I was happily watching Fred and Ginger trip the light fantastic while the Academy Awards were on but I checked my Twitter feed after the movie was over and realized that there had been some sort of kerfuffle over the Best Picture award. Viewing the Oscar confusion, it occurred to me that all the pious lectures which were no doubt delivered by various winners would be forgotten in the wake of this debacle. My reaction?
As you may be aware, I'm in the habit of having a movie night on Sunday evenings. As you may also be aware, I cordially dislike award shows and so saw no reason to change my plans simply because the Academy Awards were on. I therefore got together with a few like-minded individuals and we watched the 1937 Astaire and Rogers film Shall We Dance. It had been quite a few years since I'd seen it, and I'd forgotten just how much fun it is. Fred And Ginger are great of course, and so are members of the cast that surround them, such as Edward Horton and Eric Blore. And then there's the amazing songs by George and Ira Gershwin, like "Slap That Bass," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "They All Laughed," and "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off." "They Can't Take That Away From Me" was nominated for Best Song at the 1938 Academy Awards, but was beaten by "Sweet Leilani" which, frankly, was a bad decision. "Sweet Leilani" is a fine song, but it's no "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Shall We Dance also contains the wonderful scene of Astaire and Rogers doing a dance routine in the park while wearing roller skates. I went roller skating last autumn for the first time since I was a kid, and I was grateful to survive the experience without a fall just skating on a flat roadway. I can't imagine how hard it would be to keep your footing, tap dancing while on roller skates.
All in all, it's a fun and feel-good movie, and a lovely way to spend an evening.
The Nose is a three part short story written by Nikolai Gogol in 1836. In the first part, a St. Petersburg barber named Ivan Yakovlevitch and his wife are eating breakfast. The baker is shocked to find, baked into one of his wife's bread rolls, a nose. His wife, who is extremely crabby, angrily accuses him of being drunk and cutting the nose off one of his customers while he was shaving them. Ivan recognizes the nose as belonging to one of his customers: Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. His wife tells him that she doesn't want a nose hanging about her house and demands that he get rid of it, and threatens to tell the police about it. Ivan is bewildered as to how his customer's nose got into his wife's bread, and is deathly afraid of the police showing up to question him about it. He wraps the nose in a cloth and leaves the house, hoping to find somewhere to get rid of it. Unfortunately, every time he attempts to drop it on the street, he meets up with someone he knows; when he does finally manage to "lose" the wrapped object, a police officer sees it and demands he pick up his trash. Ivan eventually makes his way to St. Isaac's Bridge and, leaning over pretending to look at the fish, drops the package into the water. As he leaves the bridge, Ivan runs into another policeman who suspiciously asks him what he was up to. He attempts to convince the officer that he was checking the strength of the current but the officer doesn't believe him. Part I ends without telling us how this is resolved.
Part II starts out at the home of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. He wakes up in the morning and when he looks in the mirror he is alarmed to discover that his nose has disappeared from his face. This is especially traumatic for Kovalyov because he is extremely vain and self-important (he styles himself as Major Kovalyov, though he doesn't actually have a military rank). The loss of his nose, in addition to any other concerns, makes him look- and feel- ridiculous. He hurriedly gets dressed and goes to see the Head of Police. He attempts to keep his face hidden as he travels along the street.
Suddenly Kovalyov is shocked to see his nose coming out of a house dressed in a military uniform and plumed hat. His nose jumps into a carriage and rides away, with Kovalyov in hot pursuit. He follows the carriage to Kazan Cathedral and enters the church in search of his nose and sees the uniformed figure standing near a wall, apparently praying. Kovalyov is uncertain how he should approach his nose, as it now appears to be a high ranking officer- perhaps a state councilor. He gathers his courage and hesitantly interrupts the nose, who turns and asks him what he wants. Kovalyov tells the uniformed nose that he is an important person with high connections and that it's simply not done for people of his social position to go about nose-less. The nose appears not to understand what he's talking about, so Kovalyov is forced to be more blunt and claim ownership of his nose. His nose says that Kovalyov is mistaken; he is a person in his own right and in any case, he has nothing in common with Kovalyov whom he can see from his uniform is in a different government department. The nose then turns away and goes back to his prayers.
Kovalyov doesn't know what to do, and is suddenly distracted by the sight of a pretty girl, accompanied by an elderly lady and a footman, passing by him. Kovalyov, who fancies himself a ladies' man, prepares to turn on the charm and flirt with the girl, then suddenly recoils, remembering that he has no nose on his face. Humiliated and angry, he turns back to denounce his nose as a fraud and scoundrel only to find that the nose has slipped out. Kovalyov hurries out of the cathedral, craning his neck to try to see his nose, but there are so many carriages and people on the avenue, he can't catch a glimpse of it. Who he does see are several important officials with whom he's acquainted. Not wanting them to see him nose-less, Kovalyov hails a cab and orders the driver to take him to the Chief of Police. Entering the Hall, he asks to see the Police Commissionaire but is told the Commissionaire left a few minutes before.
Frustrated, Kovalyov climbs back into the cab and ponders what to do. He begins to fear that his nose may try to leave the city, making it almost impossible to find. He decides to place an ad in the newspaper, containing a description of his nose and requesting anyone seeing it to turn it in. He orders the driver to take him to the newspaper office as quickly as possible. Once there, he tries to order his ad with the newspaper's clerk while keeping his face covered with his handkerchief and declining to give his name. He angrily explains to the clerk that his nose is travelling about town, calling itself a state councilor. He wants it caught and brought back where it belongs. The clerk tells Kovalyov that he can't print an ad like that in the paper; too many false stories already escape editorial and end up causing libel suits. The clerk refuses to take Kovalyov seriously until he, in exasperation, shows him his face. Finally believing him, the clerk still says that he can't help him and advises seeing a doctor. Kovalyov angrily leaves the newspaper office and goes in search of the Inspector of Police.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hail, Caesar! didn't do so well at the box office when it was released. There was a lot of criticism, as I recall, about its plot being all over the place. While I'm not sure that this is really fair- I didn't have any trouble following the narrative- it's true that the plot sort of meanders along, seeming to exist mainly to set up and tie together the various vignettes which make up the movie. Even so, I enjoyed every scene even when they didn't service the plot in any measurable way. For example, in one scene, Frances McDormand's character gets her scarf caught in the projector, nearly chokes to death before being released by Eddie, and then calmly goes right back to work without missing a beat. As far as the plot is concerned, this is completely unnecessary, but it's also completely fun. I guess my biggest criticism is that the film introduces all of these great characters- like Hobie- and then we don't get to spend much time with them; sometimes we only see them once. I think this film would have worked well as a miniseries, or even an entire series, which would have allowed for more character development and more complete and satisfying story lines.
One thing which I really enjoy about Hail, Caesar! is its quirky humour. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the film consistently made me laugh at its sometimes silly and sometimes sly humour. In addition, I enjoyed watching a movie set in old time Hollywood, as most of the films I watch are from the late 30's to early 50's. It's familiar and comfortable territory for me, even when it's being mocked.
Speaking of mockery, another thing I like about this film is that it doesn't treat the Hollywood crowd as martyrs because of blacklisting in the '50's. The denizens of tinseltown have a tendency to be extremely self-reverential, especially about the era of McCarthyism. Which is a bit ridiculous in this day and age, since most people in the industry now never experienced blacklisting. Also, they generally overlook the inconvenient fact that, as I mentioned before, there actually was an extremely active communist community in Hollywood. I really enjoy the fact that the Coen brothers not only don't follow the accepted narrative on this, they also depict the movie industry's communists and communist sympathizers as either hypocritical ideologues or pathetic dupes.
Baird Whitlock is an example of the type of clueless celebrity which this sort of thing appeals to; a massive ego combined with a lack of critical thinking makes him susceptible to the blandishments of his communist kidnappers. When the commies first suggest to Whitlock that the studio has been taking advantage of him, he says that he's always been treated really well at Capitol. After listening to their rhetoric, however, Baird is easily convinced that he is a victim who has been cheated out of his just rewards by his employers. Although the story he relates about being taken advantage of by the industry elites is laugh-out-loud funny: a tale of being forced to shave Danny Kaye's back.
It's extremely satisfying when, as the newly converted Whitlock spreads the communist gospel and badmouths the studio, Eddie Mannix grabs him by the shirt- or toga- front and smacks him across the face a couple of times. Shocked out of his smugness, Baird gapes at Mannix as the fixer basically tells him to shut up and get back to the one thing he's marginally good at- acting. As the Academy Awards approach, it would be nice if a few more actors would ponder this good advice.
The Coens have made a film which both celebrates the movie making industry and satirizes its self-importance. The scene at the end of Hail, Caesar! is an apt example of this. Baird Whitlock, having obeyed Mannix, is filming the final scene which features a moving oration by his character. It's a stirring speech which moves even the jaded film workers to tears until the scene is undermined by Baird flubbing his lines and ruining the take. Just as you're starting to take Whitlock seriously for the first time, the Coens remind you that, however good he is at mouthing words written for him, he's essentially a ridiculous character. I think that the they, like their character Eddie Mannix, recognize all the corruption, hypocrisy, and general weirdness of the movie business and yet still love it. So those are my thoughts on Hail, Caesar! I really had a good time watching it; it's eccentric and funny and also has a few honest observations to make about the film industry, though in a humorous way. It's definitely one I'll watch again.
I know that it's President's Day in the States, and in a lot of Canada the third Monday in February has for a long time been a holiday, called Family Day in many provinces. Nova Scotia, however, never had a holiday in February until two years ago when our province decided to join the club and make this Monday a day off, calling it Heritage Day. I spent the day with a couple sisters, borrowed two nephews and a niece, and hit a few of the local museums. First stop: the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum.
Next stop: lunch.
Off to the Museum of Natural History:
Visited Gus, the resident 95 year old turtle... he can often be found walking about the museum floor, but today would not budge from under his heat lamp.
The museum currently has a "dragon" exhibit with a lot of lizards, etc.:
One last stop: the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
Me: "Look at these amazing ship models!" Kids: "Guns!!"
Hail, Caesar! takes place in the glamorous, dysfunctional world of a 1950's movie studio. Some of the characters and incidents are so outlandish and wacky that one would be tempted to assume the Coen brothers had let their imaginations run wild. As it turns out, however, you don't have to search too far to find real life counterparts to the characters and situations in the film. To begin with, let's have a look at the main characters, starting with Eddie Mannix. It turns out that there was an actual fixer in Hollywood named Eddie Mannix. He worked for MGM and was responsible for cleaning up scandals for many of their stars so that they could maintain their squeaky-clean images. The Coens actually made Mannix a lot nicer than the real one; movie Mannix is a family man and devout Catholic. The real Mannix led a dissolute life and was suspected of having something to do with his first wife's death in a car accident.
Hobie Doyle is a singing cowboy star not unlike a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry:
Burt Gurney, the singing/ dancing communist traitor was obviously modeled on Gene Kelly, except for the commie part... or was it? Hmm...
DeeAnna Moran is a swimming star like the real life competitive swimmer turned actress, Esther Williams:
Carlotta Valdez is very similar to Carmen Miranda:
And, of course, Baird Whitlock, star of Hail, Caesar! a sword and sandal film after the style of Ben Hur or Spartacus, is a caricature of a Chartlton Heston or Kirk Douglas.
Even Frances McDormand's very small part as unflappable film editor C.C. Calhoun is based on a real person- MGM editor Margaret Booth.
One might be tempted to think that the convoluted plan that Mannix comes up with to allow DeeAnna Moran to keep her baby without social disapprobation is too fantastic to be based in fact... not so. While filming the 1935 film Call Of The Wild, actress Loretta Young had an affair with her costar Clark Gable. Finding herself pregnant, Young disappeared from Hollywood, had the baby and then eventually returned with her "adopted" daughter. She only admitted the truth a short time before her death in 2000, though most people suspected it already.
Another facet of the movie which is based in fact is the existence of an enthusiastic- if dimwitted- communist cell in 1950's Hollywood. Nowadays, all we hear about from that time period is McCarthyism which I think we can all agree was a bad idea. That doesn't change the fact, however, that there were a lot of writers and actors who were inexplicably enamored with communism and the USSR. Philip Dunne, a Hollywood writer of the time period (How Green Was My Valley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, etc.), spoke out against blacklisting, but was also vehemently anti-communist. In his autobiography, he related how fashionable it became for the elites in Hollywood to embrace the tenets of communism: "All over the town the industrious communist tail wagged the lazy liberal dog." So while we can laugh at the complete lack of self-awareness of the champagne-swilling commies in Hail, Caesar!, their portrayal isn't too far off the mark. These are a lot of the character types and situations which the Coens lifted from real life: no doubt there are more which I've forgotten or overlooked. In any case, In my final post on the film, I'll discuss why I enjoyed it so much.
Since communism is the plot motivator in Hail, Caesar and since so many these days seem to be eager to embrace this evil political system- or its kissing cousin, socialism- I thought I'd write a few words about it. I'm not going to go into its grim history of misery, starvation and murder but instead relate a brief passage I once read in a book. It was years ago when I was a young teen, and I don't remember anything else from the book, not even its title, but this one thing from it has always stuck with me... A man is asked what the difference is between an American and a Frenchman. He thinks for a minute and then replies that an American sees a rich man ride along the street in a fancy carriage and dreams of the day when he, too, will be able to ride around in style. A Frenchman sees a rich man ride by in a carriage and dreams of the day when that rich man will be forced to get out and walk like everyone else. This is, in a nutshell, the difference between capitalism and socialism or communism: one system affords everyone the opportunity to improve their lot, and one drags everybody down. Enough said.