‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in ‘Home Alone,’ ‘Bruce Almighty,’ and, well, practically everything.

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A mashup of this movie and TV series would be called “My So-Called Wonderful Life.”

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-Called Life, 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 way The 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.

 

‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (and a lot more) in ‘The Sopranos’

In an online discussion of movies-in-movies, the critic Tim Page brought up HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007). I didn’t watch the series when it was on, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized Mr. Page had opened up a can of worms. In his book The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign, Franco Ricci talks about the show’s rich use of background images, objects, and actions to provide almost a counterpoint narrative to the main one: “Contemporary pop posters or recognizable artworks surge to the fore and proffer unexpected commentary behind the characters, a television dialogue playing on a distant TV set may fill in the blank spaces of silence in character dialogue.”

The stuff on the TV set is obviously to the point here. Ricci notes that series creator David Chase and the other writers depict the characters, especially Tony Soprano, as forever watching  TV, and choose carefully what they’re watching. He writes that what’s on the screen “often faithfully mirror the actions that transpire in that particular episode. Or, they may contradict information previously revealed in the episode and may portend an uncomfortable, unresolved end.”

Looming over the entire series are The Godfather and its sequels. Tony and his boys are obsessed with them, always aspiring to the Corleone family’s style and stature, always aware of how their exploits fall short. In this scene, the guys settle in to watch a bootleg copy of Godfather II, even as Tony says, “I can’t watch this again.”

I can’t decide whether the technical difficulties Chase concocted were because he thought literally seeing the movie would somehow undercut its metaphorical significance, or because he didn’t want to pay Paramount for the rights.

Ricci has an appendix in his book where he itemizes all examples of TVs playing recognizable programs in The Sopranos. There are an astonishing forty-two of them (and that’s not even including cases where commercials or news programs are on), from Tony watching his beloved History Channel in season 1 through Tony and his wife Carmella watching a rerun of Dick Cavett interviewing Katharine Hepburn in one of the last episodes of the final season.

One of the most TV-besotted episodes, if not the most, is “Where’s Johnny?”, from the fifth season in 2004. In the course of the fifty-four minutes running time, characters watch This Old House, a nature documentary about prairie dogs (nature docs are to Uncle Junior what the History Channel is to Tony), a Tony Robbins infomercial (which includes a spurious Henry James quote, “It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined”), an unintelligible talk show, and a scene from the movie His Girl Friday which we don’t see but from which we hear a snatch of dialogue between Abner Biberman, who plays a small-time thug, and Rosalind Russell, as reporter Hildy Johnson: “Hi, Hildy. / Oh, hello, Louie. How’s the big slot-machine king? / Oh, I ain’t doin’ that no more; I’m retired.”

The implicit video commentary is so incessant that at one point, when we glimpse an unturned-on TV set, it’s shocking.

In the most notable use of video, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), who in a subsequent scene proudly declares, “I have cable,” sits down to watch television. Tommy di Palma, who’s looking after him as his dementia worsens, clicks the channels, briefly alighting on a reality show featuring “glass-house couples” and an unidentifiable (by me) black and white film noir. He lands on “The Doll,” an episode of the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Uncle Junior doesn’t only have cable, he has premium cable.) Junior gets some strange notions about what he’s watching.

 

A couple of ironies, or at least interesting connections, here. First is that the Curb scene is also about uncertain identity. And second, Junior really does look like Larry David, and Bobby really does look like Jeff.

Writing posts on each of the other forty-one TV-in-TV Sopranos scenes for this blog obviously isn’t a smart idea, but I definitely will pick my spots and return to the show from time to time.

 

 

‘?’ and ‘The Mark of Zorro’ in ‘Minority Report’

I was talking about this blog with the co-screenwriter of Minority Report…

I’ll just pause here and contemplate how cool it is to be able to say that.

Anyway, the writer in question, Jon Cohen, is a friend and neighbor of mine, who actually has moved on from screenplays and now devotes his time to writing novels. When I told him about Movies in Other Movies, he directed me to a scene in the 2002 Spielberg sci-fi movie. The hero, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), wants to escape detection and since everyone is subjected to iris scans wherever they go (a prescient bit!), he engages a sketchy doctor (Peter Stormare) to perform an eye transplant on him.

The movie-in-movie aspect is consistent with the cyberpunk aesthetic of Minority Report. (Apparently, Spielberg instructed his cinematographer to create “the ugliest, dirtiest movie” he had ever made.) In the doc’s tumbledown office, a scene from what appears to be a noir shoot-’em-up is projected on a wall: futuristic technology, retro content. I say “appears” because I don’t know what the film is, and neither does Jon. He e-mailed me, “Whoever did production design or whatever, put that film in the background — it wasn’t in the script.”

I’d really like to know what’s playing, and thus I announce the first Movies-in-Other-Movies contest: the first person to identify the clip (and support his or case) will get a signed copy of my book How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.

When Anderton wakes up post-surgery, another movie is being projected, and there’s no doubt about its identity: Errol Flynn’s The Mark of Zorro (1940). Presumably Spielberg or the production designer chose it because Zorro has a black mask and–at least until he can take off his bandages–now Anderton has a white one.

So let’s hear your thoughts on what the noir film is. And remember: Don’t scratch.

“Dirty Harry” in “Zodiac”

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The killer in Dirty Harry (1971) was loosely based on the so-called Zodiac Killer. Very loosely. The deviations start in the opening scene, as the killer–called “Scorpio” in the film–uses a high-precision rifle to kill someone in a hotel rooftop swimming pool and leaves a note demanding the city pay him $100,000. In the last scene, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan captures, shoots, and kills Scorpio (right after reprising the most famous line of the film: “Ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”). Nothing of that corresponds with the real-life Zodiac, who killed at close range, didn’t ask for money, and was never apprehended or even conclusively identified.

But the parallels were close enough for the screenwriter and director of the 2007 Zodiac (James Vanderbilt and David Fincher) to use Dirty Harry as an ironic counterpoint to the real-life police officers their film portrayed. The key cop in Fincher’s film is San Francisco Police Department Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Rufalo), whose previous previous cinematic connection is mentioned in Zodiac. One character notices the way his gun is upside-down in a shoulder holster and says, “He wears his gun just like Bullitt”–the title character of Steve McQueen’s 1968 San Francisco-set cop movie. Another replies, “No, McQueen got that from him,” which is apparently true.

In Zodiac, years of going by the book and following up fruitless leads starts to wear Toschi down. His supervisor urges him to take some time off: “Go to Candlestick [home of the Giants baseball team], see a movie.” We cut to a marquee announcing a special screening for the S.F.P.D. Whoever selected the film for the screening probably meant well but made a kind of cataclysmic blunder, with the choice of Dirty Harry. We see Toschi, seated next to his wife, slumping deeper and deeper into his seat till he has to leave–one imagines that the fantasy of a cop taking the law into his own hands is simultaneously alluring and offensive, yielding a cognitive dissonance that’s hard to bear. He walks out to the lobby; he’s still there, smoking a cigarette, when the film ends. The mayor walks by and says, “Hey, that Harry Callahan did a hell of a job with your case.”

Toschi: “Yeah, no need for due process, right?”

Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who has become obsessed with the Zodiac case, joins Toschi and tries to offer some encouragement: “You’re gonna catch him.” As he walks out, Toschi responds, “Pal? They’re already making movies about it.”

 

 

“Myrt and Marge” in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

I would be remiss if I didn’t follow a post on Sullivan’s Travels with one on the movie that has the same name as the movie the title character in that film starts out wanting to make. It’s not just the name. Director and (with his brother Ethan) cowriter Joel Coen said of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “In our mind, it’s the movie he would have made if he had the chance.”

Well, not really. Sullivan wanted to produce a stirring social document and O Brother, though it’s serious at heart, is a comedy. But the Coens’ movie is chock full of allusions and references to all sorts of texts, primarily to The Odyssey, secondarily to Sullivan’s Travels.

In the Sturges film, Sully ends up a prisoner on a chain gang. In O Brother, the three protagonists–Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmer (Tim Blake Nelson)–start out that way but escape before the movie is five minutes old. Eventually, Pete, recaptured, gets taken with his fellow prisoners to a picture show, as in Sullivan’s Travels. Also watching the movie are his still-on-the-lam buddies.

The Coen brothers being the Coen brothers, the movie they chose as the feature attraction is about as obscure as it is possible to be: Myrt and Marge (1933), a pre-code backstage musical based on a popular radio serial. (The director, Al Boasberg, had writing credits on the Buster Keaton films The General, Dough Boys, and Battling Butler.) The Three Stooges had featured roles–another self-reflexive commentary, as Delmer, Pete, and Everett engage in some pretty prime slapstick themselves. (And are none too bright).

The Stooges don’t appear in the scene the boys watchor, rather, that serves as backdrop for Everett’s musings on the perfidy of women and his and Delmer’s stage-whispered communication with Pete, who it turns out has not turned into a toad. In fact, they don’t appear to even notice what’s on the screen. In contrast to Sullivan’s Travels, here the movie-watching experience is less than transformative.

If we care to, we can see and hear the scene–an audition in which Marge (Donna Dameral) strips off her skirt and displays the bizarre calisthenics of which she is capable. It’s implicitly another reference back to Sullivan’s Travels: Myrt and Marge is precisely the sort of lightweight entertainment Sullivan has made a fortune producing and, as the film begins, has turned his back on.