Wow. That’s my main reaction after an excursion into the blander side of 1970s television comedy.
It all started when Eric Hanson, a great friend of this blog, alerted me to a 1974 episode of Happy Days in which the gang goes to the movies. The first notable thing was the title of the episode, which is about Fonzie’s young cousin Spike (Danny Butch) taking Richie Cunningham’s young sister Joanie (Erin Moran) on a date: “Not with My Sister, You Don’t.” A quick look at IMDB revealed that four other ’70s and early ’80s sitcoms used this title: The Bob Newhart Show, The Partridge Family, Flo, and Family Ties. Must have been an inside joke around the commissary.
Spike takes Joanie to the movies; Richie (Ron Howard) and his date, Wendy (Misty Rowe), are chaperones. Hilarity ensues.
So right, that’s Tony Randall as the crewneck-sweater-wearing werewolf. I can only imagine that Happy Days creator Garry Marshall was calling in his favors. Randall was the costar of a big Marshall hit, The Odd Couple, and Days, only in its second season, was struggling to find an audience. But the clip is so horrendous, it’s not even good camp, and I can’t imagine it gave the show much of a boost. (But I will say that Howard’s slapstick turn when he returns with popcorn isn’t bad.)
Nevertheless, Happy Days soon found its way and within a couple of years was the top-rated program on television. How that could happen is a mystery to me. And so is the identity of Randall’s love interest in the movie-in-movie. IMDB and other sources don’t have a credit. She reminds me a bit of Cloris Leachman, but if it were Leachman, she’d certainly be named. Any sleuths out there who can come up with a name?
As is well known, François Trufffaut was a movie critic before becoming a director; not surprisingly, many of his films were informed by other films. This was definitely true of The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), both heavily influenced by one of Truffaut’s favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock. (In the early ’60s, the two directors met for a series of interviews that became the classic book Hitchcock/Truffaut.)
The Hitchcock influences in Mississippi Mermaid are certainly evident: the suspense story revolving around deception and uncertain identity, the beautiful and possibly treacherous icy blonde (Catherine Deneuve), the Psycho-esque staircase murder. But the film has another influence as well, Truffaut’s favorite French director, Jean Renoir (1894-1979), to whom it is dedicated. Having two such different household gods (Renoir the humanist, Hitchcock the manipulator of audience reaction and emotion) leaves the movie a little schizophrenic. In fact, the suspense story is pretty much dispensed with after the first forty minutes or so, and the rest of the film is a tale of descent and obsession that’s more reminiscent of, I don’t know, Theodore Dreiser.
The movie-in-movie takes place right after the opening credits, when a narrator (uncredited, but I’m guessing it’s Truffaut) tells the history of Réunion, the French-owned island off the coast of Africa where the early part of the film takes place. And all of a sudden, there’s a substantial clip from Renoir’s 1938 docudrama La Marseilles, showing the historical incident from which the island took its name.
The clip represents a first for this blog: a movie containing a segment from another movie that isn’t watched by the first movie’s characters, but rather is just inserted.
However, the characters in Mississippi Mermaid do watch movies. (We just don’t see them doing it.) At one point, the tobacco plantation owner played by Jean-Paul Belmondo announces his attention to do so; asked what he will be seeing, he replies “Arizona Jim.” That’s a reference to Renoir’s 1936 The Crime of Monsieur Lange, in which a character writes westerns featuring a cowboy of that name. Later Belmondo and Deneuve are seen leaving a cinema where they’ve just seen Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). The movie was a favorite of Truffaut and his auteur critical school, and, on leaving, the characters agree that it’s not a typical western and “really very good.”
Truffaut couldn’t resist one more reference to his mentor. On the wall to the left is a poster for The Elusive Corporal (1962) which proved to be Renoir’s final feature film.
Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown isn’t a very good movie, but it’s interesting, which is not nothing. Re-watching the 1997 film — an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch — on HBO Max, I was struck, first, by how self-indulgent Tarantino is and, second, how he carries self-indulgence off better than most. Much of the film’s two hour and thirty-four-minute running time is occupied by Tarantino sticking a camera in front of two or three of his formidable cast (Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro), and then not turning it off for a long time. Far from being boring, the long takes usually foment a kind of fascination.
The thing I found most interesting about the movie was how, despite being set in the mid-’90s present tense, it is firmly planted in the 1970s. That applies to the soundtrack, which kicks off with Bobby Womack’s rousing “Across 110th Street” and includes a couple of great Philadelphia soul tunes from the Delfonics, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “La-la Means I Love You.” The characters played by Grier and Forster actually bond over the Delfonics, and another feature of the film is how Tarantino’s camera lingers over the interesting faces of those two ’70s icons, neither in the first bloom of youth.
The other really ’70s thing about Jackie Brown is the movies-in-movie aspect. Jackson plays a two-bit gun smuggler named Ordell Robbie and Fonda his surfer-girl girlfriend. At one point Ordell walks in on her smoking a bong:
Ordell: Goddamn girl, you gettin’ high already? It’s just 2 o’clock!
Melanie: [chuckling] It’s that late?
Ordell: You know you smoke too much of that shit, that shit gonna rob you of your own ambition.
Melanie: Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.
Indeed, the TV is always on in the apartment, and what do you know, it’s tuned to a channel whose continuous fare, somehow, is 1970s grindhouse flicks. The first we glimpse is Beast with a Gun (1977). IMDB’s plot summary: “In Italy, escaped sadistic killer Nanni Vitali and his henchmen terrorize the populace and seek revenge against those responsible for Vitali’s incarceration.”
And right, Helmut Berger it is.
Later, Jackie Brown (Grier), in a red dress, walks by the TV as it’s playing Detroit 9000, a 1973 blaxploitation flick which Tarantrino likes so much he sponsored its reissue on DVD a few years back.
The most delicious moment is Fonda watching Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1973). How come? Well, it stars her dad, Peter — shown here with Susan George, kind of a ’70s icon herself.
If I say “mid-’60s madcap Peter Sellers comedy, with a theme song by Burt Bacharach and poster art by Frank Frazetta,” what movie comes to mind? Most likely it’s What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), but today’s topic is Pussycat‘s sort of sequel, After the Fox.
I say “sort of” because the movies don’t have common characters or plot elements, just the features listed above and United Artists as a production company. And that allowed the Pussycat reference in the After the Fox poster.
The movie was recommended to me by Eric Hanson, who was inspired to stream it on Amazon Prime because of its noteworthy creators: Sellers as star, Neil Simon as writer (this was his first screenplay), and Vittorio De Sica as director. De Sica also has a cameo as himself, directing a biblical epic with “John Huston” playing Moses. It’s not the real John Huston, just one of many cinematic in-jokes in After the Fox. Earlier in 1966, Huston had played Noah in his own epic, The Bible.
Anyway, Eric had commended it to my attention because of yet another in-joke, the movie-in-movie scene. I will set it up as simply as possible. The movie takes place in Italy and Sellers plays a criminal on the run from the law. Britt Ekland (his wife at the time) is his sister. Victor Mature is Tony Powell, a washed-up American actor who happens to be in Rome at the time and has just been set on by a mob of adoring fans.
Contrast is almost a prerequisite when it comes to effective movie-in-movies. It would be hard to find one more pronounced than in Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison melodrama from Universal Brute Force. Actually, you’d think that whoever does the cinematic programming at this pen should be fired, as probably the last movie Burt Lancaster and his fellow hardened cons would be expected to enjoy would be The Egg and I. That comedy is also from Universal and was released just a few months before Brute Force. It’s also unlikely that a prison would get its hands on such a recent movie, but chalk that up to poetic license.
The Egg and I is about the wacky misadventures of a couple from the city (Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert) when they decide to go into the chicken-farming business. The inmates have a surprising reaction.
“decided one night to show both films — first Brute Force, until the moment where the men go to see the movie, at which point he interpolated The Egg and I in its entirety. Yes, all 104 minutes of it. During commercials, he’d intone, “You are watching Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn” — though someone who’d tuned in late would swear that he was watching The Egg and I.
“Finally, after that light comedy finished up, our programmer returned to the scene in Brute Force where the guys are getting up from the table after having watched the movie…. The programmer then continued with the rest of Brute Force, giving viewers a 199-minute orgy of 1947 Hollywood!”
If asked to name to the most movie-conscious movie, I probably wouldn’t select Gremlins. But Joe Dante’s 1984 horror-comedy belongs in the discussion.
The film’s best-known movie-in-movie scene occurs when the apparently cute, but actually viciously destructive, title creatures have taken over the local cinema. Initially, there’s some trouble in the projection booth, but that gets sorted out.
The movie the gremlins are watching, of course, is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It’s a knowing choice, showing the striking transition in animated sidekicks from Disney’s lovable dwarfs to Dante’s disgusting critters. But gross as they are, they’re also — in their rapt involvement with what they’re watching — the sort of audience a director can only dream of.
And if you think it’s odd that a 1937 movie should be on offer in an early ’80s cinema, you shouldn’t: Disney re-released Snow White in the Christmas season roughly every decade, the last time in 1983. Gremlins is a Christmas movie as well (though it was rushed to a June release, apparently so that its studio could have some blockbuster competition against Ghostbusters and the second Indiana Jones movie). It has lots of nods to the ultimate Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, including the fact that the main character, Billy (Zack Galligan), works in a bank, and both the look and the name (the Bedford Falls-sounding Kingston Falls) of the town where it’s set.
An early movie-in-movie scene is a more explicit shout-out to Frank Capra’s classic. Billy and his mother (Frances Lee McCain) are in the family kitchen.
I love it that she doesn’t have the sound on: at this point,Wonderful Life is so familiar that it’s really not necessary. And is she crying at the ending of the movie (which would be happy tears, not sad ones, right?), or from the big pile of onions she’s just chopped?
Here are the other movies in the movie, in no particular order. I find all but one of them clever and fun.
Billy and Gizmo, the Mogwai who inadvertently spawned the gremlins, watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) on TV. The parallels are obvious.
Playing in the classroom of the high school science teacher (Glynn Turman) is Hemo the Magnificent, a 1956 documentary about the circulatory system directed by none other than Frank Capra.
Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), who is bitter at foreign imports up to and including the gremlins taking over from American-made products, finds that his TV will only play kind of the ultimate foreign film, Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus.
My favorite Easter egg takes places in the local bar, where the TV is barely visible. IMDB informs me that what’s showing on it is the 1949 Pepe Le Peu cartoon For Scent-imental Reasons, directed by Chuck Jones. And guess who’s the customer walking along the bar, looking at it? Chuck Jones himself. (Phoebe Cates is the waitress, Judge Reinhold the dude on the left.)
The one movie-in-this-movie whose point I can’t quite figure out is To Please a Lady(1950), which looks to be a pretty bad car-racing movie starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. But Gizmo and Billy’s dog clearly don’t share my opinion. There’s probably an in-joke in there somewhere, and if anyone can spot it, please let me know.
I was looking around on the invaluable Films in Films site and came on an entry for Roy Del Ruth’s 1932 movie Taxi. (Films in Films lists it as Taxi! but the original posters and such do not have an exclamation mark.) FIF says the film includes scenes from the same director’s Side Show, released the previous year. This was exciting to me because, up till now, the earliest example I’ve found of a sound film using clips from another sound film is Wild Boys of the Road (1933), which uses Footlight Parade. And Taxi came out more than a year earlier.
The movie-in-movie situation turned out to be a bit more complicated than that, which I’ll get to in a minute. But to start, Taxi (available for rental on Amazon Prime) is a weird, wonderful, and disturbing movie. The bread and butter of impressionists used to be James Cagney saying, “You dirty rat. You killed my brother.” And that started with Taxi, where Cagney plays New York City cabdriver Matt Nolan. As with many famous lines, he didn’t say exactly those words. A bad guy does indeed kill his brother, and in one improbable plot turn, Matt’s wife, Sue (Loretta Young), gives some assistance to the killer. Matt shoves Sue around (he’s always socking people, dames included) and says, “The dirty rat kills Danny and you help him get away with it!” Later, a la R. Kelly, the killer is locked in a closet and Matt exclaims, “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat or I’ll give it to ya through the door!” Spoiler alert: he goes ahead and shoots. Matt’s a true sociopath, and the disturbing thing is the movie pretty much gives him a pass on that.
Taxi also has this kind of amazing scene:
Cagney was born on the Lower East Side and really did speak Yiddish. An article in the Forward summarizes what’s going on here:
The man tells the policeman that he urgently needs to go to Ellis Island because his wife and children are due to arrive and becomes incensed that the cop cannot understand his “plain Mame-Loshn.” After insulting the cop, calling him fat and a dummy — literally: a “gentile head” — the Jewish man asks Matt if he is a fellow member of the tribe. “What else would I be, a sheygets?,” Cagney’s character responds. (Sheygets is the male equivalent of a shiksa.)
And one more little sidelight. In another amazing scene, Sue and Matt enter a foxtrot contest, and who should beat them out but an uncredited George Raft, in one of his first roles?
I came to Taxi after watching Footlight Parade and a bunch of other Warner Brothers pre-Code musicals, and it’s fun to watch members of the Warners stock company like Guy Kibbee and George E. Stone show up in non-musical roles. In this sequence, Matt and Sue go to the movies with Stone (as fellow cabbie Skeets) and Leila Bennett, playing a wise-cracking waitress, Ruby (and stealing the picture).
Gentle fun is poked at Warners star John Barrymore, and slightly less gentle at Paramount’s Fredric March, who had just played a Barrymore-like thespian in The Royal Family of Broadway. Ruby’s favorite, Joe E. Brown, was a comedy star at Warners.
Here’s the movie-in-movie:
In the entire history of movie-in-movies scenes, from silent days up through Mad Men, the predominant theme for the trope has been a contrast between the idealized or hokey, “Hollywood” world that the characters watch, and their own “real” world. (And the enduring richness of the trope, of course, derives from the fact that their world isn’t really real, either.) Here, what’s onscreen is hokey and Hollywood to the max: with stilted acting, lousy synchronization, and melodramatic lines like, “My life seems misspent. The meaning has gone out of everything and left only … ashes.” (The dialogue brings to mind the scene in Harold Pinter’s The Last Tycoon script where Robert DeNiro, playing an Irving Thalberg-like executive, rips a screenwriter for the line he’s penned in response to “I love you” — “And I you!”)
The Taxi characters’ reaction eliminates any doubt we might have about the badness of the movie they and we are watching. And by the way, Cagney’s line in reference to the male lead, Donald Cook –“His ears are too big” — is another in-joke. That was commonly said about another actor from a rival studio, MGM’s Clark Gable.
Now as to the identity of that crummy movie. The marquee says it’s Her Hour of Love — “GREATEST PICTURE OF ALL TIME.” (Hardy har har.) There is no such film, though One Hour of Love was a 1927 silent. Both Films in Films and IMDB say the actual footage is from Side Show, directed by Del Ruth in 1931. That is not true, as I can attest now that I’ve seen Side Show, which is available for rental on YouTube. That film does indeed feature Cook and Evalyn Knapp (the onscreen lovers) but it’s a circus-set comic adventure. Del Ruth, Cook, and Knapp worked up this scene especially for Taxi.
So Wild Boys of the Road still hasn’t been displaced. Taxi does, however, hold the distinction of being the first movie to include clips from a fake movie, and that is not nothing.
The trope of TV characters watching TV has been remarked on, including here and here ). It’s especially common in the angsty cable dramas of the 200s and 2010s, like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, and The Sopranos, where the fakery and cheesiness of what’s on the screen-within-the-screen not only contrasts ironically with the struggles of Tony Soprano, Walter White, et al., but works as clever branding: Look how fake old-time TV is! Our show is real!
It’s rarer on these shows when characters hie themselves to a cinema and watch a movie. One such instance comes in the 2013 Mad Men episode “The Flood,” directed by Chris Manley, set on the day and aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
And here’s the complete spoiler alert. This post will not only reveal plot elements of “The Flood” but also the ending of the movie Don Draper and his son watch. I take pains to point that out, because when the episode first appeared in 2013, people got mad!
At this point in the series, Don (Jon Hamm) is divorced from his first wife, Betty. As the scene opens, his new wife, Megan, has taken two of his kids to Central Park memorial for King. (Such a vigil really took place. It was attended by 20,000 people and it was peaceful, though still doesn’t seem quite the right place to bring a baby.) Bobby Draper (Mason Vale Cotton) stays in the apartment with Don. Even though Bobby has been punished by his mother and isn’t allowed to watch TV, he is in fact watching TV — already, he’s taken on some of the trademark Draper rule-bending. The particular TV show he’s watching is the sitcom McHale’s Navy, with Ernest Borgnine and Joe Flynn, presumably chosen for maximum cheesiness and fakery. (At least it wasn’t Hogan’s Heroes.)
In the last few seconds of the clip, you can see Don’s mental gears trying to figure out how he can bend the no-TV rule, and an audio clue to his solution. We cut to (and here’s one final spoiler alert):
Right, it’s the famous, shocking ending of POTA. You can see how people who hadn’t gotten around to seeing the movie, even after 45 years, might be annoyed.
In any case, it’s a nice moment in Mad Men. There should be a word for the phenomenon at the end of a really good movie when the audience sits in silence for a few seconds — letting it all sink in, maybe drying a tear or two — before saying anything to their companions. That’s what’s going on here, as well as Don’s appreciation of Bobby’s appreciation of the film. As he acknowledges later in the episode, for him, such paternal moments don’t come easily or often.
My wife is obsessed with all things Italian, and through one of her email subscriptions heard about an online showing of a 2019 film called Citizens of the World (Italian title: Lontano Lontano), to benefit the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society. It seemed like a good cause and a good film, so we paid our $12.50 and streamed it.
Good choice. The movie, directed by Gianni Di Gregorio, is a very well-observed, funny, gentle and (most important) un-cliched character study of three Roman retirees who decide that the only way to make their pensions cover their living costs would be to move abroad. Complications ensue. (By the way, it’s also available for rental on Amazon.)
As a bonus, there’s an early movie-in-movie scene. One of the guys, played by the director, is a retired teacher known only as “Il Profesore.” We see him in his apartment, preparing dinner. And then:
The choice of movie serves a couple of purposes: one, the comedy of the professor’s sleeping through a shoot-’em-up and, two, more subtly, the implication that perhaps that his time, the time of black and white westerns, has passed by.
My only problem is that I can’t i.d. the movie. It’s listed neither in the Films in Films website nor the user-generated “Connections” sections of IMDB. If anyone can name the movie the professor is dozing to, I’ll put it up on IMDB myself.
Update: Shortly after posting this, I made a plea on Facebook and Twitter for help in identifying the movie. Within minutes, three separate people — Francie Halderman, Lewis Beale and Nancy Friedman (Twitter @fritinancy) — had pegged it as Howard Hughes’s infamous The Outlaw (1943), starring Jane Russell. That adds to the joke, as the Professor even sleeps through Russell’s va-va-voomitude.
I immediately filed the Connection with UMDB. Grazie tutti!
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.