Take Five: Films About Films

Carrying on with my series where I pick five films which have some kind of loose thematic connection – not necessarily the best or even my favourites, but five which interest me. Anyway, films about films seem to be my theme of the moment, as I’ve recently written postings about The Artist and My Week with Marilyn. So here are another five self-regarding movies. Be warned, there are spoilers in my first choice for anyone who doesn’t know what happens in the various versions of A Star Is Born.

Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman

What Price Hollywood (1932): This melodrama directed by George Cukor was the first version of the A Star Is Born story (as far as I know, anyway). It gives a very bitter picture of a Hollywood which chews people up and casts them aside. Lowell Sherman is absolutely stunning as the washed-up drunken film director Max Carey, dominating the film and drawing on his own real-life drink problem. Constance Bennett is also excellent as ambitious waitress turned rising star Mary Evans, but her romance with millionaire Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) doesn’t really ring true and is a weak spot in a powerful film. I also love William A Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), which is very much a reworking of the same story, with great performances by Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and the George Cukor remake, with Judy Garland and James Mason – just a shame that the complete version of that one is lost. But, anyway, Cukor’s pre-Code version has a witty toughness all of its own. And the suicide scene is unforgettable, focusing on the agony of the man whose life is over, and not seen as some kind of noble gesture to the rising star he loves, as in the remakes.

Something to Sing About (1937): James Cagney made this musical at Poverty Row studio Grand National after leaving Warner Brothers. Sadly, although it got pretty good reviews, it proved too expensive and lavish for the studio to bear, and led to its collapse, meaning Cagney was soon forced back to Warner. But, in the meantime, this comedy is something of a hate letter to Hollywood, satirising many of the things he resented about the studios. He plays a dancer and musician who is wooed by a major studio but finds he is expected to change his whole personality and keep quiet about the fact that he is married – even entering on a bogus romance with a co-star in the interests of publicity. There is also criticism of racism in Hollywood, as a Japanese-American budding actor finds himself forced to be a servant in the studio and speak with a put-on Japanese accent. Unfortunately, I don’t think Cagney’s screen wife in this, Evelyn Daw, has much star quality and her singing voice is unbearably shrill. But, all the same, the film has a lot going for it, and there is a memorable scene where Cagney gives Daw a quick acting lesson, showing her how he widens his eyes on camera to give a feeling of shock and surprise. You can see him delighting in his own power, although I’m glad he doesn’t give away too many professional tricks.  Cagney also starred in at least three  more “films about films”, patchy pre-Code Lady Killer (1933), where he plays a gangster turned actor, madcap comedy Boy Meets Girl (1938), where he and Pat O’Brien go over the top as a pair of lazy screenwriters, and the great biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), one of the many films I want to write a full review of some day, where Cagney is devastating as Lon Chaney and gives a glimpse of what he would have been like as a silent actor himself.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place (1950): Humphrey Bogart is at his greatest in Nicholas Ray’s compelling film noir, as a hard-drinking, troubled and violent screenwriter who might or might not be a murderer. This is primarily a crime mystery and a dark love story rather than a film about Hollywood, but the setting is important all the same. You definitely get a feeling of how hard it is to stay in the game, and how easy it would be for Bogart’s character to be thrown on the scrapheap and not make any more films. Bogart also made another great film about films, The Barefoot Contessa with Ava Gardner, though I feel that movie comes unstuck near the end when it forgets about satirising Hollywood and lurches into an unlikely murder mystery plot.

Play It Again, Sam (1972): Talking of Bogart, I only recently saw this Woody Allen comedy where Allen pays homage to Casablanca, wryly reworking the plot and even introducing Bogart as a character, who treats Allen to various outrageous hard-boiled diatribes on how to treat “dames”. To be honest, the scenes with Jerry Lacy as Bogie aren’t my favourite parts of this movie – the scenes with Allen and Diane Keaton  neurotically messing things up for themselves without his help are even funnier, and show the way forward to Annie Hall. But anyway, for anyone who likes Bogart, Allen or both, it isn’t to be missed! Allen has made quite a few films about films over the years, from Stardust Memories and The Purple Rose of Cairo to Hollywood Ending – and he often pays tribute to other movies and directors in his other films, too.

Cinema Paradiso (1988): Nearly everyone loves this film, and so do I. It might be sentimental at times, but it certainly shows how cinema casts its spell over a young boy who goes on to dedicate his life to it, moving from being taught the tricks of a dying trade by an ageing projectionist to becoming a director himself. And I love the reel at the end where all the kisses removed by the projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), together with the disapproving local priest, are triumphantly restored.

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22 thoughts on “Take Five: Films About Films

  1. These are some of my favorite films. And what a good representation of your chosen theme throughout several decades. There is one there I haven’t seen, but have had on my “must watch” list, is SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT. You’ve just reminded me I need to do this!

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    • Thank you, Robby – it’s fun putting these theme postings together. I hope you enjoy ‘Something to Sing About’ – it isn’t a masterpiece but Cagney does have a lot of fun in it!

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  2. I’m actually very fond of The Barefoot Contessa, flaws and all; there’s a great melancholy air about it.

    Hollywood seems to love holding a mirror up to itself though, doesn’t it? Yet the image cast is rarely a flattering one. The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Knife, Sunset Boulevard etc. all reveal a shallow and treacherous world. It makes for compulsive viewing though.

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    • I really like ‘the Barefoot Contessa’ too, although I did find the ending disappointing compared with the rest of it – agree with you about the melancholy air, and both Bogart and Gardner have great roles. I also agree that there don’t seem to be many flattering images of Hollywood in movies – “shallow and treacherous” seems a perfect description. Thanks also for citing those titles, Colin.

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  3. Compelling article, Judy. I like the way you described “Something to Sing About” as a hate letter to H’wood. That struck me as funny but accurate.

    Colin already mentioned “Sunset Boulevard.” It came to my mind immediately as I began to read your post. Another title which came to my mind is “Bombshell.” It’s filled with biting sarcasm (it highlights H’wood as a place filled with parasites, personal sadness and optical illusions) and is another reminder that now and again H’wood indulges in a bit of self ridicule. Lee Tracy’s adenoidally challenged voice and Jean Harlow’s hotsy-totsiness help the medicine go down.

    The inclusion of “In a Lonely Place” was interesting. I like that you included it.

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    • I’m now wondering why ‘Bombshell’ didn’t occur to me to include, as I only watched it in the last fortnight or so! Must agree with you that it is full of biting sarcasm about Hollywood and you have given a great summary of it here. To be honest I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped, though, partly because I couldn’t warm to Lee Tracy’s press agent character in this even though I do like him a lot in other films – he exploits Harlow so much that I was really hoping she wouldn’t end up with him! I also felt sad that her bid to adopt the baby goes wrong. Thanks very much for this, CagneyFan.

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  4. Judy—

    I just watched Tornatore’s CINEMA PARADISO on the 70 foot screen of the resurrected Jersey City Loews movie palace with Lucille and my three boys. I must confess to a decades-long obsession with the film (yes I am a sentimental Italian-American) and have seen it no less than seven times on the big screen including three in 1989 when it opened stateside, and where I eventually named it the best film of the year, narrowly edging Branagh’s HENRY V. In a 1980’s poll conducted at WitD two years ago, the film finished second, but just two points behind RAGING BULL. So it’s popularity continues, with new converts every time the film is screened in festivals. It’s emotionally irresistible, and it’s rather a definitive vehicle for the big change of a way of life. The final reel with the kisses is wonderful as is the tear-jerking sequence when the grown up Toto visits the cobwebs and memories in the soon-to-be-razed theatre. Probably the biggest reason why the film makes so many people cry is because of the exceedingly poignant and lyrical score by the great Ennio Morricone. We were thrilled to see the rarely-screened three-hour director’s cut last week.

    I can well see the vital connections there between WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? and both versions of A STAR IS BORN. I must say I’ve always preferred the Wellman. IN A LONELY PLACE is an American masterwork. I also like Woody’s PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, but never did see that Cagney musical.

    This is a great project, with a buffo opening salvo, Judy!

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    • It must have been great to see ‘Cinema Paradiso’ on the big screen, Sam. I’ve only seen it on DVD and I believe this was the standard version rather than the director’s cut, but it made a strong impression, anyway, and I agree that visit to the theatre by the grown-up Toto is powerful. Glad to hear you also like the other movies I’ve picked out here – the Cagney musical is fairly minor but still very enjoyable and he certainly has his say about Hollywood in it. Thanks very much for the kind words.

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  5. Judy, a thoughtful selection of movies about movies, including a couple I haven’t seen. Those who left comments also made some good suggestions. One on the same subject, but with a satirical slant, I saw recently that I’d recommend is “Stand-In” (1937), with Leslie Howard as a NY banker sent to straighten out a Hollywood studio. Joan Blondell is delightful, one of her best performances ever, as a stand-in who shows him the ropes, and Humphrey Bogart is quite good in an atypical role as a producer at the studio.

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    • Thanks very much for that suggestion, R.D. Interesting to hear that Howard and Bogart worked together in ‘Stand-In’, as I know they were great friends – and I also like Joan Blondell a lot. This sounds like a must, and it would be good to see Bogart playing something other than a heavy around this period. I will hope to see this one soon.

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  6. Hi Judy – Great selection here. Have not seem the Cagney film (but wow I need too now!) but I love the four others in the group. I like the fact you took films that take a look at the movies from such different perspectives, the filmmakers, the critics and the film lovers. I actually have been thinking about doing an occasional series on films about films myself, but I still don’t know whether it will come to be or not to be. (where did I hear that last phrase before?). Right now, I have only gotten as far as starting to put a list of films together that I would consider.

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    • Thanks, John – I’ll look forward to that series on films about films if it does come to be! There are quite a lot to consider on that theme.

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  7. An FYI to anyone looking for Something To Sing About – it’s easily available at the Internet Archive. Cagney’s other Grand National film, Great Guy, is also there.

    Judy, Stand-In is worth a look, as are other of Tay Garnett’s films. I saw a couple of his precodes, Her Man and Prestige, and both are surprising in both good ways and bad (Her Man is quite a raw precode, Prestige is notably racist).

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    • Thanks for the info about the Internet Archive – there are also quite a lot of different public domain DVDs of both those titles, and I notice on the US Amazon there is a release of ‘Great Guy’ which is said to be remastered, though I don’t know how good the quality is. Thanks also for the thoughts on the Tay Garnett films. I’ll hope to try Stand-In first and bear the others in mind too.

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  8. As far as Lee Tracy in Bombshell, I wasn’t so bothered since exploitation was his job, with a side-order of jealousy thrown in. It’s also one of Metro’s precode films that isn’t too staid. Too much of MGM precode skews towards stuff like Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer arching their eyebrows at each other, which is not my idea of fun.

    I also forgot one other studio comedy, Once In A Lifetime, which has some good performances although the film is often over the top silly. Not an easy one to find, though.

    I like Great Guy even if I can tell it’s pretty derivative. James Burke’s affected accent sounds like he Frenched the Blarney Stone, and the film is pretty good fun. I don’t know if there’s actually a good print of it floating around, maybe the “remastered” bit means “it’s not as lousy as other PD copies”.

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    • I like ‘Great Guy’ too, though I’ve only seen it in bad prints. It would be interesting to know what that remastered print is like – suspect you might be right, though. Thanks for mentioning ‘Once In a Lifetime’ -I can see it has a superb cast, and will look out for it.

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  9. Pingback: Declaration of War, The Grey, Show People(1928), A Man Escaped and Beauty and the Beast in 3D on Monday Morning Diary (January 30) « Wonders in the Dark

  10. Nice post, Judy. In a Lonely Place is one of my favorite films and one of the greatest films to ever emerge from Hollywood. It’s one of Bogie’s best performances, too, tipping over into such ambiguous darkness that one isn’t sure quite how deep it extends into him until the very end.

    Sunset Blvd is another of the great movies about movies, and in a very different way so is Mulholland Dr., which draws on all those old Hollywood-on-Hollywood flicks and expands on them.

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    • ‘Ambiguous darkness’ is a great description of Bogart in ‘In A Lonely Place’, Ed, and I agree it is one of his best performances. I really like the title and the way it refers not just to Hollywood, but to the place he is at in his life.

      Thanks very much for commenting, and for the suggestions – I clearly need to see ‘Sunset Boulevard’ as soon as possible, and ‘Mulholland Drive’ is another movie I’ve been meaning to get to for ages.

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  11. Also, I forgot one more, Make Me A Star. It’s supposed to be taken from the play and book Merton Of The Movies, a comedy, but the film’s not meant to be funny a lot of the time (it’s almost scathing here and there), and it has Joan Blondell who’s always worth seeing. It’s available as an extra on the MGM Merton Of The Movies DVD. The later MGM Merton is less pointed and more comic, as you might guess by it starring Red Skelton.

    I never mentioned the Keaton comedy Free And Easy, but I know nobody who likes it, even me.

    I know what you mean re: Great Guy – I own a pretty bad disk myself. I may buy a “remastered” version to find out, since I got a “remastered” Universal Sherlock Holmes box set and they were much better than others PD disks floating around. Considering how good a print Something To Sing About has, someone should have a better print of Great Guy out there.

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    • Yes, ‘Something to Sing About’ is a very good quality print despite being in public domain – if you do get that remastered ‘Great Guy’, I’ll be interested to hear what you think. Thanks for the other suggestions – and I agree on Blondell always being worth watching. She adds a lot of quality to any movie she is in.

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  12. One of my absolute favorites is The Bad and the Beautiful starring Kirk Douglass, Lana Turner, Barry Sullivan & Dick Powell, directed by Vincente Minnelli. From cine-vue.com:
    ” Rarely seen but frequently referenced in film studies lecture rooms, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a twisted tale of the rise and fall of Kirk Douglas’ ruthless Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields and one of the greatest ‘movies about movies’ to ever come out of Hollywood.”
    This movie is excellent. All the actors are top notch.Please seek it out- you won’t regret it.

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