‘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.

‘Jaws’ in ‘Jurassic Park’

I instituted the tag “Watching yourself” for movies in which an actor (A) plays an actor (B) and B watches a film in which A actually appeared. So, for example, in Two Weeks in Another Town, Kirk Douglas plays washed-up Hollywood star Jack Andrus, who in one scene watches a clip, supposedly of one of his old movies, but really of Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful. Click on “Watching yourself” in the Tag Cloud at bottom right if you want to see more examples.

I now realize “watching yourself” can apply to directors as well as writers. After all, Vincente Minelli directed both The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, so the clip of the former in the latter could be considered a sort of Hitchcockian cameo. I’ve got another example, which I learned about via the sleuthing of Jeremy James Prutchick on YouTube. It’s a brief scene (don’t blink) from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). The creator of the cloned-dinosaur park, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), is admonishing lead programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight–Seinfeld‘s Newman).

 

Don’t feel bad if you missed it — but in the last image, on the left side of Dennis’s computer monitor, is a scene from Spielberg’s first big hit, Jaws (1975): the one where Quint and Brody, on a boat, see the killer shark for the first time.

At another point, there’s another, totally out-of-sequence Jaws moment on the monitor, showing Roy Scheider as Chief Martin Brody. Prutchick helpfully enlarges it:

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Here’s Prutchick’s frame-by-frame breakdown of the scene, which also includes a second Jaws moment on the monitor.

 

 

‘Ace in the Hole’ and ‘Rawhide’ in ‘Jersey Boys’

About midway through Jersey Boys (2014), Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the Four Seasons, the boys have had a hit with “Sherry Darling” but are in desperate need of a follow-up record. They’re in a hotel room with the TV on, as TVs in movie hotel rooms customarily are. Watching are, from left to right, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the group’s two songwriters, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle).

It’s a good story (leaving aside the problematic but probably historically accurate attitudes toward Kirk Douglas smacking Jan Sterling in the kisser) but it’s not true. Or at least the movie on the tube — Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) — is the wrong one. In the corresponding scene in the Broadway show on which Eastwood’s film was based, Gaudio is narrating:

So now I’m a one hit wonder all over again. Only, what I wonder is, where’s the next idea gonna come from? Crewe and I are banging our heads against the wall and nothing’s coming. And then, one night, I’m watching The Million Dollar Movie. Some cheesy John Payne western. He hauls off and smacks Rhonda Fleming across the mouth and says, “What do you think of  that?” She looks up at him, defiant, proud, eyes glistening, and she says: “BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY”

The problem is, “Big girls don’t cry” is not uttered in the one western Payne and Fleming made, Tennesse’s Partner (1955), at least according to Wikipedia. That source cites an alternative origin story from another movie the two actors co-starred in,  also under Allen Dwan’s direction : “According to Bob Crewe, he himself was dozing off is Manhattan home with the television on when he awoke to see John Payne manhandling Rhonda Fleming in Slightly Scarlet, a 1956 film noir based on a James M. Cain story. The line is heard in that film.”

Why Eastwood chose Ace in the Hole instead of either of the Fleming-Payne movies is a mystery. Maybe they weren’t available. Or maybe he picked Ace because it’s a better film.

What actually got me looking into Jersey Boys was another scene, mentioned to me by Andrew Feinberg. Gaudio is in another hotel room watching TV, and what should be on but Rawhide, the 1959-66 western starring none other than a very young Clint Eastwood. “That was my way,” the director said in an interview, “of making a Hitchcock appearance.”

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‘Lord Jim’ and ‘Great Catherine’ in ‘My Favorite Year’

Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year (1982) makes nice use of the “Watching yourself” trope. The movie, set in 1954, was produced  by Mel Brooks and was loosely based on his experience as a writer on the Sid Caesar TV comedy series Your Show of Shows, where the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn was once the guest star. Evidently, Flynn’s appearance on the show was uneventful. That is not the case with the Flynn-ish figure in My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), who is usually drunk, rarely on time, and beset by a bad case of stage fright.

In this scene, the writing staff assembles to watch some clips from Swann movies. That staff consists of Sy (Bill Macy, loosely based on Mel Tolkin); Herb (Basil Hoffman; l.b.o. Neil Simon); Alice (Anne De Salvo; Lucille Kaillen); and the “My” of the title, young Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker; Brooks himself).

 

What they see comes from two actual Peter O’Toole movies, Lord Jim (1968) and Great Catherine (1965). Sy isn’t a fan of the performances: “That’s not acting–that’s kissing and jumping and drinking and humping. I don’t know why we’re wasting out eyesight on this crap.” It’s reminiscent of the way Bette Davis’s early work was dumped on in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and, as with Davis, it’s proof that O’Toole was a good sport.

Later, the star of the show, King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna; not so loosely based on Caesar) and the producer, Leo (Adolph Green), join the writers to watch another Swann movie. What they see this time isn’t a real O’Toole film but footage expressly created for My Favorite Year: a convincing (down to the Technicolor, music, and editing) homage to Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939).

 

Later, Benjy watches more of the movie, which is called Defender of the Crown, with a co-worker he’s got a crush on, K.C. (Jessica Harper). They’re both so transfixed by it that it ends up sealing their romance. I guess Alan Swann isn’t such a terrible actor after all.

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‘Parachute Jumper,’ ‘Ex-Lady’ and ‘Sadie McKee’ in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’

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Joan Crawford (left) as Blanche Hudson; Bette Davis as her sister Baby Jane.

 

Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a camp classic, a mashup of Sunset Boulevard and Gypsy, with Grand Guignol touches and a cold-eyed look at elder abuse, before the term was coined. The movie opens in 1917. Baby Jane Hudson is a tap-dancing, singing vaudeville sensation; her sister, Blanche, watches jealously from the wings. (And there you have the Gypsy connection. In that 1959 Broadway musical, the child star is named Baby June; her sister Louise is the neglected one. Henry Farrell published the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, on which the movie was based, in 1960.)

Next we’re in a Hollywood screening room in 1935, with executives Ben Golden (Bert Freed) and Marty McDonald (Wesley Addy). Ben doesn’t appear to be happy with the what they’re watching.

Pay attention. In a twist, it’s Blanche who has become the big movie star. Her contract demands that the studio make a Baby Jane picture for every one of hers. Ben and Marty are supposedly looking at work by the grown-up Baby Jane. But actually on the screen are scenes from two real-life 1933 Warner Brothers movies starring Bette Davis, Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady.  Ben’s dilemma is that, as he bluntly puts it, Jane “stinks.” The clips are meant to bear out this assessment.

But do they? True, Davis’s southern accent in Parachute Jumper (her character’s name is “Alabama”) isn’t the most convincing. But on the whole her work seems representative of the time — the years between the end of silent film era and 1934 imposition of the Motion Picture Production Code, when dresses were slinky, underwear was minimal, and both morals and production values were shaky. Certainly, it was sporting on Davis’s part to allow her early work to be presented as an example of bad craft.

Fast forward to the 1962 present. Suburban matron Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee), wearing the full white-gloved June Cleaver look, arrives home to find her daughter (B.D. Merrill — Davis’s real-life daughter) watching an old movie on TV. When she realizes what it is, her face beams with delight.

(By the way, the “sad eye” Margaret Keane paintings on the wall were thanks to Crawford, a big fan of the artist.)

The “fine old Blanche Hudson movie,” as the dog-food pitchman calls it, is in fact Sadie McKee (1934), starring Joan Crawford, Gene Raymond (who smooches her), Edward Arnold (who rescues her from the abusive guy in the nightclub), and Franchot Tone. Unlike the Baby Jane/Bette Davis pictures, it’s presented as an enduring classic. And maybe it’s a bit more polished, but I frankly don’t see all that much of a difference.

We cut to the Bateses’ next-door neighbor Blanche (Crawford), who’s in a wheel chair for reasons that will prove important to the plot but otherwise looks quite presentable; she’s also raptly watching her old movie on the tube as Jane (Davis), who lives with her and has not aged well, walks in. (Again, it was sporting of Davis to agree to wear the grotesque little-girl makeup Jane favors.)

One more piece of good sportsmanship on Davis’s part was not objecting to the use of Sadie McKee as the example of a Blanche picture. It must have dredged up unpleasant memories. A 2017 Harper’s Bazaar article tied to the release of Feud, a TV miniseries about the making of Baby Jane, described how Davis fell in love with Franchot Tone while making a movie with him in 1935. But Crawford, who met him on the Sadie McKee set, married him, “I have never forgiven her for that, and never will,” Davis said in a 1987 interview.

It appeared that Davis’s team-first attitude paid off, as she was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for her Baby Jane performance. But that turned out badly. As Harper’s Bazaar reported:

Not only did Crawford campaign hard against Davis, who was the favorite for that year’s Best Actress prize, but she made arrangements to get up onstage herself at any cost. Noting that several of that year’s nominees were unable to attend the ceremony, Crawford offered to collect the Best Actress award on their behalf. And so, when the absent Anne Bancroft’s name was read out, Crawford went up to accept the Oscar on her behalf as Davis watched in shock, and posed happily with Bancroft’s award alongside the night’s actual winners backstage.

 

 

 

 

‘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.”

 

‘Jesse James’ in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’

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Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), Mrs. French (Norma Varden), and their hats.

We last encountered Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard. He was having Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, watch one of Norma’s old silent films, only it was one of Gloria’s — Queen Kelly.

Wilder pulls a similar trick in his 1957 courtroom thriller, Witness for the Prosecution, in which Tyrone Power plays Leonard Vole, a World War II veteran in London who has landed in a spot of trouble. We learn in flashbacks that he’s invented a newfangled egg-beater and has been trying to peddle it, without much luck. That is, until he and Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a wealthy widow, meet cute in a shop where she’s buying a smart new hat, and he commences a flirtation with her. I didn’t mention that Leonard is married; his wife, Christine, is played by Marlene Dietrich.

I pause here to say that one of the more mysterious things about Witness for the Prosecution is Vole’s nationality. A commenter on IMDB says that William Holden was Wilder’s first choice for the part, and that Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, and Jack Lemmon were considered before Power, also an American, accepted. He makes no effort to do an English accent, and at least one book on Wilder takes Vole to be an American. Yet the script — by Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus, based on Agatha Christie’s play — makes no mention of his not being British, and even gives him some Britishisms to say.

Three of these appear in the movie-in-movie scene. Discouraged by a lack of eggbeater interest, Vole repairs to a cinema. Who should sit in the row in front of him but Mrs. French, her hat obscuring his view of the shoot-em-up Western on the screen? He invites her to sit next to her, and explains, “That chap on the white horse is called Jesse James. Those others have led him ambush. It’s not at all cricket.”

The film they’re watching was made in 1939 and is called Jesse James. The title character (not discernible in the Witness for the Prosecution scene) was played by Tyrone Power.

 

“Queen Kelly” in “Sunset Boulevard”

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Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is probably the most movie-besotted movie of all time. Start with the premise. Gloria Swanson, a silent-film star whose career was derailed by the talkies, is Norma Desmond, a silent-film star whose career was ended by the talkies. Her card-game buddies are played by Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, all silent-screen stars of yore. Her butler-chauffeur, Max, turns out to be a once-acclaimed silent-film director and Norma’s ex-husband. He’s creepily–and brilliantly–played by Erich von Stroheim, a once-acclaimed silent-film director who’d been reduced to playing character parts, mostly Nazis in World War II-pictures. One of the few Hollywood folk who successfully made the silent-to-talkie transition was director Cecil B. DeMille. Surprise! He turns up as himself. We see him on the set of Samson and Delilah, which was released in 1949. According to IMDB, “Set elements and costumes from … Samson and Delilah were pulled out of storage, and cast members from that film re-hired, to re-create his filming.”

The most meta scene comes shortly after screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) takes up residence in Norma’s decrepit mansion, where he serves as a combination amanuensis/boy toy. He tells us (there’s voice-over narration by Joe throughout) that Norma throws regular movie nights, just for the two of them; Max is projectionist. The repertoire, of course, is her own films. We see a bit from one of them, a scene where the young Norma’s face is illuminated by candles.

The clip is from Queen Kelly, a 1929 film that, more than any other single factor, derailed the careers of Swanson (the star) and von Stroheim, the director. At least he was the director until producer Joseph Kennnedy (Swanson’s lover and JFK’s father) fired him because the scenes he’d produced were too explicit and dark. Because von Stroheim retained the rights for what he’d shot, the film had never seen in the United States–until Sunset Boulevard.

The film, of course, is silent. As Norma tells Joe, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”