One of the most exciting pieces of news for lovers of classic films in the past few years has been the recent appearance of a trailer for a new Coen Brothers film called Hail, Caesar!, to be released on February 4th. If the trailer is accurate, film fans will soon be treated to a highly entertaining story about backstage Hollywood, complete with references to such actual Golden Age Hollywood institutions as sword-and-sandal epics, aquatic star Esther Williams, and matinee idols with a passion for trouble. In anticipation of the happy day of the movie`s release, here is a list of eight other films about Hollywood and movie-making itself, movies made by studios at the height of the studio system, because self-knowledge, self-parody, self-loathing, and self-glorification have always gone hand in hand with moviemaking.
Jean Harlow plays a movie star bearing a great resemblance to herself in talent and starring vehicles, with Lee Tracy as her ever-active and unstoppably talkative agent. This comedy shows how firmly established the Hollywood stardom image was even in 1933, while also treating the viewer to some lovely comic moments, such as Franchot Tone’s absurd courtship of the star during her “retreat” from Hollywood (at a fashionable desert resort).
Joan Blondell and Leslie Howard may be an unlikely couple, but this charming little comedy proves that they are nonetheless a very good match. Howard plays a sheltered accountant who must help put a failing movie studio back on its feet, while Blondell is a former child star who gives him the benefit of her knowledge of the movie world in a kind of reverse Pygmalion-type plot. There’s a touch of Capra in the film’s development and resolution as well, and Humphrey Bogart in an unusual role while he was still at the beginning of his career.
On an Island with You (1947)
This semi-musical stars swimming star Esther Williams as a swimming movie star who is currently shooting a film on an island–clearly demonstrating that Hollywood was aware of its audience’s fascination with the whole process of film-making and stardom with its attendant glamor. Although the film makes comparatively little use of its intriguing premise (and presents what may be the most unintentionally comic image of an inept director ever committed to celluloid), the film bathes its viewer in Technicolor escapism and treats it to a few musical numbers with Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban, as well as the requisite swimming interludes for Williams.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Minnelli’s black and white epic of Hollywood glory, vice, failure, and success is always described by viewers as “highly entertaining,” and I’m not here to deny that. The key to a good Hollywood film (and one which the Coen brothers seem to have understood) is simple: the more stars, the better. And Minnelli delivers: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame, Barry Sullivan, and Walter Pidgeon all play Hollywood creatures, enmeshed in the glamor, loves, and hatreds of a small community with big projects and bigger personalities. The movie is even more of a delight because of its ample borrowings from real-life events; the character played by Lana Turner, for instance, is said to be partially modelled on Diana Barrymore, daughter of the great actor John Barrymore.
The Star (1952)
Bette Davis sinks her teeth in the delicious role of a faded movie star, the kind who parades her Oscar around town to remind herself and others of who she is, the kind who tries to break back into the movies. Sterling Hayden plays the level-headed new man in her life, while a young Natalie Wood is her daughter. Although little spoken of today, this movie is highly entertaining, especially since its star herself illustrated Hollywood success, eclipse, and return during her own life.
Singin` in the Rain (1952)
Probably the most famous movie on this list, Singin’ in the Rain is a light-hearted retelling of the advent of sound in film, after the long reign of silent film. It features one of the great comic roles of all time in Jean Hagen’s portrayal of the empty-headed screen siren Lina Lamont, and rumor has it that many of the incidents covered are based on actual events in early-talkie Hollywood. We are also given some of the film world’s most defining moments in Cyd Charisse’s memorable dances and Gene Kelly’s joyful defiance of a torrential downpour in the movie’s title song. (Someday something has to be written about Kelly’s ability to convey joy, pure unadulterated joie de vivre. Few actors–even Oscar-winning dramatic actors–ever looked so convincingly happy as Kelly does.)
The Big Knife (1955)
This movie is a real oddity–based on a play by Clifford Odets and shot in a far more artistic way than the majority of Hollywood film, it also has one of the darkest stories of the era, enacted by a large and distinguished cast which includes Rod Steiger, Jean Hagen, Ida Lupino, and Shelley Winters. Jack Palance plays a major movie star with a dark past and a momentous decision to make; the film is nightmarishly brutal, although the violence is mainly mental and emotional rather than physical. It’s an unforgettable film in a strange kind of way, but not what you want to watch after a stressful day, unless you want to wallow happily in the troubles of the famous and miserable.
Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
A kind of unofficial sequel to Minelli`s earlier success The Bad and the Beautiful, this film boasts an intriguing look, with a well-planned color palette and some memorable photography. Yet it also manages to make a very sensational plot, brimming with trashy melodrama, play out in an utterly anemic fashion. If you think you can`t go wrong with an overripe plot, watch this film to find out how far from the truth that is. While there are some bizarre sequences (especially the “party“ scene near the end), they are all enacted with a strange detachment that prevents the viewer from taking anything or anyone at all seriously. Additionally, the film contains what must be Cyd Charisse`s worst performance (she looks beautiful as she gives it), although Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, and the rest of the cast give her a juicy run for her money. It`s actually great fun to watch if one is prepared for it–and at its best it foreshadows scenes and aspects of Fellini`s 8 and 1/2.
What other Hollywood-on-Hollywood films should be in this list? Please feel free to add your choices in the comments below.