‘Stagecoach,’ ‘Angel and the Badman,’ and ‘Fort Apache’ in ‘The Apartment’

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) marks the director’s third appearance in this blog, for the moment passing Alfred Hitchcock (Sabotoge and Saboteur) in the top spot. (Wilder’s previous two entries were Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution.)

Apartment_60The Apartment, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), was presented as a comedy that mocked romantic mores and man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit corporate culture, with its notorious attachment to the suffix “-wise.” But removed from its turn-of-the-decade context, and especially viewed in the light of the Me-Too movement, the film is chilling.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a peon in mammoth Consolidated Life Corp., has pimped out his Upper West Side apartment: he lets a quintet of executives use it for their trysts with secretaries and other female prey, in exchange for vague promises of corporate advancement. His neighbors, hearing the all-hours mayhem but unaware of the arrangement, think he’s a wild and crazy guy! Pretty funny! (Adding to the comic feel, inadvertently, is the fact that the five execs would go on to become staples of 1960s sitcoms: Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons, Ray Walston as My Favorite Martian, David White in Bewitched, and Willard Waterman on Dennis the Menace. David Lewis, meanwhile, played Warden Crichton on Batman, Senator Ames on The Farmer’s Daughter, and three separate roles on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.)

The movie-in-movie scene comes early. The Lewis character has stayed on past the agreed-upon-time, forcing Baxter to roam the chilly New York streets, his body hunched in the classic Jack Lemmon slouch, his tan cotton raincoat turned up around his neck. When he can finally return, he heats up a TV dinner, brings it to the couch, and turns on the TV using a remote control, unusual at the time.

remote

BTW, I got the above image from an online discussion about the remote control in The Apartment, which suggests that any topic, no matter how obscure — or maybe the more obscure, the better — has its own online forum.

When the TV comes on, it shows an unctuous host announcing an imminent showing of the 1932 melodrama Grand Hotel, which Baxter seems to be happy about, maybe because its high-gloss world promises a complete escape from his own sordid one. But then the host presents a word from “our sponsor” and Baxter starts clicking. He successively lands on three different channels showing three different movies. (That is an anachronism. I lived in the New York television market in 1960 and can attest that it wouldn’t have happen that four channels would have movies on at the same time.)

Those three films are all John Wayne oaters: Stagecoach (1939), Angel and the Badman (1947), and Fort Apache (1948). The first and third were directed by John Ford, and I imagine Wilder, a German refugee who never made a Western, had in mind a subtle homage to that great Hollywood movie maker, different from him in just about every way.  The scenes that come on Baxter’s screen are all gunfights and bar fights and galloping cavalry, however, which are too much for his nerves at the moment. So he clicks back to Grand Hotel, hopefully. What he encounters actually is funny.

 

 

‘Jesse James’ in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’

witness-7-620x376
Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), Mrs. French (Norma Varden), and their hats.

We last encountered Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard. He was having Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, watch one of Norma’s old silent films, only it was one of Gloria’s — Queen Kelly.

Wilder pulls a similar trick in his 1957 courtroom thriller, Witness for the Prosecution, in which Tyrone Power plays Leonard Vole, a World War II veteran in London who has landed in a spot of trouble. We learn in flashbacks that he’s invented a newfangled egg-beater and has been trying to peddle it, without much luck. That is, until he and Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a wealthy widow, meet cute in a shop where she’s buying a smart new hat, and he commences a flirtation with her. I didn’t mention that Leonard is married; his wife, Christine, is played by Marlene Dietrich.

I pause here to say that one of the more mysterious things about Witness for the Prosecution is Vole’s nationality. A commenter on IMDB says that William Holden was Wilder’s first choice for the part, and that Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, and Jack Lemmon were considered before Power, also an American, accepted. He makes no effort to do an English accent, and at least one book on Wilder takes Vole to be an American. Yet the script — by Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus, based on Agatha Christie’s play — makes no mention of his not being British, and even gives him some Britishisms to say.

Three of these appear in the movie-in-movie scene. Discouraged by a lack of eggbeater interest, Vole repairs to a cinema. Who should sit in the row in front of him but Mrs. French, her hat obscuring his view of the shoot-em-up Western on the screen? He invites her to sit next to her, and explains, “That chap on the white horse is called Jesse James. Those others have led him ambush. It’s not at all cricket.”

The film they’re watching was made in 1939 and is called Jesse James. The title character (not discernible in the Witness for the Prosecution scene) was played by Tyrone Power.

 

‘Rebel Without a Cause’ in ‘La La Land’

la

No one can say they don’t make movies-in-other movies anymore. The current Blackkklansman (post to come) puts a not especially flattering spotlight on two old films. La La Land (2016), which famously won, then didn’t win, the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, features just one, but it’s in a pivotal scene.

In this musical, aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) don’t-meet cute a couple of times, then manage to connect and have some conversations that suggest they are kindred spirits. Sebastian is movie-besotted. He  quotes some lines from Rebel Without a Cause, and when he realizes she’s never seen it, he invites her to meet him at the Rialto, where it’s playing, later that week.

Because of plot complications, she arrives at the Rialto — and by the way, both exteriors and interiors were filmed at the real Rialto Theatre, in Pasadena — after the movie has already started. She stands in the front, looking for Sebastian, and he sees her with appropriately cinematic illumination.

They settle in to watch the movie, as the famous Griffith Park scene is about to begin, but just as things are about to heat up between them, something burns up and spoils the mood.

At that point, Mia suggests they take a drive to the real Griffith Park, which they do, director Damien Chazelle’s camera recreating the scene from the original. They break in to the Observatory through in open door and share a celestial dance. It’s a nice movie-loving scene, in a nice movie-loving movie, and if you haven’t seen it I heartily recommend you rent it, or stream it, or, on the off-chance it’s playing at the Rialto, go see it as films were meant to be seen.

‘Daughter of Horror’ (‘Dementia’) in ‘The Blob’

blob

Among the many strange things about Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958) is the notion that the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, could fill nearly all its seats with a midnight showing of the extremely obscure Dementia, a 58-minute dialogue-less reverie of a woman’s nightmare. When that film opened in 1955, Variety said it was “Maybe the strangest film ever offered for theatrical release.” It was recut and retitled, as Daughter of Horror, and a voice-over narration by future Tonight show sidekick Ed McMahon was added, but it didn’t do any better at the box office.

Anyway, another odd thing is that Yeaworth lights the audience at the Colonial (which is still in operation, barely forty miles from where I’m writing this) about as brightly as if they were taking a walk under the noonday sun. And another: when we initially see them, they watching creepy sights and listening to Ed McMahon say, “Now all the images of horror, the demons of your mind, crowd in on you to destroy you.” But they are looking at Daughter of Horror as impassively as if it were a Chevy commercial. This film demands a response! The second reaction shot at least shows them starting to titter, and by the third, they’re laughing uproariously. Unfortunately, by this time, bad things are happening to the Colonial’s projectionist, who is also sunnily lit and who has left himself vulnerable to blobby mischief by burying his nose in a book.

I can laugh all I want at The Blob, but (according to Wikipedia) it had a budget of $110,000 and earned $4 million at the box office, for a return on investment of more than 3500 percent.  Mental Floss’s list of the twenty most profitable movies of all time is topped by Paranormal Activity (2007), with a ROI of 19,749 percent and The Devil Inside (2012) at 3632 percent. The Blob should be number 3 but is absent from the list. Which goes to show, blobs don’t get no respect.

‘An Affair to Remember’ in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’

3-rosie-and-meg-sleepless
Rosie O’Donell and Meg Ryan bonding over “An Affair to Remember”

All movies are about movies, but Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) is about movies more than most. The characters habitually measure their own lives against what they’ve seen onscreen. Sam (Tom Hanks), a recently widowed architect, thinks about inviting a potential date over to look at swatches, but then muses that Cary Grant wouldn’t be caught dead looking at swatches with a woman. His ten-year-old son, Jonah, asks whether Sam will have sex with the swatch-woman; Sam, in a rookie move, says yes. Jonah tells him to be careful: “In movies, women are always scratching up the man’s back and screaming.”

All told, the words “movie” or “movies” appear fifteen times in Ephron’s screenplay.

The most movie-obsessed character, by far, is Annie (Meg Ryan), whom we see in an early scene watching An Affair To Remember (1957), starring the aforementioned Grant, on TV with her best friend, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell). After some portentous dialogue between the impossibly handsome and tanned Grant and Deborah Kerr, Annie laments, “Those were the days when people knew how to be in love…. It was right. It was real. It was …”

Becky breaks in: “… a movie. That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”

In a clever conceit, all females in this film are obsessed with An Affair to Remember, including an Empire State Building Security guard’s wife and Sam’s sister, Suzy (Rita Wilson), who can’t even summarize the plot without breaking into tears. Her husband, Greg (Victor Garber) teams up with Sam for a very funny response.

(In a piece of dialogue that apparently was cut from the shooting script, a detective Annie has hired to stalk Sam says she reminds him of “Glenn Close in that movie,” i.e., Fatal Attraction.)

Ephron has movies on her mind too: Sleepless is a love letter not so much to the ’50s women’s picture weepy An Affair to Remember as to the classic screwball comedies of the ’30s and early ’40s, the best of which, like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, featured Grant. Bill Pullman plays the Ralph Bellamy role–the well-meaning but terminally dull fiancee Walter. Ryan’s a reporter, like Rosalind Russell in Friday and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe. And Hanks and Ryan are the impossibly good-looking (though not tanned) leads, whose love has a supernatural sway over the actions and intentions of mere mortals. Just like in the movies.

(The clip below starts with the movie-on-movie scene, which ends at about the 2:30 mark. Because of technical difficulties, I was unable to trim the rest of the clip. It doesn’t have any movie-watching stuff, but it’s pretty good. In fact, I recommend watching the whole movie if you haven’t seen it recently. As of last week it was streaming for free on Verizon Fios On Demand.)

 

‘Task Force’ in ‘White Heat’

cody
Verna, Ma, and Cody at the drive-in

The heyday of the American gangster movie lasted eighteen years. It started in 1931 with Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, and The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and ended in 1949 with Cagney’s White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh. (All three are Warner Brothers productions and are on the American Film Institute’s list of the top ten gangster movies of all time. Chronologically, the one after White Heat is Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, also by Warners.)

White Heat pointed the way forward in a number of ways. It had the kind of gritty semi-documentary style scene in crime films of the late ’40s and ’50s like Naked City, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Killing. It had the dark psychological themes of the emerging film noir genre, especially in the portrait of Cagney’s character, sadistic gangster Cody Jarrett. Cody suffers debilitating headaches, comforted only by the Oedipal ministrations of his Ma (Margaret Wycherly), who massages his neck and invites him to sit in her lap.

And it had a modern movie-in-movie scene. It occurs early on, when Cody, Ma, and his girlfriend, Verna (Virginia Mayo), are being chased by the cops. Needless to say, Ma is sitting next to Cody, Verna riding shotgun. He pulls in to the San Val Drive In theater in Burbank (the country’s second drive-in, opened in 1938), as the police cars speed past, sirens blaring. Taking his money, the ticket-taker says, “It happens every night. Ruins the movie.”

The movie is Warner Brothers Task Force, which was still a few weeks from release at the time of White Heat‘s premiere. (And therein lies a goof. A sharp-eyed poster to a website about movie theaters points out that the marquee announces two different 1949 movies, the western South of St. Louis and the exotic fantasy Siren of Atlantis.) I haven’t seen Task Force, but according to the IMDB description, it’s apparently a history of aircraft carriers seen through the eyes of a fictional admiral played by Gary Cooper. In any case, all the explosions and mayhem are too much for Cody, possibly because he feels a headache coming on. After an attendant puts a speaker inside the car (I just barely remember that technology), he orders Verna, “Kill that.”

After Verna’s sarcastic comment about the second feature, Cody outlines his plans for escape. Just before he bolts the car, he kisses both ladies goodbye–lingering just a little more on Ma than on Verna.

 

‘Gilda’ in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

Gilda_trailer_hayworth1
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.