No question seems to conjure more controversy among the cineaste crowd than the one that arises in connection with modern film and the tendency of quite a few filmmakers to lean heavily on movies of the past. Now, when I say modern film, I’m talking about film that’s been modern for quite a long time now—since the French New Wave and British Invasion film era of the 1960s. I realize that’s before many of you were born, but this is where the idea of influence started to move into the realm of homage for the very simple reason that movies were being made for the first time by folks who grew up as movie fans. For good or ill, these filmmakers were themselves the children of the movies.
Influence exists in every art form. It’s hardly specific to movies. Early filmmakers were themselves influenced by the stage, by literary models and by painters (there’s a reason they called it “Rembrandt lighting” once it was decided that just being to see a thing wasn’t quite enough). And, of course, they…borrowed from each other with wild abandon. That’s in the nature of things. There’s nothing wrong with it, in part because such borrowings rarely remain unchanged in the process. But for people who prize originality above everything else, this can be a bitter pill to swallow it seems. There’s a moment in the not-very-good Bob Hope movie The Seven Little Foys (1955) where Hope (playing vaudevillian Eddie Foy) is having a friendly joust with James Cagney (in a cameo as George M. Cohan) and claims that he did something first. To this, Cagney responds, “Yeah, and I did it right.” The history of the movies is filled with examples of this. The deeper you go into film and film history, the more you discover this for yourself.
I think my very first encounter with this came when I scored a bootleg print of Victor Heerman’s Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers (1930). This would be in 1973 and at that time Animal Crackers was a film you read about, but you didn’t see it. The physical property itself was owned by Universal—part of the package they bought from Paramount in 1958—but the rights to the material had reverted to the estates of the authors of the stage play, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. For ages Universal and the estates had been battling out just how much that was worth, while the rest of us sat around wanting to see the movie. Well, thanks to a fairly unscrupulous gentleman who was in possession of a 16mm dupe that he would—for a price—relinquish, I was able to see it while the rights war was still raging.
What I found—among other things—was that the brilliant introduction to Groucho in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933) had its origins in Animal Crackers (actually, it comes pretty much straight from the play). It’s all there. You have the build-up with a crowd waiting to greet him. You have Zeppo arriving first to announce him. You have the anticipatory song. You have Groucho’s big entrance and his subsequent deflating of everyone’s expectations (though, of course, no one will admit to that). McCarey copied it almost exactly—with a few embellishments to make it his own and with more style in three minutes of screen time than Heerman managed in the full 98 minutes of Animal Crackers. That Duck Soup “did it right” was undeniable, but to my then 19-year-old eyes, this discovery did take a little of the luster off McCarey’s opening.
This wouldn’t be the last such instance—nor would it be the last time I caught McCarey’s hand in the creative cookie jar. In his Mae West film Belle of the Nineties (1934), McCarey stages a scene that movies back and forth—through a series of slow dissolves and double images that would do credit to Josef von Sternberg or Rouben Mamoulian—between West singing “Troubled Waters” and the all-black revival meeting her maid (Libby Taylor) is attending. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking that’s somehow moving and just a little bit unnerving. Years later, I saw Wesley Ruggles’ Honey (1930) and discovered the same basic concept involving a revival, Lillian Roth, Mitzi Green and the song “Sing You Sinners.” It’s a lot cruder. It doesn’t have two songs playing at once that intrude on each other, and the cast that takes over the song are actually at the revival, but the similarity is too great to be coincidental. But by then I wasn’t so sold on originality as the end-all-be-all, so I can’t say it bothered me very much.
In another direction, there’s the building rhythm opening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932). Here we have a Paris street waking up in the early morning with silence giving way to a series of rhythmic sounds that build to a cacophony of carefully orchestrated “noise.” Mamoulian actually cribbed this from himself, basing it on the opening of his stage production of Porgy from 1927—with Paris replacing Catfish Row here. It’s definitely impressive. Indeed, it impressed Marty Feldman so much that he copied it almost exactly for his In God We Tru$t (1980). Whether you view this as an act of homage or merely a rip-off is purely a matter of choice. However, the basic idea was revisited in Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen (1991) where it’s clearly in the homage column.
Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933) is a pretty terrific horror picture (one of the most requested for DVD release among classic horror fans), yet it’s impossible to deny that Kenton appropriated some of his showiest bouts of directorial panache straight out of Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). Everything from the use of subjective camera to characters being shown in a reflecting pool to figures being shown as looming shadows increasing in size against a wall as the run away come straight out of Jekyll and Hyde. In fact, Kenton liked that shadow business so much that he was still using it in House of Dracula in 1945. Funny thing is it works pretty well in every case, but it does “belong” to Mamoulian.
If you want a treasure trove of pirated moments—which I’m inclined to believe are either of the homage variety, or at least qualify as in-jokes—you can always turn to Gene Wilder’s Haunted Honeymoon. I don’t really recommend doing this, because the movie isn’t very good (and that’s being pretty kind), but within its confines you will find not only the obvious influence of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974), but a premise that finds Wilder as a radio personality a la Bob Hope in the 1939 version of the old dark house chestnut The Cat and the Canary. You’ll also unearth Dom DeLuise’s drag impersonation of Eva Moore from James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) including dialogue taken directly from the old film, a musical turn to “Ballin’ the Jack” that’s more than a little like “The Varsity Drag” in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972), and a bout of physical comedy that’s right out of George Marshall’s Murder, He Says (1945). How successful this actually was on the in-joke level may be gleaned from the 33 user reviews of the film on the IMDb—not one of which mentions The Old Dark House, The Ruling Class or Murder, He Said.
Last night I caught up with William Castle’s very odd—very, very odd—Shanks (1974), a movie that stars Marcel Marceau in a dual role as a mute puppeteer and a white-haired mad scientist of a generally benign manner. I wouldn’t call it good, but it’s not without interest—and most of that interest (apart from its decided curio status) stems from the fact you’d have a hard time convincing me that somewhere in his youth (he’d have been 16 when the movie came out) Tim Burton didn’t see this film. The similarities to Edward Scissorhands (1990) are too great for me to believe otherwise—the dotty old scientist who dies before his work is completed, the gothic castle in a wholly incongruous setting, even the look of the castle grounds. The difference is that Edward Scissorhands is a great film and this isn’t. It’s dull and plodding, and spends too much of its time playing to Marceau’s miming ability. Also, what romance there is—if it can be called that—centers on Marceau and a pubescent girl (Cindy Eilbacher) that’s crosses the line from creepy to downright unwholesome.
Tomorrow night, I’ll reacquaint myself with Rex Ingram’s The Magician (1926), which will no doubt refresh my memory on just how much James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) owe to this rarely seen silent movie. Will seeing it in (presumably) a better print than any of the muddy dupes I’ve encountered cause me to think any the less of Whale’s films? It’s unlikely, but you never know.
Most of the films and filmmakers I’ve talked about here are old school and not children of the movies—though Feldman, Wilder and Burton would qualify for that terms. Of those, however, only Burton has a body of work that lends itself to any in-depth examanitation, and while Burton is certainly—and heavily, albeit in a unique way—in the group of filmmakers who draw on earlier movies, he certainly was not the first. The New Wave boys from France got there long before him. However, they differ in a basic lack of specificity—at least to the degree I can tell. I cannot think of an instance in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol or Philippe De Broca of direct references to earlier movies.
Their work seems more drawn to a tone or style. They often championed obscure American filmmakers and were drawn to low-budget and even poverty row works that had largely been ignored by the critical establishment. Godard dedicated his seminal Breathless (1960) to Monogram Pictures, a poverty row studio. It wasn’t directed at a specific movie or even a specific filmmaker. It was a dedication aimed at a kind of film and was attached to a movie that celebrated the grittiness and the relative freedom afforded filmmakers who worked in that realm. And though it honored the idea of American icons like Humphrey Bogart (not a poverty row figure by any means), it more honored its inspirations by being even more free and daring than any of its inspirations. If any specific Monogram film was actually quoted, it’s one I haven’t seen—and since there are hundreds of them, that’s very possible.
Even when the British took up some sense of the New Wave through a very different filter in the form of Richard Lester’s movies—beginning most notably with A Hard Day’s Night (1964)—there’s more a sense of film heritage than a specific film. Lester incorporated the feeling of American silent comedy and the anarchy of the Marx Brothers into his work, but I really can’t cite any specifically direct references. Oh, yes, there’s the lady-down-the-pothole gag in Hard Day’s Night that’s out of a number of Laurel and Hardy shorts, but there’s an even chance that Lester actually got that from Ken Russell’s French Dressing (1964), which was released several months earlier. (In any case, somebody got it from Stan and Ollie.) And, of course, there’s the casting of Buster Keaton in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), but I can’t recall a direct copy of a Keaton gag. Perhaps the chariot chase in that same film draws something from Frank Tuttle’s Roman Scandals. But all in all, these seem more like influences than direct copies of anything.
No, we have to go a little further along to get to the age of the modern—and post-modern—filmmakers who truly draw very directly on their source material. And that’s where we’ll go in Part Two.