Silent Round-up, Part III: ‘Show People’ and ‘A Cottage on Dartmoor’

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 Fascinating Youth 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 Born and 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 from Luke’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.

‘King Kong’ and ‘Rebecca’ in ‘The Cider House Rules’

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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.

CANDY
		(disappointed)
	But you looked as if you liked it.

			HOMER
		(smiling)
	I *did* like it. All I said was, 
	"It's not 'King Kong'."

‘Follow the Fleet’ in ‘Pennies from Heaven’

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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.

 

‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ and ‘Top Hat’ in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’

I believe this is the second example in the blog — after Home Aloneof 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.)

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Horton.

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.