Watching yourself” trope. The movie, set in 1954, was produced  by Mel Brooks and was loosely based on his experience as a writer on the Sid Caesar TV comedy series Your Show of Shows, where the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn was once the guest star. Evidently, Flynn’s appearance on the show was uneventful. That is not the case with the Flynn-ish figure in My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), who is usually drunk, rarely on time, and beset by a bad case of stage fright.

In this scene, the writing staff assembles to watch some clips from Swann movies. That staff consists of Sy (Bill Macy, loosely based on Mel Tolkin); Herb (Basil Hoffman; l.b.o. Neil Simon); Alice (Anne De Salvo; Lucille Kaillen); and the “My” of the title, young Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker; Brooks himself).

 

What they see comes from two actual Peter O’Toole movies, Lord Jim (1968) and Great Catherine (1965). Sy isn’t a fan of the performances: “That’s not acting–that’s kissing and jumping and drinking and humping. I don’t know why we’re wasting out eyesight on this crap.” It’s reminiscent of the way Bette Davis’s early work was dumped on in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and, as with Davis, it’s proof that O’Toole was a good sport.

Later, the star of the show, King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna; not so loosely based on Caesar) and the producer, Leo (Adolph Green), join the writers to watch another Swann movie. What they see this time isn’t a real O’Toole film but footage expressly created for My Favorite Year: a convincing (down to the Technicolor, music, and editing) homage to Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939).

 

Later, Benjy watches more of the movie, which is called Defender of the Crown, with a co-worker he’s got a crush on, K.C. (Jessica Harper). They’re both so transfixed by it that it ends up sealing their romance. I guess Alan Swann isn’t such a terrible actor after all.

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