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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

slick-hare

‘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.

 

‘Daughter of Horror’ (‘Dementia’) in ‘The Blob’ (1958)

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.

 

“Queen Kelly” in “Sunset Boulevard”

sunset

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

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

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

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