After viewing Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) — directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wolfgang Reitherman — I am of the mind that there are two terrific things about the movie. The first is the animation of the dalmatian puppies, which is incredibly lifelike and endearing. The second (related) is the use of movies-in-movie.
Specifically, One Hundred and Dalmations shows, in a vivid and clever way, film’s ability to rivet us. As this blog has repeatedly noted, the power doesn’t necessarily diminish when the film is schlocky. A bit more than us humans, the puppies — especially Lucky, who seems to want to climb into the TV, even when a commercial is on — are transfixed by a good story, to the point of forgetting it’s not real. And especially when the hero is a dog.
The two bad guys entrusted with keeping watch over the dognapped puppies are similarly transported — to the point of neglecting their duties — by the quiz show What’s My Crime?, which by this time I probably have to point out was a takeoff on the then-popular series What’s My Line? Not surprisingly, Lucky, the sort of audience member every filmmaker wants, is loving it too.
I hate to say it, but to me the worst clip is the real one. We’re back with the bad guys and the puppies. On the telly is a Disney short from 1929, “Springtime,” complete with dancing flowers. It’s so blah it can’t even hold Horace and Jasper’s attention. But the doggies are into it. Especially — even after mayhem breaks out — Lucky.
Parts I and II of this roundup have taken note of a striking degree of self-consciousness in early movies, maybe not surprising considering that the medium was so new and so popular. And there are even more silent movies about the movies than the ones I did and will discuss, including Will Rogers’ Doubling for Romeo (1921), Hollywood (1923), Mary of the Movies (1923), and Fascinating Youth (1926).
As far as I know (none are readily available and Hollywood and FascinatingYouth are lost), none of those have movie-in-movie scenes. Show People (1928) does. It’s in some ways the mirror image of Souls for Sale: they share a storyline of an unknown actress making it in the movies and a lot of inside Hollywood stuff, including many cameos. (Appearing as themselves in the later film are the director, King Vidor, as well as John Gilbert, Mae Murray, Elinor Glyn, Lew Cody, Aileen Pringle, Karl Dane, George K. Arthur, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and William S. Hart.) But Souls for Sale makes the case for pathos and melodrama as the movies’ killer app, while Show People flies the banner of comedy.
Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried in the current Netflix film Mank) is Peggy Pepper, a Georgia girl who wants to make it in pictures. But unlike Mem in Souls for Sale, she’s got a talent for comedy, revealed in her reaction to being sprayed with seltzer in her very first scene. The script called for her to get hit in the face with a pie. But Davies’ lover, William Randolph Hearst, objected to this and Vidor changed the scene. (Not sure if seltzer is more dignified than custard.) And by the way, at least until Mank came along, the widespread sense was that Davies was a no-talent trophy mistress — established mainly by the famous Citizen Kane shot of a stagehand holding his nose at the Davies character’s performance. But she is really good in Show People.
The clip — from Vimeo, with subtitles in Spanish and English — starts with the seltzer scene, then moves on to a sneak preview of the picture. Next to Davies in the theater and (with added mustache) sharing a bicycle with her in the unnamed comedy is Billy Boone (William Haines); the guy punching the air with enthusiasm (and offering the timeless acting advice, “Don’t anticipate!”) is the director of the movie-in-movie, played by Harry Gribbon.
I’ve given this post a “The transporting power of popular film” tag, bestowed when a movie-in-movie, usually a comedy, is shown giving an audience joy. (Sullivan’s Travels, a photo from which is at the top of the blog, is still to me the greatest example.) But the sort of film Peggy wants to act in is exemplified by the feature that follows the sneak preview.
If you didn’t watch the above clip above, I hope you do so now, because I think it’s my favorite of all the dozens on this blog, partly because the brief scene from Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) — with John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman (from Souls for Sale) — represents the very first example I’ve found of a real movie being shown in another movie. But even greater than that is the kind of magnificent humility it shows on Vidor’s part. You see, Vidor also directed Bardelys, and for him to mock it here, to the point of having Billy call it a “punk drama” … well, self-consciousness doesn’t get any better than that.
The clip ends with a delicious Easter Egg featuring a cameo from the biggest movie star of all, who actually was known for collecting autographs.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), which was directed by Anthony Asquith and subsequently retitled Escape from Dartmoor, is a fitting end to the roundup: not only is it on the cusp of the transition to sound films, but it addresses the transition to sound films. The movie-in-movie scene is a whopping twelve and a half minutes long, rivaling those in A Star Is Bornand New York, New York. But, as we’ll see, there’s a key difference.
At a barbershop, customer Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) flirts with manicurist Sally (Norah Baring) and asks (we read in a title), “Will you come with me to a talkie to-night?” She apparently says yes, because in the very next scene, they’re settling into their seats. And here’s the difference from every other movie featured in this blog: from this point till the end of the sequence, we don’t see what’s going on on onscreen, only the reactions of the audience. It’s a tour de force on the part of director Asquith, not entirely successful, but you have to give him credit for trying.
And there’s a lot that’s interesting in the sequence, to be sure. We do get some internal clues as to what they’re watching, including a brief shot of what appears to be a poster:
The Harold Lloyd picture is a silent — and there are plenty of shots of the full orchestra that accompanies it. (The inventive score on the Vimeo print is by Peter Reiter.) Thirteen years on fromLuke’s Movie Muddle, Lloyd has acquired a mature style, stardom, and trademark eyeglasses. This clip starts with the orchestra, moves to on to creepy Joe (Uno Henning), who’s stalking Harry and Sally, and ends with the cleverest bit in the sequence, which is based on the recognizability of Lloyd’s eyewear.
Asquith himself plays the bespectacled moviegoer.
Schlettow was German and Henning Swedish (back in silent days, that type of international casting was easier), and A Cottage on Dartmoor was a joint British-Swedish production. The movie-house scene is quite different in the version released in Sweden, which I haven’t seen. It’s apparently a good seven minutes shorter, and clips of Lloyd’s Hot Water (1924) are actually seen.
As I said, A Cottage on Dartmoor, a silent film, addresses the imminent move to sound films — and not in a positive way. You can tell Asquith’s position on the matter by the poster advertising an “ALL TALKING!! ALL SINGING!! ALL DANCING!!” adaptation of a play by Shakespeare, misspelled. Then there’s the audience reaction — which varies from engagement, to befuddlement (the old woman with an ear trumpet who can’t hear what’s going on), to boredom: the orchestra members pass around beer and sandwiches and play cards, and at least two people in the audience fall asleep.
According to the British Film Institute, this sequence originally had a soundtrack, but it’s now lost. Reiter’s scoring on Vimeo print contains some dialogue supposedly from My Woman. It’s muffled for the most part, but at one point you clearly hear a woman’s voice saying, “I think I’ve lost one of my gloves. I think I left it at the other table.” That sounded familiar to me — and sure enough, it’s from Alfred Hitchock’s Blackmail, which came out a few months earlier than Cottage but was a talkie, British film’s first. Slipping those lines in was an amazing move on Reiter’s part, and I take my hat off to him.
The Cider House Rules (1985) is my favorite John Irving novel, and I liked the 1999 film adaptation by Lasse Hallström a lot, too. Preparing this post made me appreciate a particular difference between the two versions. In the book, characters are always reading Victorian novels: Dickens’s David Copperfield, Little Dorritt, and Great Expectations, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. That’s no coincidence, for Irving successfully (in my view) modeled his own book after these older works.
Skimming through the novel, which takes place during World War II, I find only one reference to a film. The main character, Homer Larch, who has been raised in a Maine orphanage run by the obstetrician Dr. Wilber Larch, goes to his first drive-in movie, also, judging by his reaction, his first movie of any kind.
… a gigantic image filled the sky. It is something’s mouth! thought Homer Wells. The camera backed, or rather, lurched away. Something’s head-a kind of horse! thought Homer Wells. It was a camel, actually, but Homer Wells had never seen a camel, or a picture of one; he thought it was a horribly deformed horse-a mutant horse! Perhaps some ghastly fetus-phase of a horse! The camera staggered back farther. Mounted by the camel’s grotesque hump was a black-skinned man almost entirely concealed in white wrapping-bandages! thought Homer Wells. The ferocious black Arab nomad brandished a frightening curved sword; whacking the lumbering camel with the flat of the blade, he drove the beast into a faulty, staggering gallop across such endless sand dunes that the animal and its rider were soon only a speck on the vast horizon. Suddenly, music! Homer jumped. Words! The titles, the names of the actors were written in the sand by an invisible hand.
It turns out to be a pirate picture, and the black man on the horse is never seen again, but Homer comes to identify with him–a Bedouin, a wanderer with no home. (And by the way, I assume Irving had a real pirate movie in mind, and I’d be interested in any thoughts or nominations for what it might have been.)
By contrast, the film version of Cider House (Irving won an Oscar for his screenplay) foregrounds movies. We’re given to understand that on movie night Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) screens the same film for the children and staff, because one movie, made way back in 1933 and showing a lot of wear and tear, is all he has has. Nobody, including Homer (Tobey Maguire), seems to mind. In the clip, the movie scene starts at about the 1:45 mark.
Later, Fuzzy (the boy who says Kong thinks Fay Wray is his mother), ill and under a makeshift oxygen tent, has a private screening of King Kong.
Homer starts dating Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and we see them going to two movies, both starring Laurence Olivier. Here, they watch a scene from Rebecca (1940) where Olivier dances with Joan Fontaine. (The voice over is Dr. Larch, reciting a letter to Homer.)
Another time, they walk out of a theater having seen Wuthering Heights (1939), with Olivier and Merle Oberon, and discuss the movie. For not having seen many films, Homer shows himself to be a pretty sharp film critic.
But you looked as if you liked it.
I *did* like it. All I said was,
"It's not 'King Kong'."
In the previous post, I said that Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo(1985) was influenced by Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. That’s certainly true, but Allen also had to have had in mind Pennies from Heaven. I mean the 1981 film version directed by Herbert Ross and starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, rather than the 1978 BBC series with Bob Hoskins on which it was based.
In Pennies — set, like Purple Rose, in the 1930s — Arthur Parker (Martin) is a sheet-music salesman, and has a world view not merely influenced but warped by the pop tunes he peddles. The brilliant conceit of the series and the film — both written by Dennis Potter — is to show this by having Arthur break into song and dance periodically, lip-synching to the original scratchy vinyl of songs like “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” and “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You.” The irony not only drips but pours.
Over the course of the film, Arthur’s world falls apart, largely due to his own selfishness and short-sightedness. For a moment, it seems like he might attain a measure of happiness with Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a schoolteacher. She becomes pregnant but, unknown to him, aborts the baby. They slip into a movie theater and, as in Purple Rose four years later, an Astaire-Rogers movie with music by Irving Berlin is on the screen, in this case Follow the Fleet.
Due to technical challenges, you might not hear what Eileen says at the beginning of the clip. It’s, “I might like to have that baby, and then…” More irony. Arthur, ever the music-addled, cock-eyed optimist, avers that “There’s got to be something on the other side of the rainbow.” In a lovely (though completely unrealistic) touch that shows the permeating power of the movies, Ross has Fred and Ginger’s images reflected on the real wall of the theater. Completely carried away, Arthur can’t help lip-synching to the big production number, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
Then all of a sudden they are on the stage, in front of the screen, dance-synching to Astaire and Rogers. Finally, in the Sherlock Jr. touch, they join their own movie, black and white and elegant and so different from their tawdry reality.
A final note: the (picture-perfect) choreography is credited to Danny Daniels, but Ross surely made a huge contribution. The director started his career as a dancer, then was a choreographer for Broadway musicals, and incorporated dance into many of his movies, including The Turning Point, the biopic Nijnksy, the Baryshnikov vehicle Dancers, and — it must be said — Footloose.
I believe this is the second example in the blog — after Home Alone — of a movie that includes both a real film and a fictional one. And it’s fitting that it follows Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., since that was an obvious inspiration for Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
One difference is that in Sherlock Jr., the projectionist played by Buster steps into the movie being screened in his theater. Purple Rose of Cairo goes the other way. Set in the Depression, it’s about an unhappy waitress and wife named Cecilia (Mia Farrow) who goes to the movies to escape her woes. She develops a fascination with The Purple Rose of Cairo, a (fictional) RKO madcap melodrama centering on a dashing archeologist named Jeff Baxter (Jeff Daniels). She sits through multiple showings, until something very strange happens (at about the two-minute mark of this clip) …
One of the cool things about the sequence is how Allen, famously a movie buff, has captured the look and sound and feel of ’30s films, and chosen actors who fit seamlessly in: John Wood (who could almost be a stand-in for Edward Everett Horton), Edward Herrman, Debra Rush, and Annie Jo Edwards as Delilah, the maid. (The part is a sadly accurate depiction of the sort of roles played by Hattie McDaniel and others, but so distasteful today that I wish Allen had left it out.)
Cecilia shows Tom around her New Jersey town, and he — a la Sherlock Jr. — takes her into the film. A cuckoo love triangle ensues involving Cecilia, Tom, and the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepherd. She chooses Gil (not much future in a romance with a celluloid hero) but gets some bad news as she approaches the theater. (She’s carrying the ukulele because she and Gil have had some great fun dueting.) So she goes in and takes a seat to see the movie that’s just opened, a true-life RKO production, Astaire and Rogers’s Top Hat.
You can see for yourself the effect this transcendent piece of entertainment has on Cecilia. It harks back to the very first film discussed in this blog, Sullivan’s Travels, and in its honor I’ve created a new tag for both movies (and a couple of others): The Transporting Power of Popular Film.
A broad theme of this blog is the way in which cinema is about cinema. Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) is in large part about a cinema, The Bijou, which the main characters–the Verloc family–own and operate, next to which they live, and where a good deal of the action takes place. That’s one (of many) departures from the source material, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent. What both book and film share is that Verloc is a saboteur, his wife and her younger brother are unaware of that, and a bomb explosion is at the center of the plot.
(Spoiler alert.) In the film, Verloc (Oskar Homolka) gives his wife’s young brother Stevie the bomb, hidden in a bird cage, along with film canisters labeled Bartholomew the Strangler–another meta touch, as no such film exists. He gets on a bus and is supposed to drop the package off at an appointed spot at 1:30. The audience knows the bomb is set to detonate at 1:45, and, in the first great Hitchcockian set piece, we watch with mounting suspense and horror as the bus is delayed and the clock ticks ever closer to the fateful time. It finally arrives, the bomb goes off, and Stevie is killed.
In their sitting room next to the Bijou, Verloc confesses to his wife (Sylvia Sidney) what happened, trying to excuse his role in the tragedy. In a state of shock, she walks out and into the theater and the sound of laughter. The audience — mostly children — are watching the 1935 Disney short “Who Killed Cock Robin?” in which the robin, crooning a la Bing Crosby, is serenading a wren who talks and looks like Mae West. For a moment, Mrs. Verloc joins in the laughter, and it seems that the lesson might be the same as in Sullivan’s Travels—the transporting and redemptive quality of silly comedy.
But then an arrow is shot and strikes Cock Robin, who falls to the ground, apparently dead. The spell is broken, and Mrs. Verloc’s face, in closeup, literally falls. She is back to her real-life world of mourning and pain.
Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is one of the most meta movies that came out of Hollywood, at least before post-modernism reared its self-conscious head. It opens with an action scene–a fistfight on top of a train, with both protagonists falling to a watery grave. But then, the words “The End” appear in the water–it was only a movie. Three men get up from their screening-room seats, and one of them, director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), argues to two studio execs that what they and we have just seen is just the sort of socially conscious document Depression American needs.
Sullivan (aka Sully) is ashamed of the escapist fare that has made him rich–trifles like Ants in Your Plants of1939, Hey Hey in theHayloft, and So Long Sarong. (Either the last is an amazing coincidence or Sturges knew that Pardon My Sarong, starring Abbott and Costello, was in production and would be released the following year.) He wants to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
Exec: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
Exec: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Unfortunately, Sullivan, a product of boarding school, has no experience with the suffering of humanity, and therefore resolves to put on hobo clothes, go out on the road, and obtain some. Complications ensue, notably involving Veronica Lake, identified in the credits only as The Girl. “How does the girl fit into the picture?” a cop asks Sully. He says, “There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?”
There’s lots of other self-referential lines, including knowing mentions of Sturges’ colleagues Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch. At one point, Sully, in trouble yet again, breaks the fourth wall, remarking, “If ever a plot needed a twist, this one does.”
The movie can be said to be structured around three movie-watching scenes. The first is the fight sequence that opens things up. The second comes when Sully is taken in, and taken to a picture show, by two maiden ladies. Here the camera stays on the audience and all we get from the movie is some lachrymose music–the dialogue is drowned out by the sounds of kids sniffling and people munching on snacks, all combining to give the sense of a pretty miserable cinematic experience. As Sully and his companions leave, we see from a lobby card that a triple bill is playing: Beyond these Tears, The Valley of the Shadow, and The Buzzard of Berlin.
The third movie-within-the-movie is the climactic scene of Sullivan’s Travels, and the only one that’s an actual movie. Through plot machinations, Sullivan has found himself a prisoner on a chain gang, subject to miserable conditions. For a rare respite, the prisoners are brought to a rural African-American church, where a movie is projected on a white sheet that serves as a makeshift screen. The selection of the day is a 1934 slapstick (rather Warner Brothers-y, in fact) Disney short, “Playful Pluto.” As Sully watches, he begins to have a revelation.
Through more plot machinations, he is released. News of his adventures have created a nationwide sensation, and the studio execs are now eager to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? One of them says, “It will put Shakespeare back with the shipping news!”
But Sully will have none of it. He wants to make a comedy. He says, as the picture comes to and end, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”