Posted by Susan Doll on February 8, 2016
I 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.
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