Saturday, March 19, 2016

Real and Unreal Old Hollywood: "Hail, Caesar!" (2016)

Hail, Caesar!, the latest comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?) offers a tongue-in-cheek bow to Hollywood circa 1951 through a series of escapades that take place during a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, production head and unofficial "fixer" for a major studio. It should surprise no one that the Coens have conjured a delectably stylized and madly screwball satire of this scenario.

Those familiar with Hollywood history know that there once really was an Eddie Mannix and that he was a studio exec/"fixer" at MGM (not the Coen's "Capitol Pictures"), the most powerful of all studios, for several decades. As General Manager and head of production, he was a right hand to studio chief, Louis B. Mayer, and it wasn't until 1958, after Mayer's ouster and death, that Mannix left MGM; he'd been in the picture business for 42 years by then.

Eddie Mannix
Mannix had earlier been a mob-friendly strong-arm for Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. He moved on and eventually served under Nick Schenck of Loew's, Inc., the man behind the merger that created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was Schenck who sent Mannix to California in 1924 as a comptroller. Once there he quickly advanced and became a key player in L.B. Mayer's innermost circle as General Manager and, in the late '40s, head of production. Throughout his years with the studio, he (along with head of publicity, Howard Strickling), also functioned as a "fixer" whose job it was to clean up after and sometimes cover up the misbehavior of MGM's most valuable stars. It is said that among the numberless scandals Mannix had a hand in "fixing" were those involving top names like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Gary Cooper. In his private life Mannix, like so many Hollywood VIPs of the era, had a reputation as a dedicated gambler and womanizer.

Eddie Mannix, Clark Gable and Howard Strickling

That's a quick peek into the life of the real Eddie Mannix but Hail, Caesar! is no biopic. The Coen's fantastical tour of tinseltown follows a devoted family man/practicing Catholic version of Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he careens from one scandal-in-the-making to another while trying to hold his studio together and decide whether or not to leave the movie business altogether and take a high-paying but staid exec job in the "civilian" sector with Lockheed.

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix

A collection of problematic oddballs contribute to Mannix's tortuous agenda: an oversexed "aquamusical" star (Scarlett Johansson) is unmarried and pregnant; the charismatic, hard-drinking leading man (George Clooney) on the studio's in-production biblical epic has mysteriously disappeared; a popular singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is badly miscast and struggling in the film adaptation of a sophisticated Broadway play; the emigre director (Ralph Fiennes) tasked with directing the cowboy is at his wits' end; an acting/dancing star (Channing Tatum) harbors a bizarre secret; and rival twin sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) threaten to reveal an unsavory old rumor in print. This assortment of divinely cast characters, along with Jess Gonchor's production design and Roger Deakins's cinematography, provide the sizzle and gloss to a very entertaining if sometimes unwieldy sendup.

Channing Tatum (center)

According to 13-time Oscar nominee Deakins, the Coen brothers decided to ignore the relentless digital revolution and shoot Hail, Caesar! on film because they felt the movie's content demanded it. Deakins had great fun filming footage of the Coen's fictional studio on the Warner Bros. back lot where, with the shooting area carefully blocked out and the aisles between stages cleared, he said, "it was pretty much as it would've been" back in the day.

Gonchor, production designer on six Coen films and Oscar-nominated for True Grit (2010), decided while doing his research to employ set construction methods used 60 years ago to recreate the Hollywood of that time. As a result, the majority of the film's sets were built by artisans and craftsmen of the old school: plasterers, scenic painters, sculptors and mold-makers. Relying on these traditional techniques and turning to the MGM archives for ideas, Gonchor crafted several sets of scrupulous period detail including the "Capitol Pictures" studio, a sleek mid-century beach house and a fashionable Hollywood nightclub.

snazzy Old Hollywood night spot set

Though only Eddie Mannix of those depicted in Hail, Caesar! bears the name of someone who actually lived and worked in early-'50s Hollywood, most of the supporting characters were based on or were composites of some of the town's famed denizens: Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney, is reminiscent of Kirk Douglas; Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is a nod to Gene Kelly; Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) echoes another Laurence - Mr. Olivier; DeeAnna Moran, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, seems a spoof on Esther Williams but the solution to her scandalous situation was taken from Loretta Young's real life; and Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) could be any B-movie singing cowboy from Gene Autry to Roy Rogers.

Tilda Swinton as Thora...or is it Thessaly?..Thacker

The Coen brothers' sly re-working of Hollywood legends and myths is clever enough, but it's their over-the-top twist on communists in the movie industry that reduces Hollywood history to surreal rubble.

Volga boatmen?


Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 2005)

Architectural Digest, "Take a Look Behind the Scenes of Hail, Caesar!" by Lisa Liebman, February 2016

Variety, "Roger Deakins on Hail, Caesar!, Old Hollywood, and Going Back to Celluloid" by Kristopher Tapley, January 2016

Saturday, March 12, 2016

SF Symphony 2015 -2016 Film Series Nears End; 2016 - 2017 Series Announced


The San Francisco Symphony's third annual Film Series will come to an end later this month with screenings of Steven Spielberg's 1981 classic, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, from March 23 through 26. The symphony will accompany, performing John Williams's Grammy winning score live. For more information, click here.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Reminiscing: "Now, Voyager"

Summer of '42 (1971)

A soft-focus nostalgia piece set during the early days of World War II, Summer of '42 was released in April 1971 and went on to become one of the surprise hits of that year. The story followed a 16-year-old boy's coming of age during a family vacation on Nantucket Island where he roamed the small village, sand dunes and shoreline, horsing around with his buddies, dating a girl his own age, and crushing on the lovely bride of a soldier just gone to war.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Local Night Life: Noir City at the Castro and the San Francisco Symphony's Film Series

The 2016 film noir season was officially launched with San Francisco's Noir City XIV, January 22 - 31, at the city's Castro Theatre. The 10-day festival, presented by the Film Noir Foundation, is traditionally the first in a series of Noir City events to follow in Hollywood, Austin, Portland (Oregon), Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In Remembrance: Leatrice Joy Gilbert Fountain, 1924 - 2015

Leatrice as a baby, left, and in her later years

One night in January 2010 Turner Classic Movies aired Rediscovering John Gilbert, a 45-minute documentary about the great star of the late silent era. I was aware of Gilbert and recalled that he had failed the transition to talkies because, it was said, his voice was too high and too thin. In the course of watching the documentary, which prominently featured the actor's daughter and biographer, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, I learned that the causes of Gilbert's demise and early death were more complex than that. By the time the short film ended my curiosity was aroused and I decided to get my hands on a copy of Fountain's biography, Dark Star, so jumped online and searched. I soon found and ordered one from Amazon, but I'd also noticed that the search had turned up information on the author; she was on Facebook. So I sent her a message...and she replied.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Frank Sinatra in 1965: It Was a Very Good Year

It was the age of "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Carnaby Street couture and "Bond, James Bond." The Beatles ruled the world of popular music, having launched the "British Invasion" with their performances on The Ed Sullivan Show early in 1964. A year later that takeover was in full force, and yet for Frank Sinatra, on the verge of turning 50, 1965 would be a very good year.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

"100 Years of Harold Lloyd" Comes to iTunes This Month

Many a press release finds its way into Lady Eve's inbox. All are read, but most are quickly deleted. Random Media's recent announcement of the release of 100 Years of Harold Lloyd on iTunes this month is important, I think, and of interest to classic film fans, and so...