Hail, Caesar: A Feast for Movie Fans

blogopenerI remember when Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon was released in the 1970s. While I loved the film, I turned to my companion and remarked, “The reason I like this movie is the very reason why it will not be a hit at the box office.” Over the weekend, I caught the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and the same thought occurred to me. Both films are fictional tributes to the film industry of another era and abound with references to actual incidents, people, and classic movies. Cinephiles, movie fans, TCM viewers, and those old enough to remember post-WW II Hollywood will recognize and get a kick out of many of the references in Hail, Caesar! I truly hope this specialized group of viewers will catch this film in the theater to support it. Other movie-goers—the young demographic that the big studios prize so much, the family audience that made Kung Fu Panda 3 the top box-office movie for two weeks in a row (good grief!), or those looking for a laugh riot as per the trailer—will not be appreciative.

I love movies about the history of movies by auteur directors who know and appreciate that history—Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon, Scorsese’s The Aviator, Truffaut’s Day for Night, Altman’s The Player, Blake Edwards’ Sunset. Even if the films are critical of Hollywood, they speak in a language that I know. These films are not the same as exposes of Hollywood, or movies about the movies, such as Sunset Blvd., The Bad and the Beautiful, Hearts of the West, or A Star Is Born, because the referencing is part of the fabric or texture of the narratives. Yet, it is the referencing that goes over the heads of most viewers, dooming the films to a less-than-stellar performance at the box office.The Internet is working in favor of the film because movie junkies and film-centric websites are posting interpretations of each film reference. I don’t always agree with their assertions, but at least these speculations are giving figures from the past their moment of cyberspace limelight. Hopefully, that will pique mainstream interest in Hail, Caesar!






Hail, Caesar! is structured around a day in the life of studio fixer Eddie Mannix, excellently played by Josh Brolin, whose job entails trouble-shooting any problem that might interfere with keeping the studio’s slate of films on schedule and on budget. Whether tailoring a location shoot around inclement weather or curtailing a star’s self-destructive behavior or nipping potential scandals in the bud, Mannix keeps every star and every film on track at Capitol Studio. His immediate problem on this day is the kidnapping of veteran movie star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney. Eddie Mannix was a real-life fixer at MGM until 1963, though, he used the titles producer, comptroller, or general manager. However, Brolin’s Mannix is completely fictionalized. If you want to learn more about the real Mannix, watch Hollywoodland, the 2006 film about the death of George “Superman” Reeves, though don’t expect complete accuracy. Oddly, Hollywoodland costars Diane Lane as Mrs. Eddie Mannix, and Lane is the ex-wife of Brolin. Also appearing in Hail, Caesar as a director of musicals is Christopher Lambert, who was also married to Lane. That makes Hail, Caesar! a kind of Six Degrees of Diane Lane, which proves nothing other than Hollywood is a small company town.



Unlike most Internet scribes, I don’t believe the film’s fictionalized versions of Hollywood figures should be understood as specific, one-on-one references—only reminders of certain stars and types from another place and time. For example, the primary film-within-the-film, also called “Hail, Caesar!”, best recalls—at least to me—Quo Vadis mixed with The Robe with a touch of Ben Hur. The story of a Roman soldier who is humbled beneath Christ on the cross recalls The Robe. But, like Ben Hur, Hail, Caesar!” also begins with the birth of Jesus; however, the costumes, set design, and featured star are reminiscent of Quo Vadis. Suave, handsome Robert Taylor played a Roman soldier in Quo Vadis, and Clooney comes closest to that level of drop-dead gorgeous, highly charismatic movie star. I think that the Coens were likely thinking of Taylor, because of the actor’s simplistic, flag-waving, anti-Communist testimony before the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). With Taylor’s politics in mind, the connection between Baird Whitlock and Taylor takes an ironic twist when Baird falls in lock step with his kidnappers.



Scarlett Johansson plays aquatic star DeeAnna Moran, who is patterned after Esther Williams. DeeAnna performs an aquatic number in which she dives from a great height and is then flushed into the air by a plume of water, which is very similar to a production number in Williams’s Million Dollar Mermaid. However, the character seems to be a composite of several female stars and types. Onscreen, DeeAnna embodies class and poise; offscreen, she exhibits a foul temper and speaks in an unsophisticated accent, which recalls the character Jean Hagen plays in Singin’ in the Rain. DeeAnna’s stardom is threatened by her illegitimate pregnancy, a situation reminiscent of Loretta Young’s dilemma when she became pregnant by Clark Gable. Apparently, DeeAnna is reluctant to wed because she was unhappily married to a gangster and a band leader, a nod to Lana Turner’s unlucky love life.



My favorite character is Hobie Doyle, played by newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. Hobie is a singing cowboy who is content to star in b-westerns, where he speaks very few lines but can rope and ride like a champ. Though he talks like a rube and is limited as an actor, he is the most honest character in the film. Smarter than he looks, Hobie is admirable for his loyalty, work ethic, and his ability to remain true to himself. He is challenged but not beaten when the studio decides to change his image by casting him in a sophisticated drawing-room romance directed by the erudite Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who specializes in films in the vein of Ernst Lubitsch. While online movie buffs have postulated that Hobie represents everyone from Tim Holt to Roy Rogers, I think his career trajectory owes something to Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII. Though not a singing cowboy, Murphy’s Hollywood career owed more to his war service than his acting ability.At first, he was cast  in westerns (mostly), but he worked hard to elevate himself to better roles and to prove he could handle better material. The singing cowboys never made it beyond b-westerns, but Murphy did. Also, there was more to Murphy than most Hollywood folks thought; he was not only a composer of country-western songs but a poet.



Channing Tatum does an admirable job as musical comedy star Burt Gurney, because he tap-dances in a large-scale production number. Of course, it is easy to equate him to Gene Kelly—which most sources have done—because the dance routine depicts Gurney as a sailor “on the town” with his buddies. The number not only recalls Kelly because of On the Town and Anchors Aweigh but also because part of the athletic nature of the dance in which sailors jump across table tops. However, claiming that Gurney represents Kelly is too reductive and misses the point of the production number, which is to poke fun at the unintentional gay subtext of musicals featuring navy buddies singing and dancing together. Kelly was not the only one to make musicals in which the characters were happy-go-lucky sailors: Astaire appeared in Follow the Fleet; Cagney danced to “Shanghai Lil” in Footlight Parade. Plus, Donald O’Connor was as athletic as Kelly; he actually danced on table tops and chairs in more than one film. It’s the content of the dance that is the target of the farce here, not any specific musical comedy star.



Not surprisingly, no one has explained the more obscure references in the film, such as the Wallace Beery Conference Room at Capitol Studio, or the joke in which the punchline mentions Danny Kaye, Norman Taurog, and Judy Canova. Viewers would have to know  Beery’s brutal, unlikable personality, the rumors surrounding Kaye’s sexuality, Taurog’s penchant for directing family-friendly fare, and Canova’s mouthy star persona to appreciate the jokes.



More important than the references is the point of the movie. Like Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon, which ends with a sentiment once expressed by Jimmy Stewart that movies are like little pieces of time that people never forget, Hail, Caesar! is more than a series of clever movie references. It’s no accident that the film is set at a time when television threatened the future of the industry, and that the group who derails old-school movie star Baird Whitlock calls itself “the future.” Or, that the genres depicted in the films-within-the film (musicals, epics, drawing room romances, singing cowboy westerns) are dead to us now—the victims of an evolving entertainment industry and changing tastes. The situation is comparable to today, when streaming outlets, the dreaded Netflix, corporate-minded studio heads, and the ever-changing tastes of new generations of audiences threaten. . . well. . .the movies.

Unlike Bogdanovich, the Coens (being the Coens) are not going to express their ideas with sentiment and warmth, especially after most of Hail, Caesar!digs at the glamorous veneer of Hollywood to show us the morally corrupt, the vacuous, and the embittered who are responsible for creating our favorite movies. On some websites and Facebook pages, classic-movie fans have expressed anger over the Coens’ dark vision of the Dream Factory. But, I did not find the film to be a snarky rant against Hollywood. I thought there was great affection for “pictures,” the word that the old studio heads used for films. Just like Eddie Mannix, who is insulted by the Lockheed rep’s put-downs of movies as frivolous, unworthy, and certainly, NOT art, we know there is more to our beloved movies than the behind-the-scene antics of hedonists and idiots. This is proven at the end when Baird Whitlock makes his final speech in the film-within-the-film, and the hardened crew members who listen to his revelation at the foot of Christ on the cross are visibly moved. Whitlock is a spoiled, clueless movie star, but his genuine ability to reach the audience can’t be denied. Whether you think the Coens are putting down Hollywood movies for this, or celebrating it, depends on your own relationship with classic Hollywood—and, maybe, your age.


26 Responses Hail, Caesar: A Feast for Movie Fans
Posted By Susan Gordon : February 8, 2016 3:19 pm

Terrific article, which I will share on my FB page.

The photo, captioned, “THE REAL MANNIX WITH JEAN HARLOW AND ROBERT YOUNG,” though—that looks like Robert Montgomery, not Robert Young.

Posted By Bill Sweetnam : February 8, 2016 3:30 pm

I think the picture with the real Eddie Mannix is of Robert Montgomery rather than Robert Young. I’m looking forward to seeing this movie and your article makes me want to see it even more.

Posted By robbushblog : February 8, 2016 3:35 pm

I really enjoyed HAIL, CAESAR! myself, Suzi. I was apparently in the minority of people in the theater in which I saw it though. Bah! Who cares what they think? I enjoyed all of the little composite characters, made up of characteristics of well-known scandalized stars of the past. Hobie was my favorite character as well, and I totally got an Audie Murphy vibe from him too. I didn’t find the movie nearly as critical of old Hollywood as kind of loving old Hollywood. It’s full of quirky, funny bits that might only land on occasion, but it landed more than enough for me. I had fun. I think it will be one of their more underappreciated films that are actually pretty darn good (Like THE HUDSUCKER PROXY! Darn the haters!).

Posted By robbushblog : February 8, 2016 3:35 pm

Yep, that’s Robert Montgomery.

Posted By William : February 8, 2016 4:05 pm

I am looking forward to seeing it this week!

Posted By robbushblog : February 8, 2016 4:11 pm

I just talked to a lady from the office across the hall in my office building. She thought it was terrible too. Ha ha! She then admitted that she’s not “a movie person”. She did like Hobie though. She thought he was really cute.

Posted By WayneMorganFan : February 8, 2016 5:14 pm

Saw it yesterday and highly recommend it. It’s packed with so many references that will tickle a movie buff (the way “Bob Stack” was tossed off, I needed a seatbelt to stay in my chair!). It’s ostensibly set in the early 50s, but it really telescopes late 30s through early 50s style and lore and is a true fan fiction exercise in the way it mashes everything up. There’s an impressive number of fake movie names, fake movies, fake star, writer, and director names–all very plausible! The only fault I find is that the Coens go to the well just once too often on the “homosexuality is funny” bit. It is 2016, now, I think… That being said, I laughed out loud throughout the entire film. The cast of put-upon directors alone, in all their glorious varieties, is well worth the ticket price. And if you have a kid you watch old movies with (I took my 10 year old, who knows who Deanna Durbin is), I guarantee they will love it too!

Posted By Susan Doll : February 8, 2016 7:28 pm

You know, the source where I got the Mannix photo from did not identify anyone else. At first I wrote down Robert Montgomery, but I had just watched a film with Robert Young from the 1930s, when he was kind of lanky. I thought it looked like a young Young, if you pardon the expression, so I changed it. The more I looked, the more I was convinced it was Young. I guess I over-thought it. I will change it to Montgomery. Just proves you should always go with your gut instinct.

Posted By Walt : February 8, 2016 7:57 pm

“Hopefully, that will peak mainstream interest in Hail, Caesar!”

I think the word you want here is “pique”, not “peak.”

Posted By George : February 8, 2016 9:26 pm

I hope Eddie Mannix is portrayed more positively than he was in HOLLYWOODLAND, where he was basically Al Capone at a movie studio.

Interesting that both HAIL CAESAR! and the Coens’ BARTON FINK are set at “Capitol Pictures.” They seem to be creating their own universe. In BARTON FINK, it was run by “Jack Lipnick” (an L.B. Mayer stand-in). It was pretty easy to tell which characters were based on William Faulkner and Clifford Odets, too.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 8, 2016 11:21 pm

Okay, corrections made. Thanks to my readers for being my copy editors. I do appreciate it.

Posted By swac44 : February 9, 2016 3:38 am

As a lover of Barton Fink, that room filled with Wallace Beery photos sure did tickle my funny bone. I don’t know if Lana Turner was ever married to a band leader, but Ava Gardner sure was, to Artie Shaw, who I recall reading wasn’t exactly the nicest husband in the world.

Good thing I checked before posting, Artie was also Lana’s first husband (some guys have all the luck). They eloped on their first date (she was 19) and it lasted four months. “Turner later referred to their stormy and verbally abusive relationship as ‘my college education.’ ”

Lots of references to Joe Schenck too, who was president of United Artists, before becoming chairman of a newly-formed 20th Century Fox. Meanwhile, brother Nick Schenck ran MGM from its New York office, and clashed with Louis B. Mayer constantly. Fascinating time, fascinating people.

Posted By robbushblog : February 9, 2016 6:10 am

In addition to Artie Shaw’s wife history (Lucky dog!), Betty Grable was married to Harry James, who I have heard was also not very nice.

Posted By Joel : February 9, 2016 3:44 pm

Thanks for expanding the reference points. Will have this in mind when I see the film.

Posted By Conny Caruso Hutchinson : February 10, 2016 1:26 pm

Am seeing HAIL, CAESAR tomorrow. Always a supporter of Coen Brothers films, I look forward to the experience. Conny Hutchinson

Posted By charles : February 10, 2016 6:50 pm

Audie Murphy accounts well for himself in every film he made. Yes, his career is due to his war heroics. But does being Henry Fonda’s daughter have anything to do with Jane’s success? Their entry into films was eased by their background (war hero, daughter of a top level movie star). And they both have screen work that people still want to watch 50 years later. And of course, Jane Fonda is a much better actor than Audie Murphy, that goes without saying.

Posted By Miller : February 10, 2016 8:31 pm

I have been looking forward to seeing Kung Fu Panda. You seem incredulous (“good grief!”), despite the success and the quality of the first two movies in the series. I am a fan of the Cohen’s work and expect to enjoy Hail, Caesar!, but I also enjoy movies that don’t come with the film snobs’ (term of endearment) seal of approval. There is no need to get snarky because your preferred movie is not enjoying the commercial success you wish that it would, and there is no need to judge audiences for going to see what I expect is a very good film. Just saying. Please forgive me if I have misinterpreted your aside, but it seemed harsh and unnecessary.

Posted By Orson : February 11, 2016 8:42 am

It does indeed sound like “Hail, Ceasar!” succeeds where a certain, vapid send-up about old Hollywood of yore, failed, methinks.

I’m alluding to “The Artist,” best picture winner at the Oscars not long ago. I tried to watch and enjoy it, at least two times. I gave up the last time because it kept reminding me to ‘see again’ other, better movies it referenced or stole from. I left early when it was too obvious, and because I could not care about the fates of any of the lead characters.

I found it a grating experience, and thus I could not at all ‘enjoy’ it like the rubes and ‘critics’ did.

Thank you, Susan, for the penetrating and appreciative walk through of your experience. I’ve merely glanced at your work – saving a read-through for later, after I’ve done my own viewing. I expect myself to want to share my pleasure like others have, here, in the comments.

Posted By robbushblog : February 11, 2016 4:11 pm

I loved THE ARTIST. It was my favorite movie of that year. I saw it twice in its short run in my area, bought the Blu-ray, and have watched it a few times since.

Posted By Autist : February 12, 2016 1:49 pm

I love you, too, robbushblog! Oh, sorry, I read that as “I love THE AUTIST”! My mistake.

Posted By George : February 20, 2016 9:00 pm

The Coens’ latest is lightweight fluff and definitely not one of their best. But it’s well made, well acted and entertaining, like a lot of the programmers from Hollywood’s “golden age.” Posters on various movie websites are calling it the worst movie of the last 10 years, which is utterly absurd.

HAIL CAESAR! is no masterpiece. But it’s 10 times better than the godawful DEADPOOL (a movie made for 15-year-old boys of all ages, which explains why it’s so beloved on the Internet), or the even worse ZOOLANDER 2 (which Leonard Maltin says is the only movie he’s walked out on since he began reviewing movies).

Posted By Paolo : May 4, 2016 12:33 am

I really enjoyed it and its the kind of movie that will only get better with repeated viewings, every frame is a homage to a movie or star. I know the malibu beach house where Baird is held “captive” is supposedly based on a Frank Lloyd Wright house but does anyone recognise a movie that also features a similar place by the sea. The image is so familiar yet can’t quite put my finger on it.

Posted By robbushblog : May 4, 2016 1:25 am


Posted By Paolo : May 4, 2016 12:36 pm

@robbushblog no I don’t think it’s Kiss Me Deadly I am thinking of

Posted By Doug : May 4, 2016 10:24 pm

Sounds like this film would ‘fit in’ with “The Loved One” from the early 1960′s-at least, with the first part of the film which takes place in a movie studio.

Posted By Ben : June 19, 2016 1:27 pm

I think there are three “Kiss me Deadly” allusions.

1) the house by the sea are in both HC & KMD

2) the vacuuming scene in HC has the same audio as the watzit in KMD. The flashing of the light under the door is reminiscent of the light emanating watzit.

3) the Lockeheed Martin guy show s the picture of the H-bomb on Bikini.

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