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.
By the time you get to the end of part III of this post, I hope you’ll agree with me that George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) is the most movie-in-movie movie in the history of movies.
The first data point is relatively straightforward. Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a small-time singer who has been taken under his wing by soon-to-be-fading movie star Norman Maine (James Mason), and is signed to a contract by studio chief Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford — and notable among the bullet points in the movie’s poetic license is that a mogul would be as WASPy as all that). On her whirlwind first day at the studio, even before her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is ushered in to see Niles as he’s screening a Western.
There are several things to say about the scene, first of all, that it’s great. Cukor’s (probably his decision more than screenwriter Moss Hart) choice of movie, The Charge at Feather River (1953), and segment within it is perfect. The fact that it was a real, current film adds verisimilitude; the screaming and general mayhem on view plays up Esther’s nervousness and discomfort, and in addition releases some of the host movie’s built-up tension. And it’s such a great contrast with Cukor’s über-woman’s picture (and I say that with admiration).
I’ll also note that both A Star Is Born and The Charge at Feather River were Warner Brothers pictures, itself a data point in my hypothesis that, for economic reasons, a disproportionate percentage of host movies and “seen” movies come from the same studio.
But back to screaming: the Feather River scene is notable in having given the name to one of the most famous sound effects in Hollywood history, the Wilhelm Scream. The website cinemagumbo explains:
A simple sound effect—a man’s brief, agonizing cry while being attacked by an alligator—has become a Hollywood in-joke, a stock piece of audio for science fiction and western movies, a good luck charm for various filmmakers and has even inspired the name of a Massachusetts-based rock band.
The Wilhelm Scream, as the sound effect is known, was first used in the film Distant Drums (1951), which featured the aforementioned alligator attack (above). It is actually one of a series of six screams the movie’s sound department recorded with singer and actor Sheb Wooley at Warner Bros. Wooley’s distinctive “ah-AYE!-uh” was subsequently used for—and got its name from—The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which a character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow.
The Wilhelm Scream is actually heard a second time in A Star is Born, in Garland’s number “Someone at Last,” where it’s incongruously inserted as an “exotic” African effect (very poor taste now) in her round-the-world musical journey. Probably that was the start of the in-joke. It went on to become a favorite of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and is heard in every Indiana Jones movie and every Star Wars one through The Force Awakens (2015), when it was retired. On the off-chance you’re interested, here’s a compilation of some of the Wilhelm Scream’s Greatest Hits:
Careful readers of this blog know that there’s a category on it called “Not Real,” covering cases where the movie or TV show the characters are watching isn’t, you got it, real. You can see all such entries by navigating over to the right, scrolling down, pulling down the “Categories” menu, and clicking on “Not Real.”
A disproportionate number of those fake movies are pretty bad, obvious even in the brief glimpse we get of them. Examples would be Flames of Passion in Brief Encounter,Angels with Filthy Souls in Home Alone, Habeus Corpus in The Player, Garden Tool Massacre in the 1988 remake of The Blob, and Coed Frenzy in Blow Out. That badness isn’t really surprising. The director of the real movie is concentrating his or her creative energies on that one; the ersatz film serves to provide some sort of counterpoint, or merely to mock a tired genre. They’re sort of film-school exercises, and I imagine they’re a lot of fun to make.
This post contains a few more examples. At the end, there’s a poll where you can vote for the best worst fake movie of all time. And if you have any other nominees, please feel free to leave them in the comments.
When Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration came out in 2006, I remember thinking that his “mockumentary” series (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, etc.) had pretty much played itself out, and that the only really funny thing was the (bad) movie within the movie, a holiday tearjerker called Home for Purim (Purim being perhaps the most minor of minor Jewish holidays).
I think my take holds up, at least regarding the brilliant excruciatingness of Made for Purim, which is set in the South, probably so as to put on display a dizzying array of bad Southern accents, and set in the ’40s, probably because why would you set a sentimental Purim movie in the ’40s? The clip below is a pretty generous look at it. At the head of the holiday table is matriarch Esther Pischer (Catherine O’Hara); moving counter-clockwise there’s her son with the guitar (Christopher Moynihan), the Pischer patriarch (Harry Shearer), daughter Callie Pischer, and Callie’s special friend, played by Rachael Harris. (“I did meet a nice fella,” Callie had told Esther in a scenery-munching scene, “… and her name is Mary Pat!“) All are brandishing their traditional Purim noisemakers.
Here are the rest, in chronological order of the real film’s release. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, is about the difficulties of the transition from silent films to talkies in the 1920s. All of these are on-display in a test screening of The Dueling Cavalier, with Kelly as Don Lockwood and Jean Hagen as absolutely-not-ready-for-sound silent star Lina Lamont. (The rustling of the pearls is an especially nice touch.)
Pretty much every review of Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) includes the word “loving,” and that’s an apt designation for Dante’s take on the B-movies of the ’50s and early ’60s. Matinee, set in 1962, is about Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), not-so-loosely based on schlock producer William Castle. For showings of his latest production, Mant, Woolsey has rigged up buzzers under the seats in theaters — a nod to what Castle actually had done in 1959 for The Tingler.
This Mant clip is great fun, not only for such lines as, “The ant’s saliva must have gottin into Bill’s bloodstream and gone sraight to his brain,” but also for seeing such Hollywood pros as William Schallert (as the doctor) and Jesse White (as the theater owner). Cathy Moriarty isn’t such a veteran but she’s just right as Mrs. Mant.
Matinee’s counterpoint to Mant is The Shook-Up Shopping Cart, a not-so-loving version of wacky Disney comedies like The Love Bug. (The kids’ bored reaction suggest Dante’s view of the genre.) The clip stars Naomi Watts, just before she got big. And by the way, not to be a stickler, but has any movie theater been as brightly lit as the one in Matinee?
In Frank Oz’s Bowfinger, Steve Martin plays the title character, a wannabe producer who’s as schlocky as Lawrence Woolsey, but way less adept. His accountant has written a script called Chubby Rain, and Bowfinger wants to bring it to the screen, but can do so only if he gets action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) for the lead role. Hilarity ensues, which I will spoil only enough to say that Chubby Rain finally gets made, and that it is truly horrible. (Unlike the Dueling Cavalier audience, this one unaccountably goes for it.) In the clip, Martin’s flanked by Jamie Kennedy and Christine Baranski (who’s also in Chubby), and next to Murphy is Heather Graham.
Finally, our shortest clip comes from Judd Apatow’s Funny People. Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a Sandler-like comedian who has been involved in even dumber properties than Sandler himself. At first we glimpse a poster for one of them, MerMan, with Elizabeth Banks, tagline “A love story that’s a little fishy.”
Next comes a clip from Re-Do (Justin Long’s the straight man), which takes the premise of Look Who’s Talking and does what you wouldn’t think possible, makes it dumber.
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).
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.
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.
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.”