I am not especially a fan of either Titanic (1997) or Richard Curtis’s Love, Actually (2003). In fact, I’m probably one of the few sentient beings not to have watched either film in its entirety. But I had to do a post on this scene after getting a note from one of my all-time favorite students from my teaching career, Meghan Lobdell Gooding.
After I had shared a previous movie-in-movie post on Facebook, Meghan wrote:
I always enjoy when Liam Neeson and his step-son watch the “Jack, I’m flying!” scene from “Titanic” in the movie “Love, Actually” …because the Kate Winslet TV-within-a-TV-screen cameo fulfills my need for the complete foursome from the 1995 “Sense and Sensibility film”: Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant all star in Love Actually … Kate Winslet is the missing piece.
Seems this is one of the bits I missed in my disjointed viewings of Love, Actually, which at one time was on a lot in my house because various members of my family were fans. In honor of their and maybe Meghan’s feelings, I will refrain from discussing how young Sam (Thomas Sangster) is maybe just a little too cute for the circus, and how Curtis’s inclusion of what was then the highest-grossing film of all time was maybe a little on the nose.
I will say, however, that seeing Daniel (Neeson) and Sam act out Winslet and Leonardo DeCaprio’s ship-top scene from the earlier film inspired me to add a new tag, “Re-create,” previously seen in E.T.and Sherlock Jr.
Hard to believe it’s taken me this long to get around one of the first, probably the greatest, and certainly the most influential movie-in-movie movie. (Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is basically a remake.) I refer to Buster Keaton’s 1924 silent classic Sherlock Jr. Buster plays a projectionist who aspires to become a detective and longs for “The Girl” (Kathryn McGuire. Keaton didn’t give names to any characters in the film, perhaps to emphasize a dream-like quality). Unfortunately, “The Sheik” (Ward Crane) steals the Girl’s father’s watch and pins the crime on Buster, who is banished from the house.
Back at the theater, he’s screening a melodrama called Hearts & Pearls. A sign outside displays its subtitle: “Or, the Lounge Lizard’s Lost Love — In Five Parts.” The title, and the length, are digs at the sentimental work of D.W. Griffith, who had made A String of Pearls in 1918 and who directed at least a dozen movies containing the word “heart,” including The Mother’s Heart, Hearts of the World, True Heart Suzie, Tender Hearts, and A Change of Heart. Buster falls asleep, and a transparent phantasm rises out of his body and looks at the film. As if by magic, the male and female lead (uncredited) suddenly turn into The Sheik and The Girl, and he commences making love to her (in the old-fashioned sense). Buster puts on his hat (of course) and descends from the projection booth to the audience. His reaction to what he sees is probably the greatest example I’ve ever witnessed of someone acting with his back.
Note Buster’s practiced tumble when he’s thrown out of the movie, including breaking his fall with his hands. He had, of course, started his career as a little kid on the vaudeville stage, where his principal role was to be violently tossed about in the family act.
He manages to get back into the movie, and the bulk of (the brisk, 45-minute: no five acts here) Sherlock Jr. shows his increasingly surreal adventures. Just as he’s about to drown, he wakes up in the projection booth. Spoiler alert: it was all a dream. Suddenly, the Girl walks in and announces the truth has been revealed and he is forgiven. In a marvelous closing scene, he looks to the screen for his moves, much as Elliot did, with E.T.’s help. And talk about acting. Keaton hilariously expresses volumes with a shrug of his shoulder or a ten-millimeter eyebrow lift; take one look at his jumpy nervousness and you can see where Woody Allen — an acknowledged fan — got most of his physical shtick.
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.