‘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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‘Flames of Passion’ in ‘Brief Encounter’

With this post, I inaugurate a new tag: “Double dip.” It indicates films that have a movie-in-movie scene, and are also watched in a movie-in-movie scene in another film. The only other one I can think of at the moment is The Shining, which has a scene where characters watch Summer of ’42, and which is screening on the doomed drive-in in Twister. Come to think of it, there’s actually a sort of triple dip there: Summer of ’42 has a scene in which characters are watching Now, Voyager. Watch this space for a fuller account.

The topic for today is Brief Encounter, which has been used in more than a dozen films and television shows. The star-crossed, married-to-other people lovers in David Lean’s 1945 classic, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), meet once a week for a day in town, and part of their routine is going to the cinema. We see them there twice. One of the films they watch is real but unidentifiable; the other is deeply fanciful.

First we see Laura and Alec watching a preview for the made-up film, Flames of Passion, evidently a sort of King Kong epic, which is everything Brief Encounter is not, starting with the exclamation-pointed self-proclaiming adjectives: Stupendous!, Colossal!! Gigantic!!! Epoch-Making!!! All the stuff that is repressed and suppressed in Lean’s film (made and released during World War II, set in 1938) is right out there in Flames; with its restive natives, stampeding elephants, and passionate kisses, it’s so blatant and on the nose that even the typeface for the title is made out of flames.

 

This movie is definitely fictional, but Flames of Passion has been used as the title of several films, most prominently a 1922 British melodrama and a 1989 gay love story, very loosely based on Brief Encounter.

The following week, they go back to see Flames of Passion, but first, a Donald Duck short. (IMDB identifies it as the 1938, “Donald’s Better Self,” but there’s no way to know for sure, as all we hear are some Donaldian quacks.)

 

Everybody laughs uproariously at the low comedy, which appears to offer not only relief but a sort of release from the world’s burdens — a familiar motif from Sullivan’s Travels, Sabotage, and Hail, Caesar!. What’s not familiar is the elevated level of Laura and Alec’s analysis, at least to those of us used to in-theater comments on the order of “Don’t go in there, you idiot!” (The screenplay, I should have noted earlier, is by Noel Coward.)

Alec: “The stars can change in their courses, the universe go up in flames, and the world crash around us, but there’ll always be Donald Duck.”

Laura: “I do love him so … his dreadful energy, and his blind, frustrated rages.”

Then the music starts and Alec says, “It’s the big picture now. Here we go. No more laughter. Prepare for tears.”

We see the opening title:

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A lot to parse there. First, the Roman numerals affirm the year as 1938. The apparent 180-degree transformation of Gentle Summer to Flames of Passion is presumably a sardonic commentary on Hollywood’s tendency to bastardize source material. And (the fictional) “Alice Porter Stoughey” refers to the then prominence of three-named, six-syllabled American female authors, such as Alice Duer Miller, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and especially Olive Higgins Prouty, whose 1941 novel Now, Voyager became the aforementioned hit Bette Davis melodrama the following year. (Prouty was an interesting figure, in part because of her subsequent close relationship with the much younger Sylvia Plath. Wikipedia tells us that she “supported Plath financially in the wake of Plath’s unsuccessful 1953 suicide attempt: Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, would later refer in Birthday Letters to how ‘Prouty was there, tender and buoyant moon.’ Many, including Plath’s mother Aurelia, have held the view that Plath employed her memories of Prouty as the basis of the character of ‘Philomena Guinea in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar.“)

Lean and Coward’s final comment on Hollywood is that the next thing we see is Alec and Laura leaving the theater. She says in voiceover narration: “It was a terribly bad picture. We crept out before the end, rather furtively, as though we were committing a crime.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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.”

‘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.

‘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.

 

 

‘Garden Tool Massacre’ in ‘The Blob’ (1988)

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With this second post on a film about a gelatinous terror, Movies in Other Movies might start to get known as “The Blob Blog.” (Apologies to “The Bob Loblaw Law Blog” on Arrested Development.) Anyway, when director Chuck Russell and his co-writer, Frank (Shawhank Redemption) Darabont, set about remaking the cult horror classic The Blob, they must have had fun figuring out what movie to have running in their version of the climactic blob-goes-wild-in-movie-theater scene.

In the original, Irvin Yeaworth used the weird and obscure Daughter of Horror. Russell and Darabont, in keeping with their tongue-partly-in-cheek approach, opted to concoct their own, a Halloween/Texas Chainsaw Masssacre pastiche called Garden Tool Massacre. Announcing his plans to see it, youngster Eddie Beckner tells his friend’s mom “It’s your basic slice and dice.”

Mrs. Penny: Your basic what?

Eddie: Well this guy in a hockey mask, he chops up a few teenagers, but don’t worry, there’s no sex or anything bad.

From what we see of the picture, he’s a pretty good film critic. He probably didn’t anticipate that the sound-syncing would be horrible (another sly touch by Russell).

 

“Wait a minute … hockey season ended months ago”: a great line.

The slob in the Hilti hat (another sly power-tools reference) thinks he knows movies, too, but he doesn’t know enough to keep his mouth shut. And nobody in the audience knew enough to realize they never, ever, should have set foot in that theater.

‘See You Next Wednesday’ and ‘The Muppets Show’ in ‘An American Werewolf in London’

 

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In a Facebook discussion of this blog, a friend, Dan Rubin, suggested writing about the use of See You Next Wednesday in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1983).

See You Next Wednesday didn’t ring a bell so I Googled it and got led down a surprising rabbit hole. SYNW turns out to be a treasured in-joke of Landis’s. There’s a reference to an imaginary movie of that name in sixteen of the films, music videos, and television episodes he’s directed, from his first film, Schlock (1973), to an episode of Masters of Horror that aired in 2006.

Most of the time SYNW appears either in a line of dialogue or on a movie marquee or poster. Here’s a mashup of a bunch of them. According to the boffins at Wikipedia, the ostensibly actual film is seen only in American Werewolf.

(Landis’s better-known running in-joke is his one-up-on-Hitchcock penchant for putting cameos of fellow directors into his movies, sometimes multiple times. Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz are both in The Blues Brothers; Beverly Hills Cop III features Joe Dante, Martha Coolidge, Ray Harryhausen, Arthur Hiller, Barbet Schroeder, John Singleton, and George Lucs; and Amy Hecklerling, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme, Paul Mazursky, Roger Vadim, and Lawrence Kasdan all turn up in Into the Night.)

The movie-in-movie scene comes near the end of American Werewolf. While a wolf, the title character, David (David Naughton), has killed his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne). Now in human form, he sees Jack, in the body of a zombie, beckoning him into a Piccadilly Circus cinema. He finds Jack in the dark theater and they and we watch a bit of the porno See You Next Wednesday.

“Good movie,” comments David, reminiscent of a line in The Last Picture Show. In that film the reference was to Red River and the statement was true. I can’t say I’d apply it either to See You Next Wednesday or the pretty dated American Werewolf in London.

Incidentally, the IMDB page for American Werewolf claims that the See You Next Wednesday scene came from Landis’s earlier Schlock. That’s not true, as Landis explained in an interview with The Guardian. “When I was working [in London] in the 1970s, I went to those little cartoon theaters they had, such as the Eros on Piccadilly,” he said. “So in the original script, I had him going into the Eros and there was a Road Runner cartoon playing. But when I got back to London in 1980, all these theaters had become pornos. So I had to change the script to show a porno called, in the best smutty British tradition, See You Next Wednesday. We made the porno ourselves and it was the first scene we shot. It starred Linzi Drew, who was a Page 3 girl at the time; she went on to have an impressive porn career.”

Elsewhere in the film, David has a nightmare in which a peaceful family viewing of The Muppets Show is interrupted by a home invasion of mutant Nazi zombies.

 

Muppets puppeteer Frank Oz turns up briefly in American Werewolf as an American embassy worker. His line, “These dumb ass kids never appreciate anything you do for them,” is an in-joke reference to the cancellation of The Muppet Show. It was Landis’s first director cameo, and a prescient one, too: Oz wouldn’t direct his first film, The Dark Crystal (a collaboration with Jim Henson) until the following year.