Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! has arrived at the Screening Room and is another excellent demonstration of the filmmakers’ ability to deftly present sprawling casts of interesting personages in a character-driven tightly-woven script. There is so much to know about this, their latest film. The value of the experience is partially in an awareness of its dense historical and cinematic references. Hail, Caesar! comes off as light-hearted, which it is essentially, but the message of this very film is actually very sophisticated, thoughtful, and deftly presented. It is, incidentally, only one of two Coen Brothers in which nobody dies, the other movie being Inside Llewyn Davis. Costing an estimated $22 million to make and bringing in gross profit of over $29 million as of March 11th, 2016, I’m sure that Universal pictures hoped for a greater immediate financial result, but my guess is that Hail, Caesar! will eventually generate increasing interest and recognition, especially among fans of the Coen brothers. As well as being a movie for people who know and love movies, it is a gorgeous document of a specific period in Hollywood, presenting a stunning amount of visual information about film history in a very short amount of time. The filmmakers have used this production to commendably reproduce a cluster of once popular and now vanished cinematic devices and elements: The film captivatingly spins from one set to another, from one movie to another as we experience life in a major Hollywood studio in the 1950s and get glimpses of many of its productions. As the Coen brothers like to do, they shot the entire movie on 35mm film instead of digital and in some instances they tried to recreate the shooting methods that would have been used in the 1950s as much as they could. According to the film website IMDb, this film references, visually, musically, or choreographically, and/or verbally at least twenty-six movies including Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, South Pacific, Vertigo, Ben Hur, Barry Lyndon, and Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I have discovered more references than this in the writing of this article. Also, the inclusion of pieces of Hollywood history are rich and pervasive.
Essentially this film is a day in the life Eddie (Edward) Mannix, a Hollywood “fixer,” a somewhat coarse studio executive (played by Josh Brolin) answering to the off camera head of the studio named Nick Skank, a subtle nod to Joe Schenck who was the head of 20th Century Fox in the 1950s. In the film, Eddie Mannix covers up legal and personal embarrassments of celebrities on behalf of a major Hollywood company. In the story this character is drawn as a short-tempered man who is a dedicated employee of the fictional Capitol Pictures and a devoted Catholic.
This protagonist is loosely based on a real ex-bouncer and producer, and vice-president Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer “Eddie” (Edgar Joseph) Mannix, who was also known as a Hollywood “fixer”. The real Eddie Mannix was only pious in the keeping-up-appearance way that kept him from getting a divorce when both he and his wife were both seeing other people. In fact, he was a shadowy, brutal fellow with ties to the mafia. The real-life Mannix was instrumental in “fixing” numerous real-life publicity problems for MGM. He kept top-box office star of the 1930s, William Haines’ numerous gay affairs out of the press, and tracked down and destroyed a pornographic film that starred an underage Joan Crawford, for example. And similar to how Hail, Caesar! shows the fictional Mannix covering up a pregnancy out of wedlock for the Scarlett Johannson character, the real Eddie Mannix was responsible for setting up a scheme for star Loretta Young to publicly adopt a child who was secretly her own. Mannix also reputedly helped Spencer Tracy get out of a charge for having sex with a minor, and “fixed” Clark Gable out of a drunk driving hit-and-run incident.
On the more edgy side of things, Mannix is also rumoured to have been involved with the mysterious deaths of Jean Harlow’s second husband, his own first wife Bernice Mannix toward whom he was physically abusive, and his second wife’s lover, George Reeves, whom Mannix is rumoured to have killed for Reeves having broken up with her. This aspect of Eddie Mannix is explored in the 2006 film Hollywoodland starring Ben Affleck as George Reeves the real actor who played Superman in the old television series The Adventures of Superman in the ’50s. In Hollywoodland Bob Hoskins plays Mannix.
END OF THE GOLDEN AGE
The consequence of the end of the “studio system” was that the major studio were suddenly much more interested in investing a lot of money in fewer films with mass appeal rather than creating many second-rate films that they were no longer able to force the theatres to buy. This resulted in huge movies with enormous casts, and highly populated dance sequences. Moreover, movies were suddenly being crammed with all kinds of entertainment, tried-and-true familiarity. The stakes were becoming higher still since the post-WWII emergence of home television, which was expected to become a threat to the movie industry.
Hail, Caesar! captures the spirit of this time period with great dedication, recreating wildly complex aquatic synchronized swimming displays, intricately choreographed dance sequences, huge biblical epic marches, and reality-defying cowboy gunplay and acrobatics. It was also more important than ever after the end of the “studio system” for the industry to protect the reputations of their valuable celebrity assets so that they could continue to bring audiences to the box office, hence the importance of minimizing bad publicity with the use of “fixers”.
Another commendable and beautiful reminiscence involves Scarlett Johannson’s character, DeAnna Moran, who is a swimming movie star. Moran is based on the legendary Esther Williams, who was an Olympian swimmer picked up by MGM when the Olympics were cancelled in 1940 because of WWII. MGM made Williams into a huge star at the studio through famous and dizzyingly beautiful “water ballet” pool sequences that were created by the brilliant choreographer Busby Berkeley. The Coen brothers shot Scarlett Johansson’s pool sequence in Hail, Caesar! in the Esther Williams pool that still exists at Sony Pictures with the same complex geometric synchronized motion, high-platform diving, and underwater dancing that Busby Berkeley was famous for directing.
Hail, Caesar! also hilariously recreates an admirable gunfighting drama centering on the character of the fictional cowboy star Hobie Doyle. This segment shows an old-Hollywood western, complete with dubious stunts involving horses and gunplay as well as rope tricks, which reportedly involved much one-on-one onsite training with rodeo coaches.
The fictional picture for which Hail, Caesar! is named is the one starring the George Clooney character, Baird Whitlock, specifically entitled Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, a reference to the early film Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). The Coen brothers concoct a huge Roman epic similar of the Ben Hur of 1959. In an an interview about the film, the Coens say that they watched the battle scenes of the biblical epics that came out in old Hollywood and reverse-engineered the look and feel of them, using the same camera angles and set construction in order to recreate the atmosphere. They said that the unique look of the old epic desert films was sometimes due to the limitations of the older equipment, and that without these limitations – that is working with the new equipment of today – there would be no reason to make the same film choices, which is an interesting discussion in itself.
In the lead-up to seeing Hail, Caesar! I coincidentally enjoyed revisiting two movies that were made in this period: An American in Paris, which was Hollywood six most-profitable film in 1951; and Singin’ in the Rain, Hollywood’s fifth most-profitable film in 1952. Both were made by MGM, starred Gene Kelly, and featured famous high-energy song-and-dance numbers often with hundreds of dancers. Singin’ in the Rain, like Hail, Caesar! mostly takes place on Hollywood sets, is also coincidentally a movie about publicity and the way movies are made, and contains many kinds of films from the fictional studio it portrays within it. It’s set during at the changeover in Hollywood from silent films to “talkies.” Both An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain match perfectly the thrust of Hollywood for this time. They are both frothy, silly, escapist confections, especially An American in Paris. Both are performance-heavy and plot-light with broad teetering diversions into fantasy numbers that are largely unrelated to the main plot. In fact, the songs for Singin’ in the Rain were written before the script and the script was written in order to fit around the songs and dancing. I cannot yet confirm it, but I would be very surprised if this were not the case with An American in Paris too. It was a moment of insight when I realized that Hail, Caesar! is in many ways a much better film than either of these adored and legendary productions from the very period it describes, even though structurally and even sometimes thematically they are similar Perhaps it’s unfair to make anything of this comparison since the art of film has matured so much since the early 1950’s, but it’s worth noting and appreciating.
OFF AND ON SCREEN
Similar to his character in other films he’s done with this duo, Clooney’s character is a naive and gullible character. He plays the likeable Baird Whitlock, a valuable asset to his studio who, despite his personal foibles and imperfections, has a glorious and dignified public persona. Whitlock is the protagonist in the “prestige picture” Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ a serious biblical epic, full of penetrating speeches about faith and divinity. In another instance of this idea of the person vs. the persona is one of the much-discussed highlight performances of the Hail, Caesar!, that of 26 year-old Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, an adorable cowboy film star in what is probably a breakout role for the actor. He plays a singing and drawling Southern cowboy film star who is struggling to hold his own in a elaborate pink-setted elite drawing room drama. In order to change his cowboy image, he’s fixed up with a spicy film star Carlotta Valdez, an actress based on Carmen Miranda (who also shares her name with the dead great-grandmother of the female protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). This theme plays on with Scarlett Johansson portraying America’s sweetheart squeaky-clean athlete mermaid when in fact she’s a cigarette smoking hard-talking woman with two failed marriages annulled by the studio and a baby on the way that the studio is trying to work around. The Hollywood of this film becomes a place where people become characters on and off the screen in order to strengthen the bottom line of the studios.
In the course of the film, Baird Whitlock is kidnapped and taken far away from the smoke and mirrors and bottom lines of Hollywood to a beautiful beach house (which visually references the beach house in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest) where he his being held for ransom by a cell of blacklisted communist Hollywood writers who call themselves “The Future.” The writers bicker about definitions and semantics while explaining the core tenets of communism to Whitlock. Whitlock is relieved to hear that the communists have figured out all of history and can even predict the future. Even though he clearly doesn’t understand communism, he decides that he is a communist too and begins to stay at the beachhouse voluntarily. The subject of blacklisted communists is treated with very light hand in this film and the ideas are laid out in a way that they cannot possibly be taken too seriously. One writer amusingly declares with pride that they have, here and there, been able to infuse the communist message into Hollywood films. This matches an accusation that was actually made by Washington during blacklisting. Then, in an bizarre denouement to communist thread in the story, “The Future” paddle out on the ocean by rowboat and hand over the Baird Whitlock ransom money to a Russian submarine. Clearly, the Coens are giving us a caricature that satisfies the fantasies of the most paranoid 1950s McCarthyite.
AN UNLIKELY CAMEO
For the record, Herbert Marcuse was born in Berlin in 1898 and received his education at the University of Berlin and the University of Freiburg in Germany where he received a Ph.D. in Political and Sociological Theory. In 1933 he emigrated to the United States and during WWII Marcuse worked for the US Government on anti-Nazi projects at the Office of War Information and then in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which later became the CIA. His used this time to to write a book Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis which was published in 1958 which is a criticism of Marxist strategy in Russia. Marcuse also wrote Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, in which he argues against Freud’s assumption that the repression of sex is necessary for the continuation of civilization, saying the sexual urge should be allowed and expressed and used for the development of society. He says that the pleasure principle is constructive and is alienated by economic stratification and an overemphasis on societal performance. He taught at many American universities including Harvard, Columbia, and Brandeis. In 1964 Marcuse wrote his most famous book One Dimensional Man, in which he argues that both communism and consumerism are forms of social control. He goes on to explain that repression that comes from “advanced industrial society” of both capitalist and communist countries encourage citizens toward the fulfillment of “false needs”, which leaves their true needs unfulfilled, and creates a universal consensus and patterns of behaviour which are antithetical to critical thought and oppositional behaviour.
However perfunctorily and awkwardly this real historical personage is stuck into this film, in the end, the questions of Herbert Marcuse are close to the essence of what this film is about: How can one be oneself in the face of pressure to be someone else? Are money and prestige are truly fulfilling goals? And also: Can anything that only exists for the generation of pleasure (be it a sweet and mindless film or something else) make a constructive contribution to society? Like most Coen brothers films, Hail, Caesar! leaves me with an intense appreciation for the appealing uniqueness of each of the characters and an acute awareness of how interesting people can be. This feeling might easily have been the jumping off point for Marcuse’s work The One Dimensional Man.
A MOVIE ABOUT WORLDVIEWS
The Coen Brothers have made a beautiful smart film for people like them who love movies and movie history. I’m sure that it will become some people’s favourite Coen brothers movie. It’s sure to be pored over line-by-line and picked apart on Youtube videos and in internet chatrooms by Coen brothers fans. Likely it has already particularly had a canny resonance in Hollywood where the magic is still being produced and the negotiation for box-office success is being played out year after year as it was in the 1950s.