‘The Charge at Feather River’ in ‘A Star is Born’ (and a lot more): Part I

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:

 

Next: The “Born in a Trunk” sequence.

“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.

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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.

‘Flames of Passion’ in ‘Brief Encounter’

With this post, I inaugurate a new tag: “Double dip.” It indicates films that have a movie-in-movie scene, and are also watched in a movie-in-movie scene in another film. The only other one I can think of at the moment is The Shining, which has a scene where characters watch Summer of ’42, and which is screening on the doomed drive-in in Twister. Come to think of it, there’s actually a sort of triple dip there: Summer of ’42 has a scene in which characters are watching Now, Voyager. Watch this space for a fuller account.

The topic for today is Brief Encounter, which has been used in more than a dozen films and television shows. The star-crossed, married-to-other people lovers in David Lean’s 1945 classic, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), meet once a week for a day in town, and part of their routine is going to the cinema. We see them there twice. One of the films they watch is real but unidentifiable; the other is deeply fanciful.

First we see Laura and Alec watching a preview for the made-up film, Flames of Passion, evidently a sort of King Kong epic, which is everything Brief Encounter is not, starting with the exclamation-pointed self-proclaiming adjectives: Stupendous!, Colossal!! Gigantic!!! Epoch-Making!!! All the stuff that is repressed and suppressed in Lean’s film (made and released during World War II, set in 1938) is right out there in Flames; with its restive natives, stampeding elephants, and passionate kisses, it’s so blatant and on the nose that even the typeface for the title is made out of flames.

 

This movie is definitely fictional, but Flames of Passion has been used as the title of several films, most prominently a 1922 British melodrama and a 1989 gay love story, very loosely based on Brief Encounter.

The following week, they go back to see Flames of Passion, but first, a Donald Duck short. (IMDB identifies it as the 1938, “Donald’s Better Self,” but there’s no way to know for sure, as all we hear are some Donaldian quacks.)

 

Everybody laughs uproariously at the low comedy, which appears to offer not only relief but a sort of release from the world’s burdens — a familiar motif from Sullivan’s Travels, Sabotage, and Hail, Caesar!. What’s not familiar is the elevated level of Laura and Alec’s analysis, at least to those of us used to in-theater comments on the order of “Don’t go in there, you idiot!” (The screenplay, I should have noted earlier, is by Noel Coward.)

Alec: “The stars can change in their courses, the universe go up in flames, and the world crash around us, but there’ll always be Donald Duck.”

Laura: “I do love him so … his dreadful energy, and his blind, frustrated rages.”

Then the music starts and Alec says, “It’s the big picture now. Here we go. No more laughter. Prepare for tears.”

We see the opening title:

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A lot to parse there. First, the Roman numerals affirm the year as 1938. The apparent 180-degree transformation of Gentle Summer to Flames of Passion is presumably a sardonic commentary on Hollywood’s tendency to bastardize source material. And (the fictional) “Alice Porter Stoughey” refers to the then prominence of three-named, six-syllabled American female authors, such as Alice Duer Miller, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and especially Olive Higgins Prouty, whose 1941 novel Now, Voyager became the aforementioned hit Bette Davis melodrama the following year. (Prouty was an interesting figure, in part because of her subsequent close relationship with the much younger Sylvia Plath. Wikipedia tells us that she “supported Plath financially in the wake of Plath’s unsuccessful 1953 suicide attempt: Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, would later refer in Birthday Letters to how ‘Prouty was there, tender and buoyant moon.’ Many, including Plath’s mother Aurelia, have held the view that Plath employed her memories of Prouty as the basis of the character of ‘Philomena Guinea in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar.“)

Lean and Coward’s final comment on Hollywood is that the next thing we see is Alec and Laura leaving the theater. She says in voiceover narration: “It was a terribly bad picture. We crept out before the end, rather furtively, as though we were committing a crime.”