‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’ in ‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’; ‘The African Queen’ in ‘The Road to Bali’

The idea of the fourth wall is commonly thought to have originated with the French philosopher Denis Diderot, though he didn’t give it a number. Diderot wrote in 1758: “When you write or act, think no more of the audience than if it had never existed. Imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.”

Today, when the fourth wall is invoked, it’s usually in reference to “breaking” it — that is, writers or characters who disobey Diderot, acknowledge the audience’s existence, and directly speak to it. And it’s invoked a lot, as we live in a very meta age, where art both high (Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lighness of Being) and low (virtually every episode of Family Guy) are concerned.

Even before it had a name, fourth-wall-breaking had a long history — Chaucer and Shakespeare do it, to name two luminaries — but in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it had a very special province in American comedy (plus Monty Python). Early on, it served anarchic, transgressive ends, for example in Marx Brothers movies. As Arts & Popular Culture describes, “In their 1932 film Horse Feathers … when Chico sits down at a piano to begin a musical interlude, Groucho turns to the camera and deadpans ‘I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.'”

In the truly weird Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1942), W.C. Fields, playing himself, unsuccessfully tries to sell a script to a movie executive named Mr. Pangborn, played by Franklin Pangborn. He goes to an ice cream parlor to drown his sorrows and talks directly to the camera: “This scene is supposed to be in a saloon, but the censor cut it out.” And Warner Brothers cartoons are full of moments when Bugs Bunny and other characters make wisecracks intended solely for us, the audience.

The fourth wall got pretty much obliterated in the television series The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In the early years of its 1950-’58 run, when it was filmed live, Burns (playing comedian George Burns) would stand to the side and comment to the audience about the action. Through 1953, Fred Clark played the part of Harry Morton. In an espisode that year, Wikipedia says:

George walks on-stage and freezes the scene just before Harry’s entrance and explains that Clark has left the show to perform on Broadway. He introduces Larry Keating, who enters, and then calls over Bea Benaderet to introduce the two saying, “This is Larry Keating and he is going to be your husband now”. The pair greet and chat briefly, complimenting each other on their previous work. George remarks that if they are going to be so nice to each other, no one will believe they are married. Burns then gives a cue, Blanche resumes her position, and the scene continues where it stopped as if nothing had happened.

In the later years of the series, in a rather eerie Big Brother move, George would repair to his study and spy on the other characters on a TV screen.

 

The insult-the-wife’s-cooking humor hasn’t aged well. (By the way, that’s Larry Keating as Harry.) Later in the scene, George switches to another channel in an effort to locate his wife, Gracie.

 

Part of the humor is that the audience knew — or at least knew the shtick — that Benny was a cheapskate, and that he and Burns were buddies.

This sort of insider knowledge — more comfortable than Marxian comic iconoclasm — is the basis for a lot of the many instances of wall-breaking in the seven “Road” movies Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour made between 1940 and 1962. One or the other of the boys is constantly looking at the camera and joking about Crosby’s golf playing, Hope’s inability to win an Oscar, and the studio that produced all but one of the pictures, Paramount. Arts & Popular culture notes:

In Road to Utopia, they are traveling across frozen land on dogsled, when a mountain appears. Hope says, “Get a load of that bread and butter!” Crosby remarks, “Bread and butter? That’s a mountain!” Then the words “Paramount Pictures” appear on the mountain and Hope comments, “It may be a mountain to you, but it’s bread and butter to me!”

In Road to Bali (1952), directed by Hal Walker, as some music starts to play, Hope looks at the camera and says, “He’s gonna sing, folks. Now’s the time to go out and get the popcorn.” Later, the trio are shipwrecked on a desert island when all of a sudden a guy in white-hunter outfit and pith helmet strolls in, raises a shotgun, fires it, and walks away. Crosby remarks, “That’s my brother Bob. I promised him a shot in my next picture.” Then,

 

It’s actually a clip from Bogart in The African Queen, which won the Best Picture Academy Award the previous year. Bogie clearly was a good sport, allowing his image to appear not only here but in the Bugs Bunny classic Slick Hare (1947).

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‘Hail, Caesar,’ ‘Merrily We Dance,’ and ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ in ‘Hail, Caesar’

The most purely fun movie I’ve seen in the past five years, or maybe longer, is the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016). It’s got a solid story, good performances, and some hilarious moments, but the really special thing about it is the take on peak-studio-era Hollywood, which combines a very knowing spoof with a very knowing appreciation.

The year is more or less 1951, and the main character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who’s based on the real-life Eddie Mannix, for many years a notorious “fixer” at MGM. But the Coens’ Eddie has a grander portfolio: he’s “head of physical production” at (the fictional) Capitol Studios, which involves not only covering up the stars’ imbroglios but managing all details of Capitol’s many offerings, from casting to budgets to editing to locations.

The movie revolves around five in-production Capitol films, all depicted with that knowing mix of spoof and appreciation, and all but one era-appropriate. The eponymous Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ is a religious sandals epic that combines elements of Quo Vadis, The Robe, Spartacus, and Ben-Hur. (The novel Ben-Hur, published in 1880, had the same Tale of the Christ subtitle.) Lazy Ol’ Moon is an “oatuner” — Variety-speak for a cowboy picture, aka “oater,” with music — of the kind Roy Rogers churned out for Republic Pictures through 1950. Jonah’s Daughter is a musical featuring Busby Berkeley-style water ballets, which seems like an odd idea today but was a staple for MGM and Esther Williams, in movies like Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Channing Tatum channels Gene Kelly (in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh) in “No Dames!”, a sailor production number with a hilarious homoerotic-themed subtext. The only movie-in-movie that seems a bit anachronistic is Merrily We Dance, an arch and “sophisticated” black-and-white comedy of manners, something like Design for Living (1933), directed by an Ernst Lubitsch/George Cukor figure flawlessly played by Ralph Fiennes.

I’ll focus on Lazy Ol’ Moon, Merrily We Dance, and Hail, Caesar, since we view finished footage from those three; for the others, we only see scenes being staged and filmed. We take in Moon at its world premiere, attended by its cowboy star, Hobie Doyle (Alben Ehrenreich), a cross between two cowpokes named Rogers: Will (Hobie is a whiz at rope tricks) and the crooning, six-gun-toting horseman Roy. (The latter, born Leonard Slye, chose “Rogers” as his stage name in honor of one of his heroes, as I learned while writing Will Rogers’s biography.) Hobie’s date, arranged by the studio for the publicity value, is the Carmen Miranda-inspired Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osario). Here’s the opening, climaxed by Hobie crooning “Lazy Ol’ Moon” (a tune actually sung by R. Rogers in a 1939 picture, The Arizona Kid).

 

To me, the most striking and somewhat unnerving thing about the scene is the high-contrast color. But it’s true to its models, if not life. As Bill Desowitz observed on IndieWire, for this sequence Hail, Caesar! cinematographer Roger Deakins “emulated the two-strip (red and green) Trucolor process utilized at Republic.” This still of Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, from Sunset in the West (1950) gives the idea:

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The other notable quality of the Lazy Ol’ Moon scene is how dad-burned ridiculous are the carryings-on of Curly (J.R. Horne, doing his best Gabby Hayes.) But Carlotta and the rest of the audience roar with delighted laughter — an example, as in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (a favorite of the Coens), of the grace of silly comedy. As the narrator (voiced by Michael Gambon) intones, the picture is “another wave of gossamer, another movie, another portion of balm for the ache of a toiling mankind.”

Eddie’s headache vis-a-vis Merrily We Dance is that the head of the studio, the unseen Nicholas Schenk (who actually was the boss of MGM in the early ’50s), decrees that the lead role has to be played by Hobie. It’s a disastrous call, as Hobie and sophistication are polar opposites. After trying to get the lad to make a “mirthless chuckle,” and “trippingly,” “with a certain ruefulness,” say the line, “Would that ’twere so simple,” Laurence Laurentz seems ready to tear out his remaining hairs. But what the boss says goes and the kid stays in the picture.

Eddie goes to visit editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand) to look at a cut of Merrily on her Movieola, and manages to do so, after a near-Isadora Duncan-type mishap with her  scarf.

 

Wonder of wonders! Improbably, Hobie’s performance does the trick, even if it doesn’t quite reach Oscar™ proportions. His natural physical grace comes though, and the execrable line “Would that ’twere so simple” has been shortened and improved. And who would have thought it possible — his closing smile is actually rueful. Here’s to the magic of movies.

For the scenes of Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ, as Desowitz describes it, the filmmakers mimicked Technicolor epics — “that gold and red look with warm, rich tones.” There are also the matte backgrounds characteristic of the times, which look especially fake today as computer-aided graphics have become more sophisticated. We look on with Eddie Mannix as he watches a rough cut in the studio screening room. George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock (Robert Taylor, kind of) plays the Roman tribune Autolycus; the narrator is the same Michael Gambon.

 

That missing “DIVINE PRESENCE” remains a problem. Eddie takes a meeting with a rabbi, a minister, a priest and a Greek Orthodox priest to see what sort of representation of the godhead might be inoffensive to them all; the results, perhaps predictably, are a joke. The Coen Brothers didn’t manage to solve the problem either, as we learn at the very end of the movie, seen just as the credits finish rolling. Wedged between thanks to various municipal film boards and assurances that no animals have been harmed is this disclaimer: “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.”

‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ in ‘Two Weeks in Another Town’

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Had to create a new tag for this one: “Watching yourself.” Like Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution, Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) has a scene where a character watches an actual movie that the actor playing that character was actually in. In Minnelli’s film, Kirk Douglas plays Jack Andrus, a washed-up star who travels from the loony bin to Rome to help out his old director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson), who’s one costume epic from being washed up himself.

As a sort of pep talk, Kruger screens one of his and Andrus’s past triumphs to his current cigarette-loving troupe. The movie turns out to be The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), also a movie about the movies that starred Douglas, was directed by Minnelli, produced by John Houseman, and written by Charles Schnee.

Got that?

But the ploy backfires, to contemporary eyes and ears, at any rate. The Bad and the Beautiful footage is spitting with energy and riveting, despite the wide lapels, black-and-white stock, and scenery-chewing by Douglas (as a heel of a movie producer) and Lana Turner (as a small-time actress with daddy and alcohol issues). And to be sure, that’s to some extent why it’s here. As Kruger says, “Take a good look at a movie that was made because we couldn’t sleep unless we made it.”

The trouble is, the Bad stuff makes the newer film come off as even weaker than it already shown itself to be, which is saying something. Two Weeks in Another Town was the wrong film at the wrong time. Early ’60s Hollywood was just not up to dealing frankly and cinematically with sexuality, alcoholism, mental illness, despair, and orgiastic Rome parties, to name just a few of the movie’s elements, and their treatment here yields unintentional comedy.  (Actual Italian films, like 8 1/2, released in 1963, were equipped to do a whole lot better with this sort of thing.) And whenever George Hamilton is on screen as an intense James Dean–like young actor, the laugh quotient just gets higher.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. The Bad and the Beautiful got five Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Gloria Grahame), as well as a Best Actor nomination for Douglas. Two Weeks in Another Town got shut out at the Oscars, lost $3 million at the box office and received a well-deserved pan from Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who wrote, “The whole thing is a lot of glib trade patter, ridiculous and unconvincing snarls and a weird professional clash between the actor and director that is like something out of a Hollywood cartoon.”

 

‘The Bicycle Thief’ and ‘Habeus Corpus’ in ‘The Player’

I would not have expected Robert Altman to have much of a presence on this blog. I feel that he preferred being in control of all the irony, rather than appropriating it from an interpolated film made by some other hand. And sure enough, only two of his many movies appear on the comprehensive Films in Films website. The first is Short Cuts (1993), in which Monster in the Closet (1986) plays on a television. (Part of the reason Altman chose that slasher flick may be that three members of his unofficial stock company — Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, and Howard Duff — are in it.)

The second is The Player (1992). And sure enough, the main movie-in-movie scene comes from its source material, the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it for the screenplay. In novel and film, the title character, master-of-the-universe movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has been receiving threatening post cards from an anonymous angry screenwriter. He thinks he’s figured out that the correspondent is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and phones him; his girlfriend answers and says that Kahane is at the movies — specifically, the Rialto in Pasadena, watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. (The title literally translates as “Bicycle Thieves,” but it’s commonly known by the singular in the U.S.)

In the novel, Mill slips into the theater for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Tolkin tells us his reactions, which are film-savvy, naturally, but as off as you would expect from a ’90s Hollywood exec giving notes on Italian neo-realism:

Griffin watched a father and son search for the lost bicycle. Knowing the title, it was obvious that someone had stolen the bike, that this poor man needed it, and that he and his son were now, since the movie was almost over, close to finding the bike and the person who had stolen it. It’s a good title, thought Griffin. He liked a movie where the story and the title were the same thing.

He doesn’t like the ending; it’s “so unnecessarily sad.” He wonders: “Was there a sequel?”

Altman has some nice tweaks on the scene. Griffin’s in the theater less than a minute and never once is shown watching the movie; he keeps furtively looking around for Kahane. The Bicycle Thief is so far away from his world as not to exist at all.

When the lights comes on, Griffin spots the screenwriter, and, true to form, tries to bullshit him: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these… cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this!”

The sequence is only a small part of The Player‘s all-encompassing commentary on the movies, which manifests itself in varying levels of explicitness. In the very first scene, Griffin and others at this studio talk about the six and half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — and it’s all part of a eight minute and fifteen second tracking shot that opens The Player. Later, we see the shooting of a noirish feature with Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin, Lonely Room, that’s a counterpoint to the crime story Grifffin finds himself a part of.

A post at Films in Films notes that we see dozens of classic film posters in The Player, many of which offer commentary on the action playing out in front of them.

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Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) below portentous posters.

For me, the reflexive aspect of the film that packed the biggest emotional punch was the array of actors playing themselves, especially the ones that have died in the meantime: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze.  It was like spending some good time with ghosts.

The main movie-within-a-movie in The Player is a project called Habeas Corpus. It’s pitched to Griffin early on — a message movie about capitol punishment, with no stars, and a downbeat ending where the main character dies. Needless to say, he passes, for it lacks just about every element (as he says in a different scene) that make up successful movies: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”

For spoiler-related reasons I won’t go into, Habeas Corpus does end up getting made, and at the end of The Player, we see execs screening the ending. Lots of cameos here: Susan Sarandon, Louise Fletcher, Peter Falk, Ray Walston, Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from The Bob Newhart Show), and Altman stalwarts Bert Remsen, Paul Dooley, and Rene Auberjonois are all in the sequence. At the end of a(nother) long tracking shot, the death-row prisoner turns out to be Julia Roberts, showing some leg. She was the very sort of star the screenwriters had vowed would not be in the movie. Her presence is just the first of a host of broken promises, and it kicks off a Hollywood Ending that provides the Hollywood ending to The Player.

 

 

‘Gilda’ in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

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Rita Hayworth in “Gilda”

I consider The Shawshank Redemption (1994) one of the most entertaining movies of the last twenty-five years, in large part because it has such a great story to tell. And at the heart of that story is the movie-in-movie scene.

As with Sullivan’s Travels and O Brother, Where Art Thou, the movie-watching takes place in a prison. Red (Morgan Freeman) and the other inmates in the Shawshank Penitentiary are raptly taking in Gilda (1946). Specifically, they are taking in the first appearance in the film of Rita Hayworth. Following some banter between Glenn Ford and George Macready, director Charles Vidor shows Hayworth’s glamorous head springing up, nearly filling the frame. The guys in the audience go wild. Inmate Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sidles in and starts to say something but Red shushes him, “This is the part I really like,” he says. “When she does that shit with her hair.”

The scene is one of the key points on which Shawshank‘s writer and director, Frank Darabont, departs from the movie’s source, Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” King, more realistically, has the prison screening the alcohol-is-bad message movie The Lost Weekend (1945). But Gilda works better, both for the hooping-and-hollering reaction and because it works with what Andy has to say to Red, who’s known for procuring all sorts of goods for the inmates.

“What do you want?” he asks Andy.

“Rita Hayworth,” comes the reply. “Can you get her?”

For the few out there who haven’t seen Shawshank, I won’t spoil their pleasure by revealing what Andy means, whether Red comes through, or what the request means for both of their fates.

“Queen Kelly” in “Sunset Boulevard”

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Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is probably the most movie-besotted movie of all time. Start with the premise. Gloria Swanson, a silent-film star whose career was derailed by the talkies, is Norma Desmond, a silent-film star whose career was ended by the talkies. Her card-game buddies are played by Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, all silent-screen stars of yore. Her butler-chauffeur, Max, turns out to be a once-acclaimed silent-film director and Norma’s ex-husband. He’s creepily–and brilliantly–played by Erich von Stroheim, a once-acclaimed silent-film director who’d been reduced to playing character parts, mostly Nazis in World War II-pictures. One of the few Hollywood folk who successfully made the silent-to-talkie transition was director Cecil B. DeMille. Surprise! He turns up as himself. We see him on the set of Samson and Delilah, which was released in 1949. According to IMDB, “Set elements and costumes from … Samson and Delilah were pulled out of storage, and cast members from that film re-hired, to re-create his filming.”

The most meta scene comes shortly after screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) takes up residence in Norma’s decrepit mansion, where he serves as a combination amanuensis/boy toy. He tells us (there’s voice-over narration by Joe throughout) that Norma throws regular movie nights, just for the two of them; Max is projectionist. The repertoire, of course, is her own films. We see a bit from one of them, a scene where the young Norma’s face is illuminated by candles.

The clip is from Queen Kelly, a 1929 film that, more than any other single factor, derailed the careers of Swanson (the star) and von Stroheim, the director. At least he was the director until producer Joseph Kennnedy (Swanson’s lover and JFK’s father) fired him because the scenes he’d produced were too explicit and dark. Because von Stroheim retained the rights for what he’d shot, the film had never seen in the United States–until Sunset Boulevard.

The film, of course, is silent. As Norma tells Joe, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”