Hail, Caesar! and Old Hollywood
I went to see Hail, Caesar! a few days ago—I felt as though I had to! After all, according to the previews there was an Esther Williams-type star, and the whole thing is set in Hollywood in the 1950s. Count me in.
Hail, Caesar! is the latest offering of the Coen brothers, the guys behind Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and True Grit (2010), among many others. In this film, they turn their typically sideways gaze on Hollywood, and although it’s more farce than straight, the movie doesn’t mock Old Hollywood as much as I thought it would.
Indeed, I was prepared to be outraged, or at least disappointed in the way that Hollywood and its movies were portrayed. I was afraid that my classic movie sensibilities would be irrevocably wounded by a mean modern movie. But they weren’t! I thought that this film was a loving though goofy homage to 1950s Hollywood.
It reminded me a little of Sullivan’s Travels (1942). Both films are about movie-making and protagonists who wonder if they should be doing “more” besides just making profitable films. The movies conclude that even though Hollywood can be silly and movies can be sillier, they are still important and valuable. Even if the goal is “just” entertainment, it’s still worthwhile.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that the Coen brothers took inspiration from Sullivan’s Travels. The name of their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? came from the serious movie that Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wanted to make in that film. (With a little sex in it, of course.)
Hail, Caesar!’s trailers focus on the kidnapping of George Clooney’s character, but that’s just one subplot of this cheeky comedy. The movie is essentially 27 hours in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of Physical Production at a studio named Capitol Pictures in the 1950s, a stand-in for MGM.
The movie starts and ends with Catholic Eddie in a confessional. His sins? He’s having a harder time giving up smoking (at the request of his wife) than he thought he would, so he keeps sneaking cigs and lying about it. But there is a lot more going on in his life than that.
In fact, the priest would likely be horrified to learn about Mannix’s daily machinations at the studio. We see him dart around LA keeping scandals out of the gossip columns, casting pictures, meeting with religious leaders to discuss the studio’s upcoming Biblical epic, keeping the cameras running on various productions, arranging a marriage for a pregnant, unwed actress, and trying to track down a kidnapped star.
As Mannix goes about his business keeping the studio out of trouble, we get an inside look at what goes on at Capitol Pictures. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this movie is packed with references to real Hollywood and real stars. I’m not sure how enjoyable a non-classic movie nerd would find this movie, but it was a lot of fun for me! So here are some of the real people, organizations, and scandals the film references, as well as some of the elements that I particularly geeked out over.
Mannix is obviously modeled on famed “fixer” Joseph “Eddie” Mannix who helped MGM avoid scandals. But the movie’s version isn’t as thuggish as Mannix, and also seems to share some traits with Louis B. Mayer, who was a highly moral man but had no problem ordering “immoral” or even illegal actions to keep his stars and his studio out of trouble. Mannix even has a highly competent secretary along the lines of Mayer’s formidable Ida Koverman.
The film takes its title from a movie-within-the movie that Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is starring in, entitled Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. It’s a clear knockoff of the Biblical epics churned out in the 1950s such as Ben-Hur (1959), The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Quo Vadis (1951). The movie even captures those films’ gaudy, Technicolor palettes and how clean and glamorous everyone looks.
The visual style of this era is similarly captured in a scene we watch from a western starring a singing cowboy star named Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich). It’s a night scene, but the moonlight is absurdly bright, as it always seems to be in old movies!
In one scene, Mannix mentions the Legion of Catholic Decency and then meets with a collection of leaders from various religions to discuss Hail, Caesar! to ensure it doesn’t offend them. He’s trying to stave off controversy and boycotts before they happen. That was a very real concern—read my History Through Hollywood: Vice for more on that and the Production Code that was put in place for that very reason.
Hail, Caesar! also nails the look of the glamorous drawing room comedies and their big white sets with amazing deco/neoclassical/baroque furnishings. We see the cowboy actor Hobie shooting a scene from one such film, and he struggles with the enormous doorknobs in the center of swooping, white doors that you’ll see in lots of movies from the 1930s-50s.
The room looks like it came out of the The Palm Beach Story (1942), which made me chuckle because the western star who is dropped into this sophisticated comedy of manners reminded me of Joel McCrea, though McCrea handled such switches from the ranch to the mansion much more smoothly than Hobie does.
Of course, I paid particular attention to the water ballet scene starring Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, a clear Esther Williams stand-in. It was mostly an homage instead of a spoof, which I appreciated. Usually, modern discussions of Williams’ water extravaganzas are condescending and snarky, with this question: “Why in the world did people in the 1940s and ‘50s like this stuff?” hanging over like a bad smell.
But Hail, Caesar! doesn’t go that route. The red and yellow water ballet comes straight from the red and yellow water ballet in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), complete with Busby Berkeley-style choreography.
Johansson rises from the water (in reverse, filmed going below so that when played backwards she emerges, magically dry!) on a platform, and stands high above the surface before diving into the middle of kaleidoscopically arranged swimmers, all of which comes straight from the water ballets in Million Dollar Mermaid. Hail, Caesar! adds a mechanical whale that looks like a CGI addition (strange and distracting, in my opinion), but otherwise the scene is pretty close to actual water ballets from the 1950s.
But this modern take on MGM’s water extravaganzas struck me as static and dull compared to the real thing. The sequences in the 1950s were full of movement by the swimmers and packed with pyrotechnics, colored smoke, fountains, dancers performing along the water’s edge, and extended swimming scenes. But the water ballet in Hail, Caesar! is mostly concerned with the overhead shots of the chorus as they arrange themselves into elaborate, but stationary, shapes. Also, Johansson spends barely any time underwater or actually doing anything besides smiling broadly for the camera.
The original water ballets were far more dynamic and Williams performed challenging choreography and stunts underwater and on the surface. (And she never wore a mermaid tale as Johansson does.) But Williams was a national champion swimmer utterly at home in the pool, so perhaps it’s unfair to compare her to Johansson. But it was a little disappointing.
Channing Tatum’s dance number was more enjoyable, and absolutely packed with references. The strongest association of his character is with Gene Kelly, as they share an athletic, muscular build, and Tatum appears in Kelly’s favorite costume, a sailor suit. With the obligatory tight pants.
Plus, the set is a near replica of the bar where Vera-Ellen and Kelly danced in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in Words and Music (1948), and at one point Tatum and two other sailors dance on and by the bar in a version of the “Good Morning” choreography from Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Tatum’s number, “No Dames,” is performed entirely by a male cast of sailors about to ship out, so it brings Kelly’s dances with Frank Sinatra and dozens of other sailors in Anchors Aweigh and On the Town to mind. But in this number, the homosexual undertones are brought fully to the surface—it’s quite funny.
Although Kelly is the main inspiration, and Tatum peppers his performance with Kelly’s signature grin straight to the camera, at one point Tatum removes his sailor hat to reveal a Fred Astaire toupee underneath! He also dances with a broom, referencing Astaire’s frequent dances with inanimate objects.
He also crunches some peanuts beneath his feet and tap dances on the sonorous shells, which recalls Astaire’s memorable sand dance in The Belle of New York, and Kelly’s famous newspaper and creaky board routine in Summer Stock.
Towards the end of the dance, Tatum climbs a ladder behind the bar and does the Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face slide! There are probably other references I missed, but I had a great time geeking out over this number. (Can you tell?)
Besides Astaire and Kelly, I also got an Errol Flynn vibe from some of Tatum’s over-the-top romantic hero poses and stunts in later scenes. Of all of the stars in this film, Channing Tatum might be the closest to his character in this movie (minus the later submarine business, of course), another Gene Kelly had he been born sixty years earlier.
Fortunately, Scarlett Johansson’s character is not just a mermaid who doesn’t swim very much. She’s also a fun composite of Lana Turner and Loretta Young (and Barbara LaMarr, a star in the 1920s).
She has the look of Lana Turner with her super-blonde curls and busty figure, and we learn that she has been married twice, once to a guy in the Mob, and once to a bandleader. Turner was in a relationship with Tommy Stompanato who had links to the Los Angeles Underworld (Turner’s daughter killed him—it got crazy), and she was married to bandleader Artie Shaw for a few months. She marries someone else during the course of this film after knowing him very briefly—another Turner trait.
The Loretta Young connection comes when Mannix and some of his employees concoct a plan to have Johansson’s character secretly give birth and then “adopt” her child, with the records sealed until 2015 (ha!).
Loretta Young had an affair with Clark Gable in 1935, hid her pregnancy and gave birth, then had the child dropped off at an orphanage who cooperated in the “adoption” by Young over a year later. The truth of the baby’s parentage was a rumor in Hollywood for years but was only verified recently. You can read more about it here. The real life Mannix apparently first used this adoption scheme for Barbara LaMarr in 1923, and then re-used it with Young.
Back to Hail, Caesar! There is an amusing subplot about Communist writers in the movie industry sneaking messages into films; it’s amusing because that’s exactly what the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings were worried about. The Communist “influence” on films was a big deal in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it was generally a highly overblown threat, so it’s funny to see Senator McCarthy’s biggest fear brought to life in this farce.
There are less involved Hollywood references, too. Tilda Swinton plays twin gossip reporters along the lines of Louella Parson and Hedda Hopper, who ruthlessly track down stories, and to whom Mannix feeds lies or substitute scandals. A female editor (Frances McDormand) is a lovely homage to the many women who worked as editors in the classical era (one of the few fields open to women behind the camera).
A Carmen Miranda-type actress named Carlotta Valdez (the ancestor in Vertigo!) goes on a studio-arranged date with Hobie (it was very common for studios to pair up stars for premieres and other events to keep them in the gossip columns), and the film references real stars like Clark Gable and Danny Kaye. It also mentions real scandals like Gable’s car crash (though those rumors have been proven to be false), and potentially career-ending accusations of homosexuality of various stars and personnel.
The beach house perched on the cliff reminds me of the houses in Mildred Pierce (1945) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and a character in Merrily We Dance (the drawing room comedy that borrows its title from Merrily We Live (1938)) wears a hat with draping that looks an awful lot like Claudette Colbert’s in The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Veronica Lake’s in This Gun for Hire (1942). (These are just evidence that the Coen Brothers and their production team did their homework, probably not actual homages.)
Finally, the head of the studio in New York is named Nick Skank, a version of MGM’s Nicholas Schenck, and in a fun visual reference, the movie switches back and forth from the old Academy ratio of 4:3 to the modern widescreen ratio when Mannix and others view dailies or the various movies within the movie.
Besides all the in-jokes and references, this is a typically oddball and darkly funny Coen film. Favorite moments included “Jesus” on the cross being asked if he is an “extra” or a “principal” to determine if he gets a boxed or a hot breakfast, and the editor’s scarf getting caught in the film spool as she shows Mannix the latest footage.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure how enjoyable this movie would be if you weren’t already at least a little interested in old Hollywood, but for someone like me it was a fun, nostalgic-with-a-twist time at the movies.
You can read more about Hail, Caesar! and its various inspirations here and here, and for more on Hollywood’s scandalous history, check out Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema by Anne Helen Petersen, or The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography by Esther Williams with Digby Diehl.