‘Happy Endings’ in ‘New York, New York’ (and ‘Spaceballs’ x∞)

The recent post on Scream 4 brought up the question, are there any other cases of a movie in a movie in a movie? Ben Zimmer was quick to bring up Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987) in which Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and other characters watch themselves watching themselves watching themselves… (In a less endlessly recursive way, Blazing Saddles was shown in Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.)

 

I’d say it merits an asterisk, as does the only other movie-in-movie-in-movie example I’ve found, New York, New York (1977). Actually, I’d give Martin Scorsese’s film two asterisks. The first is because this twelve-minute sequence was cut out of the original theatrical release, only to be restored in 1981. The second … well, I’ll explain. In the movie, set in the 1940s, Liza Minelli plays singer/actress Francine Evans, who, after breaking with saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro), whose middle name should be “Nogood,” hits it big, including landing the starring role in a movie musical called Happy Endings.

In Mean Streets and Taxi Driver we learned Scorsese is fond of Times Square marquees, but he takes it to a new level here. At the start of the sequence is an establishing shot.

Screen Shot 2020-05-20 at 10.24.12 AM

We know it’s Times Square because of the Hotel Astor (lower left), which was on Broaadway between 44th and 45th Streets. And we know it’s 1949 because that’s the year of the two other (carefully selected) films on the marquees, John Huston’s We Were Strangers and Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave. Happy Endings, meanwhile, is opening at  the “New York Music Hall” — a riff on Radio City Music Hall, actually half a mile to the northeast.

Screen Shot 2020-05-20 at 10.16.51 AM

We go into the theater only to see a Happy Endings scene set in a movie theater. Francine plays “usherette” Peggy Smith; in the the stylized set (production design by Boris Leven), still more movie marquees (including the Apollo, a Scorsese favorite) are seen behind the audience. Also behind them is a beam of light from a projector — it contains, tantalizingly, the movie within the movie within the movie, which we can’t quite see.

 

Peggy meets Donald (Larry Kert) who turns out to be a movie producer and makes her a star. There are a series of production numbers, and we see superimposed titles and marquees (more marquees!) of her starring roles: Princess Sargeant, The Girl from Rio (actually the title of a 1969 spy movie), The Long Waltz (possibly a nod to Scorsese’s own The Last Waltz, and inadvertently misspelled in the marquee).

Screen Shot 2020-05-20 at 10.45.53 AM

In a Star Is Born–like arc she loses Donald when she eclipses him, but (happy ending) gets him back … but wait, it was all a dream, and she’s back as an usherette. But wait! She meets Donald again — and all of a sudden, Peggy jumps into the movie screen, a la Buster Keaton. So there’s your movie in a movie in a movie. With asterisk.

 

And if anyone’s interested in seeing the whole twelve-minute sequence, here you go:

 

 

 

‘Follow the Fleet’ in ‘Pennies from Heaven’

Screen Shot 2020-03-03 at 9.52.56 AM

In the previous post, I said that Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) was influenced by Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. That’s certainly true, but Allen also had to have had in mind Pennies from Heaven. I mean the 1981 film version directed by Herbert Ross and starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, rather than the 1978 BBC series with Bob Hoskins on which it was based.

In Pennies — set, like Purple Rose, in the 1930s — Arthur Parker (Martin) is a sheet-music salesman, and has a world view not merely influenced but warped by the pop tunes he peddles. The brilliant conceit of the series and the film — both written by Dennis Potter — is to show this by having Arthur break into song and dance periodically, lip-synching to the original scratchy vinyl of songs like “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” and “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You.” The irony not only drips but pours.

Over the course of the film, Arthur’s world falls apart, largely due to his own selfishness and short-sightedness. For a moment, it seems like he might attain a measure of happiness with Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a schoolteacher. She becomes pregnant but, unknown to him, aborts the baby. They slip into a movie theater and, as in Purple Rose four years later, an Astaire-Rogers movie with music by Irving Berlin is on the screen, in this case Follow the Fleet.

Due to technical challenges, you might not hear what Eileen says at the beginning of the clip. It’s, “I might like to have that baby, and then…” More irony. Arthur, ever the music-addled, cock-eyed optimist, avers that “There’s got to be something on the other side of the rainbow.” In a lovely (though completely unrealistic) touch that shows the permeating power of the movies, Ross has Fred and Ginger’s images reflected on the real wall of the theater. Completely carried away, Arthur can’t help lip-synching to the big production number, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Then all of a sudden they are on the stage, in front of the screen, dance-synching to Astaire and Rogers. Finally, in the Sherlock Jr. touch, they join their own movie, black and white and elegant and so different from their tawdry reality.

A final note: the (picture-perfect) choreography is credited to Danny Daniels, but Ross surely made a huge contribution. The director started his career as a dancer, then was a choreographer for Broadway musicals, and incorporated dance into many of his movies, including The Turning Point, the biopic Nijnksy, the Baryshnikov vehicle Dancers, and — it must be said — Footloose.

 

‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ and ‘Top Hat’ in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’

I believe this is the second example in the blog — after Home Aloneof a movie that includes both a real film and a fictional one. And it’s fitting that it follows Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., since that was an obvious inspiration for Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

One difference is that in Sherlock Jr., the projectionist played by Buster steps into the movie being screened in his theater. Purple Rose of Cairo goes the other way. Set in the Depression, it’s about an unhappy waitress and wife named Cecilia (Mia Farrow) who goes to the movies to escape her woes. She develops a fascination with The Purple Rose of Cairo, a (fictional) RKO madcap melodrama centering on a dashing archeologist named Jeff Baxter (Jeff Daniels). She sits through multiple showings, until something very strange happens (at about the two-minute mark of this clip) …

One of the cool things about the sequence is how Allen, famously a movie buff, has captured the look and sound and feel of ’30s films, and chosen actors who fit seamlessly in: John Wood (who could almost be a stand-in for Edward Everett Horton), Edward Herrman, Debra Rush, and Annie Jo Edwards as Delilah, the maid. (The part is a sadly accurate depiction of the sort of roles played by Hattie McDaniel and others, but so distasteful today that I wish Allen had left it out.)

Edward_Everett_Horton
Horton.

Cecilia shows Tom around her New Jersey town, and he — a la Sherlock Jr. — takes her into the film. A cuckoo love triangle ensues involving Cecilia, Tom, and the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepherd. She chooses Gil (not much future in a romance with a celluloid hero) but gets some bad news as she approaches the theater. (She’s carrying the ukulele because she and Gil have had some great fun dueting.) So she goes in and takes a seat to see the movie that’s just opened, a true-life RKO production, Astaire and Rogers’s Top Hat.

You can see for yourself the effect this transcendent piece of entertainment has on Cecilia. It harks back to the very first film discussed in this blog, Sullivan’s Travels, and in its honor I’ve created a new tag for both movies (and a couple of others): The Transporting Power of Popular Film.

 

‘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.

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 11.51.38 AM

 

“Summer of ’42” in “The Shining”

I recently presented Brief Encounter as the first Movies in Other Movies Double Dip — defined as a film in which the characters watch a movie, and which itself is watched by characters in another movie. Now, a second DD — Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which is showing on the ill-fated drive-in in Twister.

There’s a lot of television in Kubrick’s horror classic. On three separate occasions, characters watch cartoons directed by the great Chuck Jones — one with the Road Runner, one with Pepé Le Pew, and “To Itch His Own,” with Mighty Angelo the Flea. A purpose, one imagines, is to contrast their particular kind of mayhem with the different and less comic sort Kubrick is about to offer us.

MV5BMmQ0OGFiMmItYWFhYy00YTczLThjNjctOGFjOGY4ODA1MDFiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDM0MzU2NA@@._V1_
Mighty Angelo.

For the set-piece movie-in-movie scene, Kubrick chose the 1971 nostalgic melodrama Summer of ’42. Young Danny (Danny Lloyd) and his mother, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), are watching it on an eerily unplugged-in television, in a large common room in the deserted hotel they’re spending the winter in; also eerie is the out-of-sync soundtrack on the film, not to mention the sound of high winds outside. Meanwhile,  father and husband Jack (Jack Nicholson), already exhibiting signs of unusual and disturbing behavior, is asleep in their room. Or so they think.

 

 

 

In Summer of ’42, directed by Robert Mulligan, young Hermie (Gary Grimes) comes of age through a relationship with a beautiful young woman (Jennifer O’Neill) whose husband is away at war. In the scene Wendy and Danny watch (and by the way, this is no movie for a little boy), the two characters have their first conversation. Why did Kubrick choose it? Just a guess — maybe for another contrast, this time between Mulligan’s movie’s gauzy vision of the past and Kubrick’s very different interpretation in The Shining: that is, the past as a literal horror that won’t even stay in the past.

“Brief Encounter” in “A Touch of Class,” “84 Charing Cross Road,” and “Truly Madly Deeply”

The 1945 British film Brief Encounter — directed by David Lean, screenplay by Noel Coward, based on his play — may hold the record for the movie that’s watched in the greatest number of other movies. In addition to the three examples discussed in this post, IMDB’s valuable (though sometimes overpopulated) “Connections” department lists it as being featured in The Mirror Has Two Faces, Till There Was You, and Brick Lane, as well as the TV movies The Heidi Chronicles, Daisies in December, and The Care and Handling of Roses, plus various television episodes.

Why the attraction? It’s not simply that Brief Encounter is a classic. (In 1999, the British Film Institute voted it that country’s second best movie of all time, behind only The Third Man.) Beyond that, the film, with its thoroughly decent, stiff-upper-lip, and ultimately self-sacrificing lovers — the black-and-white photography being a kind of spartan objective correlative — is an emblem for a certain vision of romance, and thus a counterpoint to (and occasionally model for) the many, many other kinds of romance that movies portray.

In Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class (1973), the contrast couldn’t be starker. After meeting cute what seems like eleven times, the characters played by the startlingly young, slim, sharply dressed, and good-looking Glenda Jackson (Vickie) and George Segal (Steve) embark on a strictly-for-sex affair. In Brief Encounter both of the lovers are married, but here Vickie is divorced, which hints at the unequal dynamics at play. Steve wants to have it both ways, which is in keeping with his me-me-me sense of the world; he’s always shown scurrying off from the opera intermission to shtup Vickie at their love nest, then hurrying back to his seat next to his wife before the end of the next act. The puzzlement of the movie is why Vickie — who, as a Glenda Jackson character, is required to be clear-eyed and intelligent — doesn’t dump Steve.

The answer — that she has fallen in love with him, and he with her — is supplied in the movie-in-movie scene, in which they watch Trevor Howard breaks bad news to Celia Johnson. The scene is asked to do the work that’s absent in the screenplay, their boo-hooing supposedly showing the relationship has reached a new level of intimacy and care. Then the alarm rings, and Steve scurries back to his family.

David Jones’s 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) is about an American writer, played by Anne Bancroft, who carries on a two-decade correspondence (1950s and ’60s) with the buyer at a London bookshop, played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s married and they never meet; the love that Brief Encounter reflects is her Anglophilia. Her fascination with the film seems to extend to the ash of her cigarette (yes, young’uns, smoking in cinemas used to be allowed), curling and lengthening but so wrapped up in the oh-so-Englishness of the movie that it doesn’t drop.

And now for something different, Anthony Minghella’s 1990 film Truly Madly Deeply. The love story here is between Nina (Juliet Stevenson) and her  boyfriend, Jamie (Alan Rickman), who keeps turning up even though he is dead. But this is no Ghost: Jamie is sniffling, needy, and annoying. And so are his movie-buff mates, who show up at en masse, wrap themselves in cozy duvets, and make trainspotting comments while watching the 1917 Charlie Chaplin comedy Easy Street. (Like many movie buffs, myself include, they are prone to error; one guy identifies the big comic as “Eric Stewart Campbell”; in fact, his given name was Alfred Eric Campbell. It is true that he died in a car crash shortly after making this film.)

The guys may be well-schooled in cinema, but they’re not too sophisticated to be wrapped up in Brief Encounter, reciting the final lines along with the Johnson character’s husband, and slow clapping their approval after “The End” rolls.

 

 

 

 

‘The Quiet Man’ in ‘E.T. the Extraterrestrial’

toshiba-blackstripe-tv-–-e.t.-the-extra-terrestrial-1982-3
Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man”; can of Coors on the table.

Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg are sometimes known as “the film school generation.” De Palma and Spielberg didn’t actually go to film school, but the designation fits because all five are lifetime students and devotees of the directors and movies that came before them.

One of Spielberg’s heroes and mentors is John Ford (1894-1973). The younger director once said, “I try to rent a John Ford film … before I start every movie, simply because he inspires me … He’s like a classic painter:  he celebrates the frame, not just what’s inside it.” Spielberg offered his most explicit Ford homage in  E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). The scene is also an unusual one for Movies in Other Movies. Usually, the film-within-a-film provides an ironic counterpoint or commentary on the main action. But Spielberg veritably mirrors Ford.

The scene takes place early in the film. Young Elliott (Henry Thomas) has encountered, befriended, and brought to his room a lovable alien creature. Being a boy, Elliott has to go to school; E.T.,  left to his own devices, raids the fridge for food and beers. He also gets hold of a Speak & Spell, which Wikipedia calls “one of the earliest handheld electronic devices with a visual display to use interchangeable game cartridges. E. T. will eventually hack the device in his attempt to phone home. For now, he uses it both as a television remote control and, it seems, to mind-meld with Elliott.

(I’ll note here that E.T. includes other movies as well: E.T.  is horrified by the Tom and Jerry short “The Mouse Comes to Dinner” and watches the films This Island Earth and Michael the Brave; Elliott’s sister, Gertie, watches Sesame Street.)

Showing on the TV is a famous scene from Ford’s The Quiet Man (1953). In that movie, John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an American returning to his ancestral Irish home. In the town, he spotted and become intrigued by a fiery (of course) redhead, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). He buys a cottage and when he goes to inspect it, he comes upon Mary Kate, who’s been tidying up in a neighborly act. She’s scared and tries to run away, but he… Well, let’s watch along with E.T., who’s deeply affected by the scene and telepathically directs Elliott to reenact it (as well as to release biology-class frogs from imminent dissection).

 

 

 

 

To contemporary eyes, Sean’s romantic moves (and Elliott’s, too, for that matter) may seem a little grabby. On that point, I introduce the testimony of Sabienna Bowman, writing in the feminist magazine Bustle on the occasion of O’Hara’s death, in 2015 at the age of 95. Bowman says the kiss between Mary Kate and Sean is

not just the most memorable moment, but the one that is impossible to forget thanks to the passion O’Hara infuses into Mary Kate’s actions. To fully appreciate the scene, you must put yourself into a ’50s state of mind: Mary Kate enters Sean’s house unaccompanied (a huge taboo for an unmarried woman at the time) with the intent to clean it — but it is obvious she’s curious about this attractive American.

There is a moment when Sean realizes Mary Kate is in the house that she attempts to flee out into the raging winds. The cinematography only adds to the emotional rawness of the scene as Mary Kate’s red hair ripples in the wind and Sean snatches her arm and pulls her to him. It’s a typical move from the ’50s era idea of the perfect, bold American man that was Wayne, but it is Mary Kate’s response to his actions that makes this scene a classic. He pulls her in and kisses her, and then she throws a solid slap his way. It doesn’t land, but with her temper flaring and indignation written all over her face, O’Hara’s talent is breathtaking.

If you want to judge for yourself, here’s the full scene from The Quiet Man.