I instituted the tag “Watching yourself” for movies in which an actor (A) plays an actor (B) and B watches a film in which A actually appeared. So, for example, in Two Weeks in Another Town, Kirk Douglas plays washed-up Hollywood star Jack Andrus, who in one scene watches a clip, supposedly of one of his old movies, but really of Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful. Click on “Watching yourself” in the Tag Cloud at bottom right if you want to see more examples.
I now realize “watching yourself” can apply to directors as well as writers. After all, Vincente Minelli directed both The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, so the clip of the former in the latter could be considered a sort of Hitchcockian cameo. I’ve got another example, which I learned about via the sleuthing of Jeremy James Prutchick on YouTube. It’s a brief scene (don’t blink) from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). The creator of the cloned-dinosaur park, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), is admonishing lead programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight–Seinfeld‘s Newman).
Don’t feel bad if you missed it — but in the last image, on the left side of Dennis’s computer monitor, is a scene from Spielberg’s first big hit, Jaws (1975): the one where Quint and Brody, on a boat, see the killer shark for the first time.
At another point, there’s another, totally out-of-sequence Jaws moment on the monitor, showing Roy Scheider as Chief Martin Brody. Prutchick helpfully enlarges it:
Here’s Prutchick’s frame-by-frame breakdown of the scene, which also includes a second Jaws moment on the monitor.
Home Alone (1990; directed by Chris Columbus; conceived, written and produced by John Hughes) presses all the buttons. You’ve got your madcap humor, your cartoon violence, your patented John Hughes pathos, your upper-middle-class white Midwestern suburbanite setting, and (possibly the only element that still feels fresh and unpremeditated) your breakout performance by Macaulay Culkin as 8-year-old Kevin, who (it can’t be a spoiler if it’s the title of the movie) is inadvertently left home alone when his family flies to Paris for Christmas.
Ah yes, Christmas — that’s the other big button. Home Alone was conceived in and dedicated to the proposition of being a holiday movie. One way it establishes this is time-honored: having characters watch (on TV) Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and of course It’s a Wonderful Life. (The last is seen by the Kevin-less clan while in Paris, and is dubbed into French.)
There’s one other movie that’s featured in the film: Angels with Filthy Souls. Kevin finds a VHS tape of it and, presumably titillated by the title, slips it into the VCR. (It sure beats the the other choices on top of the player, the boomer rock of Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.)
He and the audience see what appears to be a 1930s film noir, in black and white of course. A trench-coated guy named Snakes, who has a very gangster look to him, pays a call on a private eye named Johnny. (Even if we couldn’t backwards-read the words “Private Investigator” on his frosted-glass door, we could tell his occupation by the frosted-glass door itself.) There’s something odd about the clip, however. For one thing, Johnny has a really strong Chicago accent, not something often heard in movies; just listen to the way he says, “He’s upstairs, taking a bey-uth.” For another, Angels with Filthy Souls sounds just a little too over-the-top to be the title of a sequel to the real ’30s movie Angels with Dirty Faces. And finally, the shoot-him-full-of-lead sadistic violence, followed by the gleeful catchphrase-to-be, “Keep the change, ya filthy animal,” would in no way have passed muster with the Hollywood Hays office at the time.
Nevertheless, some people persisted for a long time in believing Angels with DirtySouls was a real movie–including Seth Rogen, Chris Evans, and Nick Kroll.
And also including Macaulay Culkin!
I’m not sure what disabused Rogen of his error, but he would have known the truth had he read a 2015 Vanity Fair article that told the whole story of the conception and production of Angels, down to the care taken to recreate the noir look. Director of Photography Julio Macat
persuaded Columbus to shoot the sequence using the techniques and black-and-white negative film stock of movies from the 40s. The high-key lighting, high-contrast aesthetic would evoke “a cross between film noir and the really crazy stuff you see in early television, like Playhouse 90 or One Step Beyond,” said production designer John Muto.
Like most of the other interior shots in Home Alone, including all the scenes inside the McCallister family home, the sequence was shot on a sound stage in the abandoned New Trier West High School gymnasium. The entire set consisted of just a couple of walls. (Webster suspects that the walls were reused in the “real world” of the movie, for the set of the police office. “We didn’t have the biggest construction budget.”)
Johnny’s office was designed especially for maximum dramatic backlighting potential: pebbly-textured translucent glass on the door and a Palladian window that would sinisterly spotlight him at his desk through Venetian blinds.
As I suggested earlier, Home Alone is a well-oiled machine, and of course, true to the principle of Chekhov’s gun, Angels with Dirty Souls shows up again, and again, used by Kevin as part of his whole-house booby trap strategy. The second time, he’s trying to foil the inept crook Marv (Daniel Stern).
Hughes and Columbus were not done with Angels with Filthy Souls. Its sequel — Angels with Even Filthier Souls — shows up in their 1992 sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and repetitively is used to scare the officious concierge at the Plaza Hotel (Tim Curry).
A couple of posts ago, I suggested that Brief Encounter may hold the record for being used in the most other movies. Ben Zimmer, whom I sometimes think of as my own personal fact-checker, begged to differ. He nominated Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the record-holder, and while I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure Ben is right. The Films in Films blog lists fourteen separate movies containing IAWL clips, starting with Music of the Heart; Bruce Almighty; Gremlins; Android; The Big Picture; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; Money Train; Look Who’s Talking; The Ref; Meet Dave; Menace II Society; Trauma; and Nuovo Cinema Paradiso. In Home Alone, the movie is dubbed into French.
The sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, in a callback, has a Spanish version of IAWL.
The IMDB “Connections” feature, unbelievably, lists fifteen more films in which It’s a Wonderful Life is shown, including Doc Hollywood, Deadly Obsession, and Same Kind of Different For Me. IMDB also says the Capra film is watched by characters in at least twenty television series, including My So-CalledLife, Roseanne, Muppet Babies, Cheers, and, of course, The Sopranos.
Every single one of those movies and episodes was made after 1974, and ten of the fourteen movies on the Films in Films list came out between 1974 and 1993. Those dates are significant because during that twenty-year period, through a quirk in copyright law, It’s a Wonderful Life was in the public domain. As a result it aired repeatedly on TV during the Christmas season and came to be seen as the quintessential Christmas movie.
Thus a well-chosen and well-placed clip from the movie can make a potent counterpoint to the doings in any holiday-set film. And best of all, in the twenty-year public domain period, you didn’t have to pay for the rights! As Louisa Mellor wrote on Den of Geek!:
If [a TV] episode needs to quickly establish that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s as easy as inserting a few seconds of Clarence and George into a scene. If a film wants to evoke cynicism around the festive period, then its characters need simply complain, Al Bundy-style, that there’s never anything else on TV. When creatives want to piggyback on some ready-made sentiment or create unlikely juxtapositions then, copyright permitting, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are their guys.
Tom Shadyac directed Bruce Almighty in 2003, at which point It’s a Wonderful Life was no longer in the public domain, but Spyglass Entertainment and Universal Pictures evidently thought they could afford the licensing fee. The film is used not for cynicism, sentiment, or juxtaposition, but for some clever mirroring, similar to the wayThe Quiet Man is used in E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Despite temporarily becoming God, Bruce (Jim Carrey) is having romantic troubles with his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), not so subtly named Grace. He’s at a party, and wants her to come, but she won’t pick up the phone when she calls. So he does a bit of divine intervention and makes a certain movie come on her TV. Jimmy Stewart’s line “I’ll give you the moon, Mary” is a reference to an earlier romantic moment in Bruce, and is guaranteed to do the trick.
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.
This scene appeared in 1994, in the second episode (the first, if you don’t count the pilot) of the NBC sitcom Friends.
The fifteen-second sequence suggests some of the things I like, and don’t like, about Friends. On the like side: the reference to Three’s Company is canny. That comedy, which aired from 1977 till 1984, was also about a coed group of young people who lived in proximity to each other (Friends doubled the number to six) and relied a lot on sex jokes and innuendo. But with this early scene, Friends’ creators — David Crane and Marta Kauffman — signaled that this was a new era. Their show would be less broad, smarter, and (I hesitate to use the word) more realistic.
On the don’t-like side: Friends relied way too much on Chandler’s sarcastic wisecracks, and often they weren’t great wisecracks. Like this one: “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” It’s well-crafted, I grant it that — although it would have been better if the writers had respected our intelligence a bit and left out the words “of Three’s Company.”
More of a problem is that even in 1994, it was a tired joke. I remember going to comedy clubs in the early ’80s and hearing comedians talk about being in hotel rooms and turning on Gilligan’s Island — “It was the episode where they almost get off the island.” Beyond that, Chandler’s line isn’t specific to Three’s Company. Probably three quarters of all sitcoms, at least before the ’80s, revolved around some kind of misunderstanding.
Of course, Friends doesn’t need my approval. It’s been voted as the greatest sitcom by IMDB and Ranker, and Netflix just paid $100 million for the rights to keep airing it. It even has become the means by which just almost all Spanish-speaking baseball players attempt to learn English.
I would not have expected Robert Altman to have much of a presence on this blog. I feel that he preferred being in control of all the irony, rather than appropriating it from an interpolated film made by some other hand. And sure enough, only two of his many movies appear on the comprehensive Films in Films website. The first is Short Cuts (1993), in which Monster in the Closet (1986) plays on a television. (Part of the reason Altman chose that slasher flick may be that three members of his unofficial stock company — Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, and Howard Duff — are in it.)
The second is The Player (1992). And sure enough, the main movie-in-movie scene comes from its source material, the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it for the screenplay. In novel and film, the title character, master-of-the-universe movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has been receiving threatening post cards from an anonymous angry screenwriter. He thinks he’s figured out that the correspondent is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and phones him; his girlfriend answers and says that Kahane is at the movies — specifically, the Rialto in Pasadena, watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. (The title literally translates as “Bicycle Thieves,” but it’s commonly known by the singular in the U.S.)
In the novel, Mill slips into the theater for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Tolkin tells us his reactions, which are film-savvy, naturally, but as off as you would expect from a ’90s Hollywood exec giving notes on Italian neo-realism:
Griffin watched a father and son search for the lost bicycle. Knowing the title, it was obvious that someone had stolen the bike, that this poor man needed it, and that he and his son were now, since the movie was almost over, close to finding the bike and the person who had stolen it. It’s a good title, thought Griffin. He liked a movie where the story and the title were the same thing.
He doesn’t like the ending; it’s “so unnecessarily sad.” He wonders: “Was there a sequel?”
Altman has some nice tweaks on the scene. Griffin’s in the theater less than a minute and never once is shown watching the movie; he keeps furtively looking around for Kahane. The Bicycle Thief is so far away from his world as not to exist at all.
When the lights comes on, Griffin spots the screenwriter, and, true to form, tries to bullshit him: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these… cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this!”
The sequence is only a small part of ThePlayer‘s all-encompassing commentary on the movies, which manifests itself in varying levels of explicitness. In the very first scene, Griffin and others at this studio talk about the six and half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — and it’s all part of a eight minute and fifteen second tracking shot that opens The Player. Later, we see the shooting of a noirish feature with Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin, Lonely Room, that’s a counterpoint to the crime story Grifffin finds himself a part of.
A post at Films in Films notes that we see dozens of classic film posters in The Player, many of which offer commentary on the action playing out in front of them.
For me, the reflexive aspect of the film that packed the biggest emotional punch was the array of actors playing themselves, especially the ones that have died in the meantime: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze. It was like spending some good time with ghosts.
The main movie-within-a-movie in The Player is a project called Habeas Corpus. It’s pitched to Griffin early on — a message movie about capitol punishment, with no stars, and a downbeat ending where the main character dies. Needless to say, he passes, for it lacks just about every element (as he says in a different scene) that make up successful movies: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”
For spoiler-related reasons I won’t go into, Habeas Corpus does end up getting made, and at the end of The Player, we see execs screening the ending. Lots of cameos here: Susan Sarandon, Louise Fletcher, Peter Falk, Ray Walston, Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from The Bob Newhart Show), and Altman stalwarts Bert Remsen, Paul Dooley, and Rene Auberjonois are all in the sequence. At the end of a(nother) long tracking shot, the death-row prisoner turns out to be Julia Roberts, showing some leg. She was the very sort of star the screenwriters had vowed would not be in the movie. Her presence is just the first of a host of broken promises, and it kicks off a Hollywood Ending that provides the Hollywood ending to The Player.
All movies are about movies, but Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) is about movies more than most. The characters habitually measure their own lives against what they’ve seen onscreen. Sam (Tom Hanks), a recently widowed architect, thinks about inviting a potential date over to look at swatches, but then muses that Cary Grant wouldn’t be caught dead looking at swatches with a woman. His ten-year-old son, Jonah, asks whether Sam will have sex with the swatch-woman; Sam, in a rookie move, says yes. Jonah tells him to be careful: “In movies, women are always scratching up the man’s back and screaming.”
All told, the words “movie” or “movies” appear fifteen times in Ephron’s screenplay.
The most movie-obsessed character, by far, is Annie (Meg Ryan), whom we see in an early scene watching An Affair To Remember (1957), starring the aforementioned Grant, on TV with her best friend, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell). After some portentous dialogue between the impossibly handsome and tanned Grant and Deborah Kerr, Annie laments, “Those were the days when people knew how to be in love…. It was right. It was real. It was …”
Becky breaks in: “… a movie. That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”
In a clever conceit, all females in this film are obsessed with An Affair to Remember, including an Empire State Building Security guard’s wife and Sam’s sister, Suzy (Rita Wilson), who can’t even summarize the plot without breaking into tears. Her husband, Greg (Victor Garber) teams up with Sam for a very funny response.
(In a piece of dialogue that apparently was cut from the shooting script, a detective Annie has hired to stalk Sam says she reminds him of “Glenn Close in that movie,” i.e., Fatal Attraction.)
Ephron has movies on her mind too: Sleepless is a love letter not so much to the ’50s women’s picture weepy An Affair to Remember as to the classic screwball comedies of the ’30s and early ’40s, the best of which, like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, featured Grant. Bill Pullman plays the Ralph Bellamy role–the well-meaning but terminally dull fiancee Walter. Ryan’s a reporter, like Rosalind Russell in Friday and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe. And Hanks and Ryan are the impossibly good-looking (though not tanned) leads, whose love has a supernatural sway over the actions and intentions of mere mortals. Just like in the movies.
(The clip below starts with the movie-on-movie scene, which ends at about the 2:30 mark. Because of technical difficulties, I was unable to trim the rest of the clip. It doesn’t have any movie-watching stuff, but it’s pretty good. In fact, I recommend watching the whole movie if you haven’t seen it recently. As of last week it was streaming for free on Verizon Fios On Demand.)