‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ in ‘Columbo’

The other day I read a New York Times piece in which Elisabeth Vincentelli extolled the virtues of Columbo, which ran on television in various forms from 1968 till 2003, and is now available on NBC’s new free streaming service, Peacock. It made me want to sample the show, an entire episode of which I had unbelievably never watched. (I guess I was more into Kojak, Harry O, and The Rockford Files.)

And then I came to this line: “In the episode “Forgotten Lady,” [Janet] Leigh is simultaneously chilling and poignant as a Norma Desmond-like older actress who rewatches her past oeuvre — including the actual Leigh movie ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ — on a loop.”

Wait, what?!

As soon as was logistically possible, I had downloaded Peacock, searched for the episode, and pressed play. It was pretty amazing. As Vincentelli noted, it was in some ways a takeoff on Sunset Boulevard, in which silent film star Desmond (Gloria Swanson) lives in the past, in part through obsessive screenings of her own films (the ones we see are Swanson’s own). In “Forgotten Lady” — which originally aired in 1975 and was directed by Henry Hart and written by Bill Driscoll — Leigh plays Grace Wheeler, a former stage and screen musical star who hasn’t been in any shows for some time, for reasons not immediately clear but will prove important to the plot. Leigh was a mere 48 at the time and though Grace favors Norma Desmond–style caftans and cigarette holders (no headdresses, thankfully), she looks youthful and lithe enough to hoof it all night long.

As Vincentelli suggests, we’re meant to understand that she watches one of her movies every evening. Maurice Evans as the butler, Raymond, plays the Erich von Stroheim role and mans the projection booth.

As in Sunset Boulevard, we see Grace watching a Janet Leigh movie, Walking My Baby Back Home (1953). In it, Donald O’Connor plays an World War II vet who comes home and, in a classic case of terrible timing, wants to start a dance band. The plan inevitably fails but at least he gets the girl, Leigh’s Chris Hall. (Interestingly, in “Forgotten Lady,” her character in the film is referred to as “Rosie” — which is the name of Leigh’s character in another movie, Bye Bye Birdie.) From the clips seem throughout the episode, Walking looks fun enough but surely the reason it was used is cost: it and Columbo were both Universal productions.

I found “Forgotten Lady” fascinating (not surprisingly) because meta self-consciousness runs through it. Photos of Grace — Leigh at various stages of her career — abound in the home she shares with the gone-before-the first-commercial husband, Dr. Henry Willis (Sam Jaffe — who started out in the Yiddish theater, starred as Dr. Zorba on Ben Casey, pioneered the Jewish Afro, and deserves more than a parenthesis).

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And there’s a book-in-movie aspect. Henry’s bedtime reading, which becomes an important plot point, is a novel called The Transformation of Mrs. McTwig. No such book exists, though the cover is a perfect rendition of a style favored by ’50s and ’60s comic novels, and an Internet sleuth has discovered that the plot description given in the episode also fits a real book, Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (1958).

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Another key plot point is that Raymond and his wife, the maid (Linda Scott), watch and relish The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (on NBC, like Columbo), and director Hart gives us a generous portion featuring frequent guest Della Reese and Carson’s classic reaction takes.

The denouement of the episode is a second screening of Walking My Baby Back Home, to which Columbo and Grace’s old partner, Ned Diamond (John Payne — yet another old pro), have been invited. It’s a striking scene and the way Hart shows the film projected on Grace and Ned’s faces is a remarkable rendition of the way the movies have almost literally inscribed themselves on these characters.

Before you press play, two notes. First, Hart (understandably) cheats a little bit in having the sound from the movie suddenly and mysteriously muted as Grace and Ned have an emotional confrontation. (Surprisingly, this isn’t noted in the “Goofs” section of the IMDB entry on the episode.) And second, speaking of sound — you may want to mute the whole scene if you intend to watch “Forgotten Lady,” as I heartily recommend you do. As the saying goes, it contains spoilers.

‘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.

‘The Cobweb’ in ‘Point Blank’

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Dickinson and Marvin: her hair matches her dress.

Veteran film journalist Lewis Beale recommended my doing a post on John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), which he describes as “simply an amazing mix of film noir, existentialism and Euro art-house filmmaking. Truly astonishing it was released by a major studio. My guess is audiences at the time said ‘WTF did I just see?'”

Good call, Lew. Let’s go right to the movie-in-movie scene, one of the WTF-est in Point Blank. Walker (Lee Marvin) is a criminal on a mission to recover a $93,000 MacGuffin, swiped from him after a heist. Angie Dickinson is his sister-in-law, Chris, who’s developed feelings for him and is infuriated that he won’t give up on his dangerous quest.

Whoa. Quite a bit to say about the scene, definitely starting with WTF. The third star is of course, the automated-to-the-max mid-century modern house, which is on 7655 Curson Terrace and was apparently rented by the Beatles in 1966, right about the time the film was shot.

In a 2008 Vanity Fair interview, John Boorman talked about Dickinson’s distinctive look.

I put her in the first miniskirt to hit America. They were already, you know, on the Kings Road in London, but she wore the first one seen in America…. [She] was very unhappy with me about forcing her to change her hair color. I had this maniacal idea that I wanted her hair to be the same color as her dress, and we went through three dyeing jobs to get there. The hairdresser at MGM said, “I can’t go any further, her hair’s starting to break off.”

As for her pummeling Marvin, it has been suggested that she got into it so passionately because she was mad that he (or his character) dangled her over a balcony in a previous film, The Killers. I’m not sure if that’s true but her performance is certainly convincing, and she definitely opened up a gash in Marvin’s cheek with the pool cue.

And here’s a video created by Peter van der Ham showing Dickinson blows scored with a Steve Reich piece called “Clapping Music.”

As for the movie-in-movie moment, it comes after Marvin is flipping channels with the remote control (as Jack Lemmon did in The Apartment), in keeping with the automated-house theme. He lands on Vincente Minelli’s The Cobweb (1955), an MGM (same studio as Point Blank) melodrama set in a psychiatric institution and with a remarkable cast: Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant, Lillian Gish, Gloria Grahame, and Fay Wray.

We see staff member Bacall (her back to the camera) talking with a patient played by John Kerr. When he says, “You figure this will get me over my neurotic intertia or something,” Marvin switches the channel to a Pond’s cold cream commercial

Understandable move.