‘Hail, Caesar,’ ‘Merrily We Dance,’ and ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ in ‘Hail, Caesar’

The most purely fun movie I’ve seen in the past five years, or maybe longer, is the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016). It’s got a solid story, good performances, and some hilarious moments, but the really special thing about it is the take on peak-studio-era Hollywood, which combines a very knowing spoof with a very knowing appreciation.

The year is more or less 1951, and the main character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who’s based on the real-life Eddie Mannix, for many years a notorious “fixer” at MGM. But the Coens’ Eddie has a grander portfolio: he’s “head of physical production” at (the fictional) Capitol Studios, which involves not only covering up the stars’ imbroglios but managing all details of Capitol’s many offerings, from casting to budgets to editing to locations.

The movie revolves around five in-production Capitol films, all depicted with that knowing mix of spoof and appreciation, and all but one era-appropriate. The eponymous Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ is a religious sandals epic that combines elements of Quo Vadis, The Robe, Spartacus, and Ben-Hur. (The novel Ben-Hur, published in 1880, had the same Tale of the Christ subtitle.) Lazy Ol’ Moon is an “oatuner” — Variety-speak for a cowboy picture, aka “oater,” with music — of the kind Roy Rogers churned out for Republic Pictures through 1950. Jonah’s Daughter is a musical featuring Busby Berkeley-style water ballets, which seems like an odd idea today but was a staple for MGM and Esther Williams, in movies like Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Channing Tatum channels Gene Kelly (in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh) in “No Dames!”, a sailor production number with a hilarious homoerotic-themed subtext. The only movie-in-movie that seems a bit anachronistic is Merrily We Dance, an arch and “sophisticated” black-and-white comedy of manners, something like Design for Living (1933), directed by an Ernst Lubitsch/George Cukor figure flawlessly played by Ralph Fiennes.

I’ll focus on Lazy Ol’ Moon, Merrily We Dance, and Hail, Caesar, since we view finished footage from those three; for the others, we only see scenes being staged and filmed. We take in Moon at its world premiere, attended by its cowboy star, Hobie Doyle (Alben Ehrenreich), a cross between two cowpokes named Rogers: Will (Hobie is a whiz at rope tricks) and the crooning, six-gun-toting horseman Roy. (The latter, born Leonard Slye, chose “Rogers” as his stage name in honor of one of his heroes, as I learned while writing Will Rogers’s biography.) Hobie’s date, arranged by the studio for the publicity value, is the Carmen Miranda-inspired Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osario). Here’s the opening, climaxed by Hobie crooning “Lazy Ol’ Moon” (a tune actually sung by R. Rogers in a 1939 picture, The Arizona Kid).

 

To me, the most striking and somewhat unnerving thing about the scene is the high-contrast color. But it’s true to its models, if not life. As Bill Desowitz observed on IndieWire, for this sequence Hail, Caesar! cinematographer Roger Deakins “emulated the two-strip (red and green) Trucolor process utilized at Republic.” This still of Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, from Sunset in the West (1950) gives the idea:

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The other notable quality of the Lazy Ol’ Moon scene is how dad-burned ridiculous are the carryings-on of Curly (J.R. Horne, doing his best Gabby Hayes.) But Carlotta and the rest of the audience roar with delighted laughter — an example, as in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (a favorite of the Coens), of the grace of silly comedy. As the narrator (voiced by Michael Gambon) intones, the picture is “another wave of gossamer, another movie, another portion of balm for the ache of a toiling mankind.”

Eddie’s headache vis-a-vis Merrily We Dance is that the head of the studio, the unseen Nicholas Schenk (who actually was the boss of MGM in the early ’50s), decrees that the lead role has to be played by Hobie. It’s a disastrous call, as Hobie and sophistication are polar opposites. After trying to get the lad to make a “mirthless chuckle,” and “trippingly,” “with a certain ruefulness,” say the line, “Would that ’twere so simple,” Laurence Laurentz seems ready to tear out his remaining hairs. But what the boss says goes and the kid stays in the picture.

Eddie goes to visit editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand) to look at a cut of Merrily on her Movieola, and manages to do so, after a near-Isadora Duncan-type mishap with her  scarf.

 

Wonder of wonders! Improbably, Hobie’s performance does the trick, even if it doesn’t quite reach Oscar™ proportions. His natural physical grace comes though, and the execrable line “Would that ’twere so simple” has been shortened and improved. And who would have thought it possible — his closing smile is actually rueful. Here’s to the magic of movies.

For the scenes of Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ, as Desowitz describes it, the filmmakers mimicked Technicolor epics — “that gold and red look with warm, rich tones.” There are also the matte backgrounds characteristic of the times, which look especially fake today as computer-aided graphics have become more sophisticated. We look on with Eddie Mannix as he watches a rough cut in the studio screening room. George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock (Robert Taylor, kind of) plays the Roman tribune Autolycus; the narrator is the same Michael Gambon.

 

That missing “DIVINE PRESENCE” remains a problem. Eddie takes a meeting with a rabbi, a minister, a priest and a Greek Orthodox priest to see what sort of representation of the godhead might be inoffensive to them all; the results, perhaps predictably, are a joke. The Coen Brothers didn’t manage to solve the problem either, as we learn at the very end of the movie, seen just as the credits finish rolling. Wedged between thanks to various municipal film boards and assurances that no animals have been harmed is this disclaimer: “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.”

‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ in ‘Two Weeks in Another Town’

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Had to create a new tag for this one: “Watching yourself.” Like Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution, Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) has a scene where a character watches an actual movie that the actor playing that character was actually in. In Minnelli’s film, Kirk Douglas plays Jack Andrus, a washed-up star who travels from the loony bin to Rome to help out his old director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson), who’s one costume epic from being washed up himself.

As a sort of pep talk, Kruger screens one of his and Andrus’s past triumphs to his current cigarette-loving troupe. The movie turns out to be The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), also a movie about the movies that starred Douglas, was directed by Minnelli, produced by John Houseman, and written by Charles Schnee.

Got that?

But the ploy backfires, to contemporary eyes and ears, at any rate. The Bad and the Beautiful footage is spitting with energy and riveting, despite the wide lapels, black-and-white stock, and scenery-chewing by Douglas (as a heel of a movie producer) and Lana Turner (as a small-time actress with daddy and alcohol issues). And to be sure, that’s to some extent why it’s here. As Kruger says, “Take a good look at a movie that was made because we couldn’t sleep unless we made it.”

The trouble is, the Bad stuff makes the newer film come off as even weaker than it already shown itself to be, which is saying something. Two Weeks in Another Town was the wrong film at the wrong time. Early ’60s Hollywood was just not up to dealing frankly and cinematically with sexuality, alcoholism, mental illness, despair, and orgiastic Rome parties, to name just a few of the movie’s elements, and their treatment here yields unintentional comedy.  (Actual Italian films, like 8 1/2, released in 1963, were equipped to do a whole lot better with this sort of thing.) And whenever George Hamilton is on screen as an intense James Dean–like young actor, the laugh quotient just gets higher.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. The Bad and the Beautiful got five Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Gloria Grahame), as well as a Best Actor nomination for Douglas. Two Weeks in Another Town got shut out at the Oscars, lost $3 million at the box office and received a well-deserved pan from Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who wrote, “The whole thing is a lot of glib trade patter, ridiculous and unconvincing snarls and a weird professional clash between the actor and director that is like something out of a Hollywood cartoon.”

 

‘The Bicycle Thief’ and ‘Habeus Corpus’ in ‘The Player’

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 The Player‘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.

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Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) below portentous posters.

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.