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.
I feel a little sheepish to say that up till now, this blog has had only one post on a silent movie — Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. That situation is about to be corrected thanks to Don McHoull. A week or so ago, Michael Tisserand alerted me to this kind of amazing video Mr. McHoull had compiled and tweeted out, under the handle @silentmoviegifs:
I immediately asked McHoull what the movies were, and he promptly responded with a list. One was Sherlock Jr.; I’ve spent a good part of the last week enjoyably sorting out the rest and figuring where they fit into Movies in Other Movies. One that I put aside was Keaton’s A Frozen North. It contains the closing image of the montage — Buster being awakened in a movie theater — but it doesn’t have any actual movies in it. In this post and a following one, I’ll consider the rest — plus two others that emerged in my research — in chronological order. I’ll add that they were a revelation and a delight, in showing me a whole meta level of early movies that I didn’t know existed. Finally, all the films can be seen, in one version or other, on YouTube and/or Vimeo.
Those Awful Hats is a gem, and as far as I know the very first movie-in-movie. Here’s the whole two minutes forty-five seconds of it:
The director was D.W. Griffith, just embarking on his second year of movie-making. (He’d put out about fifty shorts in his first, 1908, so he had already acquired a fair amount of experience.) The movie — before a deus ex machina draws things to a speedy conclusion — is a witty commentary on on hats, on the behavior and etiquette of movie houses, and (judging by what’s on the screen) by the mayhem that could pass for cinematic entertainment in 1909.
Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913), not in the McHoull montage, was put forward by Ben Zimmer (who found it on the Films in Films site) when I raised this topic on Facebook. The short, directed by Mack Sennett, is meta to a high degree. Sennett plays a character named Mack who romantically rejects the family maid, Mabel, played by Mabel Normand. She’s eventually fired and, while job-hunting, somehow finds her way to a Keystone Studios set where a movie is being made. She’s hired to appear in the film, which — kicking the meta up a notch — is At Twelve O’Clock, a real Keystone movie starring the real Normand.
Time passes, during which Mack realizes he loves Mabel. He passes by a movie house, sees an At Twelve O’Clock poster with Mabel’s picture on it, buys a ticket, and goes inside. The clip starts on the movie set, where Mabel has just demonstrated her ability to do a pratfall. (And this makes me realize there could be a blog about movies containing scenes of movies being made. If anyone’s interested, you’re welcome.)
Quite a few things to note here, starting with the blatant product placement of a “Keystone” frame onscreen. (Mack applauds when he sees it.) Then there’s a new comic trope in this subgenre: the idea that, with movies being so new, a spectator might have a hard time telling film from reality.
And there’s the identity of the film within the film — interesting to me because I’d like to be able to name the first instance where movie characters watch a real movie. (All the other examples in this post have fake films-in-films.) Internal clues would suggest that Mack is watching At Twelve O’ Clock (1913), and Films in Films blog asserts this is the case. I don’t think it is (though I can’t be sure because At Twelve O’Clock isn’t extant) for two reasons: what we see of the movie-in-movie doesn’t match published descriptions of At Twelve O’Clock, and what we see is so exaggerated as to suggest a spoof of movies, not a real one.
I posed the question to silent film historian Steve Massa, and he agreed, pointing out that what we see doesn’t match plot description in reviews of At Twelve O’Clock, and that the villain in the movie-in-movie is Fred Mace, while villain in At Twelve O’Clock is Ford Sterling. So my earliest example of a real movie being used, at this point, is still Who Killed Cock Robin? in Hitchcock’s Sabotage(1936).
A Film Johnnie (1914), directed by George Nichols, is an early Charlie Chaplin gem. It also invokes the can’t-tell-movies-from-real-life idea. (“Steals” is such a harsh term, and it’s done better here as well.) In this scene, Charlie’s character has just fallen in love with the actress on the screen (Peggy Pearce) and is driven to action when a brute manhandles her.
I don’t like ending with an anticlimax, but the last to be considered in this post is the weakest of the four, Luke’s Movie Muddle (1916), starring Harold Lloyd and directed by Hal Roach. Lloyd made it early in his career, when he was doing the “Lonesome Luke” character — basically, down to the mustache, a Chaplin knockoff. (A harsh word, but it fits.) Here, Luke is a sort of jackass-of-all-trades at a movie house, where everything that can go wrong does.
Befitting the movie’s lack of distinction is the extremely bland footage that Roach (who would go on to better things) chooses to put on the screen. At one point, it’s just a bunch of people milling around on the street. And then there’s this exciting shot. (At the end of the clip, you can see Lloyd’s Chaplin shtick.)
Next: From shorts to features, and another appearance (sort of) by Harold Lloyd.
This blog has an informal policy of not writing about cases where the movie-in-movie is significantly better than the “host” movie; I’ve called it the South Pacific/Welcome to Woop Woop Rule. I’ll make an exception in the case of Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone (2005). Why? Well, for one thing, both it and Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) are holiday movies and we’re smack dab in the holiday season.
And the other thing is, I find the contrast between the two films interesting. Family Stone has the reputation of being a good movie. I just saw it for the first time and I beg to differ. I found it manipulative, mendacious, hollow, and believable for maybe forty-five seconds. I don’t want to pile on (after all it’s the holiday season) so I’ll just quote Manohla Dargis of the New York Times and move on: “Tolstoy didn’t know the Stones, who are happy in a Hollywood kind of way and unhappy in a self-help kind of way. This tribe of ravenous cannibals bares its excellent teeth at anyone who doesn’t accommodate the family’s preening self-regard.”
Meet Me in St. Louis really is a good movie, maybe a great one. And in this context maybe the most striking thing about it is its honest and affecting sentiment, as opposed to sentimentality. In this Family Stone Christmas Eve scene, Stone family daughter Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) — who’s merely bland, not fake — tells her father, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), that she’s not going to bed because her favorite scene is about to start. Esther (Judy Garland) is dancing with Grandpa (Harry Davenport), also on Christmas Eve.
Basically, The Family Stone is hijacking Meet Me in St. Louis for its emotion. The larceny continues, as we see a montage of the various characters conducting their various Christmas Eve activities, to the tune of the Meet Me In St. Louis song that many people (with justice) consider the best holiday song ever, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
I could go on to say that in addition to everything else, this violates what must be one of the dramatic unities, as in Minelli’s film, it’s sung before the dance scene. But who needs more carping from me? Merry Christmas, everybody.
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.
Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971) was based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. Wikipedia’s description of the book’s setting: ” a pandemic … has killed most of the human population and turned the remainder into ‘vampires’ that largely conform to their stereotypes in fiction and folklore: they are blood-sucking, pale-skinned, and nocturnal, though otherwise indistinguishable from normal humans.”
The protagonist, Robert Neville, appears to be the only survivor of the pandemic. He spends his days patrolling Los Angeles, looking to kill vampires with wooden stakes. and his nights inside his apartment, looking to stay alive. Matheson says that he occasionally screens movies for himself but doesn’t name them.
Sagal and screenwriters John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington decided to show Neville (Charlton Heston) actually watching a film — not at home but out in the world. (A previous film version was The Last Man on Earth, 1964, with Vincent Price — no movie in movie.) The present day of The Omega Man is 1977; the pandemic had hit seven years earlier, when Woodstock was playing in theaters. Neville, it appears, has developed an odd obsession with that documentary, perhaps because the utopian hippie dreams in it appear so quaint in the light of his harsh world.
He’s equipped one cinema with a generator. We see him power it up, spool the film in a projector, and watch it for the umpteenth time, his rifle lovingly cradled beside him.
His comment at the end of the clip is an example of a cliche made literal.
Matheson’s book got adapted again in 2007, under Francis Lawrence’s direction and with Will Smith as Neville. This time, his much-watched movie is Shrek, and he watches it at home with a mother and son with whom he’s joined forces. That mirrors the Shrek scene, where the characters voiced by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy form an alliance of their own.
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.
But you looked as if you liked it.
I *did* like it. All I said was,
"It's not 'King Kong'."
TCM recently had a Charlie Chaplin day in its annual “Summer Under the Stars” festival, and Michael Tisserand alerted me to a nifty sequence in A King in New York (1957), Chaplin’s second-to-last film and the last in which he appeared. (The final film he directed was A Countess from Hong Kong, in 1967.) He plays the king of a mythical country who is forced out by revolution; his name, Shahdav, suggests a reference to the Shah of Iran, who ruled from 1941 till 1979. Shadav’s destination is New York, just like Eddie Murphy’s African king in Coming to America (1988).
As students of cinema know, Chaplin went into semi-voluntary exile from the United States in 1952, not returning until 1972, when he received an honorary Academy Award. As a result, the satire or critique of U.S. culture, politics, and mores that constitutes a great deal of A King in New York is necessarily a bit second-hand. A lot of it is very sharp nonetheless.
In this scene, Shahdov has just arrived in the city and has a night to kill before attending to his principal business, going to a bank and withdrawing his country’s national treasury. Ambassador Jaume (Oliver Johnston) suggests taking in a movie. When they arrive at the theater, a rock-and-roll show is just finishing up. And here’s where a bit of second-hand feel comes in. The supposed rock music sounds more like ’40s hot jazz, and the latter-day bobby-soxers in the audience show their appreciation by clapping and full-throatedly cheering, as if they were at a baseball game; in reality, at least since Elvis’s ascent the year before, screams were de rigeur.
But the satire of movies, seen in the coming attractions, is absolutely on-point, and hilarious. No surprise there — forty years earlier, Chaplin had more or less invented popular cinema, and he had clearly kept a jaundiced eye on its fashions and conventions, notably poor marksmanship.
“I gotta kill ya, honey — it’s for your own good,” is rich.
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 toArms, 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.
By the way, the real movie version of A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, came out in 1932.
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.
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.”
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).
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).
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.
[For part I of this post, click here; for part II, click here.]
The final movie-in-movie scene in A Star Is Born is a doozy, naturally. Norman and Vicki Maine (James Mason and Judy Garland) are throwing a party. Hollywood being Hollywood, Vicki circulates among the guests, asking, “Would you like to see a movie? We’re going to run one.” Lights go down, curtains automatically close, a screen rises from the floor and a modern painting retracts to reveal a projector. A (fake) newsreel begins.
Presently, studio chief Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) sidles away to another room, turns on a television set, and fiddles with the remote, just as Norman walks in on him. What appears to be a ballroom scene of an antebellum costume drama is on.
I wish I knew what the movie is — it’s not listed in IMDB connections or in filmsinfilms, or mentioned anywhere else I can find. It looks like Gone with the Wind, and I hope it is, because that would make the most monumental and cosmic in-joke in the history of movies. Why? Because George Cukor, director of A Star Is Born, was supposed to helm GWTW but was fired by producer David O. Selznick.
Things get amazinger. Oliver switches to a boxing match but through a window we get glimpses of the movie the rest of the guests are watching. That makes two movies-in-movie in one scene, which is a record (except I guess for shots of multiple TVs in appliance-store windows in films like Dinerand The Shape of Water).
Again, I can’t tell what the movie is. It appears to be some sort of jungle epic, and judging by the credits, I believe it’s fake. And by the way, the credit in the shot above is another great in-joke. The “star” appears to be “Roy Webb.” There is no such star or actor by that name. However, Roy Webb was a contemporary Hollywood composer of the first rank, having scored such films as Notorious and Out of the Past.
A couple of other notes on A Star is Born. First, it counts as a “double-dip”: Charge at Feather River is seen in A Star Is Born, and Star is Born seen in three different movies — Twister, Hearts in Atlantis, and P.S. I Love You. And Twister, as previously noted, is the end of another chain — Now, Voyager; Summer of ’42; and The Shining.
All eight of the movies mentioned in the previous paragraph were from the Warner Brothers studio — an indication of directors economizing by going in-house when it comes to their movie-in-movie choices. It’s a tendency that I’ve just started to notice and really should quantify. Watch out for a future post.