Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Movies about movies

Last week the Asheville Film Society ran Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977), and not too long ago I bumped into Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980) on TCM, both of which deal—to some degree—with making movies. And both put me in mind of the somewhat curious—and often downright weird—manner in which the movies deal with the making of movies. Has any movie ever gotten close to depicting how movies are made? Has any movie even managed to show a movie being made that you can possibly imagine anyone going to see?

Of the two mentioned, Valentino comes closer to having something to do with how movies are made and since it deals with movies that actually were made the second question doesn’t really apply. (It helps that it doesn’t concentrate on the making of any one film.) Even at that, it deliberately holds onto maintaining—sometimes humorously—something of the magic of the process. The scene involving the shooting The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1920) presents something of the organized chaos of production inherent in a large film, but it doesn’t attempt to unjumble that chaos. (In a sense, it accidentally reflects some of that chaos in that Russell plays Rex Ingram in the scenes—an unplanned move that resulted from the actor who was supposed to play Ingram showing up drunk and in the wrong costume.)

The scene where Natasha Rambova (Michelle Phillips) and Sidney Olcott (John Justin) direct a love scene for Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) is played for comedy, but it’s probably not far from reality, except that it only involves a master shot with no set-ups for anything else after the fact. (Being that Beaucaire was an American silent before the influx of German filmmakers, that’s actually not impossible.) Another scene where Rambova and Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) fight with Paramount boss Jesse Lasky (Huntz Hall)  manages to stage what could well be the shooting of an entire western two-reeler in the background of the shots. At the same time it ironically calls to mind Erich von Stroheim’s obsession with background action that could scarcely be seen and certainly wasn’t what the audience was focusing on. (Well, there’s more Stroheim to Russell than there is an assembly line cowboy picture specialist.)

If there’s at least a touch of authenticity to Valentino, there’s scarcely a hint of it in The Stunt Man, a film that preposterously has huge and hugely complicated action scenes being done in impossibly long takes that would require about 20 cameras and a degree of precision timing that would flummox the June Taylor Dancers. When it isn’t doing that, it stages scenes where the actors are constantly doing things on a personal level that would render the footage unusable (there’s some of that in the big action pieces, too). And it’s all in the service of making what looks like it has a chance of being the worst WWI movie ever made. But in the end, it doesn’t matter in the least.

The ridiculous depictions of filmmaking don’t hurt The Stunt Man much—certainly they’re less damaging than the often overbearing Dominic Frontiere musical score—and, in fact, they’re essential to creating the psychodrama within the film. The line between reality and fantasy has to be blurred in order for the experience as it’s perceived by convict-in-hiding Cameron (Steve Railsback) to work. Otherwise, the conflicting emotions he has about over-the-top filmmaker Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole in the second greatest performance of his career) wouldn’t work. Is Cross—who has thrust him into the position of stunt man—his saviour or the instrument of his destruction? That’s what the movie is after—not whether or not it has anything to do with how movies are made.

Interestingly, however, The Stunt Man is also about the magic of movies, but not the real magic of how a movie is made and put together. In fact, when it purports to reveal what goes into making movies, it’s at its most duplicitous—offering a lot of smoke and mirrors to support Cross’s assertion, “If God could do the tricks we can, he’d be a happy man.” No, the film wants another kind of magic—the power of the created illusion and it has no intention of blunting that power. It’s rather like the magician who pretends to show you the reality of what you’re looking at, but isn’t.

Of course, this is only a couple movies—hardly a persuasive case. But it neither begins, nor ends here. The movies have long had the tendency to turn the cameras on themselves. There are many reasons—ranging from the simple fact that the public has always been fascinated by how the movies are made to the more mundane fact that it’s really pretty economical to set a movie at a movie studio if you are a movie studio. The latter was almost certainly the impetus behind setting Chaplin’s first Essanay film His New Job (1915) at a movie studio and again in the more sophisticated Behind the Screen (1916). Similar motivation is behind such Hollywood mysteries as The Studio Murder Mystery (1929) and The Death Kiss (1933). That they gave the viewer a glimpse—or a supposed glimpse—behind the scenes also interested audiences.

Economy and public curiosity were certainly behind F. Richard Jones’ The Extra Girl (1923), Alfred E. Green’s (1926) and King Vidor’s Show People (1928), all of which played on the idea of a young woman attempting to become a Hollywood star—in comedic terms, of course. The appeal was obvious—who didn’t want to be a movie star? Movies like this suggested that it was possible, but in a light-hearted manner that wasn’t meant to be taken very seriously. How seriously young woman might have taken it is another matter. There were occasional dramas, but comedy or melodrama was certainly more common. And none that I’m aware of offered any but the most passing look at how the movies were made.

Russell Mack’s Once in a Lifetime (1932)—the film adaptation of the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play about the coming of sound to the movies—was a little different. This was more a satire than a regular comedy, and the young woman who becomes a movie star (played by Sidney Fox) is barely in the positive numbers on the IQ scale. She only gets her chance because the almost equally dimwitted studio supervisor (Jack Oakie) is stuck on her—and he is only the supervisor because he criticized (more or less accidentally) the studio head (Gregory Ratoff) and was rewarded for his courage with the job. And all this only works out because the movie critics mistake all the gaffes—ranging from forgetting to light the scenes to extraneous noises to shooting the wrong movie altogether—for the visionary profundity of the supervisor. No one gets out unscathed.

Once in a Lifetime is more interested in the politics of the running of movie studios than in the making of the movies, but it does offer some fairly realistic views of life on a movie set—and many of its gags are predicated on the viewer having a surprisingly thorough knowledge of the movies and movie terminology. The same can be said of nearly all the movies about movies from that era—What Price Hollywood? (1932), Movie Crazy (1932), Make Me a Star (1932), Bombshell (1933), Stand-In (1937). They’re stories set in the movie world, but they’re not much about the actual process of making movies.

Even the most celebrated movie about movies of the 1930s, William A. Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), has very little to do with making movies, though it probably does boast the greatest level of authenticity with its opening and closing on a screenplay describing the action, the renaming of Esther Victoria Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), the transforming of Esther into what the public sees, etc. It’s also wholly serious and almost functions as a critique of the “you could be a star” movies that preceded it.

You might think that Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) about a director (Joel McCrea) of musicals and comedies wanting to make a meaningful picture that “holds a mirror up to life” would have something to do with filmmaking, but apart from one bit toward the end it never gets near a soundstage. The only movie we even see any of is the awful looking thing that’s put this particular notion in the director’s head where two men—representing capital and labor—grapple with each other on a train before both plunging to their deaths. It talks about movies. It name drops Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra (it’s probably a joke that our hero seems to think Capra is deep). But making movies isn’t on its agenda.

Things don’t really change over the decades. The movies might become more “adult” or think they do, but the basics don’t alter significantly. Sure, Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) shows us some tricks, but even it doesn’t show us the tricks behind the depiction of those tricks. Even a movie like Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976) that’s supposedly about the origins of making movies—and perhaps comes closer than most—cheats outrageously by presenting finished products that have little possible relation to what we see being shot. Is there a reason? Actually, I think there are two.

The simplest reason is that it’s really not all that exciting to watch a movie being made. It would mostly be about watching people stand around and wait a lot. As drama, that’s rather lacking. Probably the absolute closest anyone has ever gotten to putting this on film—and making it entertaining—is Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), an underseen indie film about making the indie film from hell. It is, however, kind of specific to indie production, but it still captures more of the experience than any other film I can name. And it still doesn’t produce a film within it that I can imagine watching.

There’s a bigger reason, though, I think. When all is said and done, I’m not so sure there’s a market for a movie that actually gets down to showing how movies are made. We might think we want to see how it’s done, that we want to get a good look at that man behind the curtain, but do we? Despite the proliferation of behind the scenes extras that regularly appear on DVD releases as extras, I’m not entirely convinced we do—at least not most of us. (Personally, I’m rarely capable of slogging through six hours of extras.)  Always remember, when we actually do see behind that curtain in the world’s most famous example of it, we see that the Wizard is an illusionist, but we’re really not shown how he creates those illusions. Are you sure you want to?

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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27 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Movies about movies

  1. Dionysis

    Another interesting topic (I’m surprised no one has posted about it yet). I didn’t see ‘Valentino’, nor am I knowledgeable about most late 20s through late 30s films in general, except early Universal horror stuff and some Poverty Row quickies, so cannot add anything. The Stunt Man is a great movie, but I never took it to actually represent real film making, and I barely remember Nickelodeon (I don’t think I liked it at the time though).

    I recall watching ‘Ed Wood’ at home one night, following it up by watching ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, and thinking “you know, Tim Burton may have gotten it pretty close.” Also there’s the ‘movie’ making aspects of Boogie Nights, which may have represented how that genre (or at least ‘action shots’) might have been produced. And another, somewhat in that vein, was a film I saw back in the 80s (I think) called ‘Love Scenes’ with Tiffany Bolling and Julie Newmar. It depicted some aspects of film making pretty realistically.

    But ultimately, I would say ‘no’, I don’t really want to get that good of a look at the man behind the curtain. It’s enough just to know he’s there.

  2. Ken Hanke

    nor am I knowledgeable about most late 20s through late 30s films in general, except early Universal horror stuff and some Poverty Row quickies.

    The only Universal I can think of is Once in Lifetime, but Poverty Row had The Death Wish and the 1935 Monogram comedy (somehow their comedies were almost never as funny as their horror pictures) The Nut Farm.

    The Stunt Man is a great movie, but I never took it to actually represent real film making

    If anything, it goes out of its way not to.

    I barely remember Nickelodeon (I don’t think I liked it at the time though).

    Most people didn’t. I think it’s worn surprisingly well, though I haven’t seen Bogdanovich’s apparently preferred black and white version.

    I recall watching ‘Ed Wood’ at home one night, following it up by watching ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, and thinking “you know, Tim Burton may have gotten it pretty close.”

    Some of it, yes, but — and this doesn’t strike me as a negative — he never let fact get in the way of legend.

  3. Me

    Nice mention of Living in Oblivion, i always thought Broadway Danny Rose was a pretty clever movie about movies.

  4. Ken Hanke

    i always thought Broadway Danny Rose was a pretty clever movie about movies

    I’m not clear on how Broadway Danny Rose is a movie about movies.

    I would go with American Movie.

    I’ve never seen it, but I’ll bet the recommendation gets seconded.

  5. davidf

    The first thing I thought of was FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, which is probably the biggest failure on this list.

  6. Me

    I always thought Broadway Danny Rose was a pretty clever movie about movies

    I’m not clear on how Broadway Danny Rose is a movie about movies.

    Sorry The Purple Rose of Cairo is what i meant to say i always get those two film mixed up. I think you are talking about making movies so that film probably wouldn’t work either as its just about the movies in general.

  7. Ken Hanke

    The first thing I thought of was FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, which is probably the biggest failure on this list.

    I didn’t think of it — I suspect because I tend to block it from my mind.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Sorry The Purple Rose of Cairo is what i meant to say i always get those two film mixed up. I think you are talking about making movies so that film probably wouldn’t work either as its just about the movies in general.

    No, it’s not really about making movies. I had actually assumed you meant Stardust Memories, but even while that is about a filmmaker, it doesn’t involve a single instance of showing a movie being made as far as I recall. (Neither, I believe, does its most obvious inspiration, 8 1/2.) Allen’s Hollywood Ending, however, would qualify.

  9. davidf

    Though it’s about as far as you can get from an accurate depiction of how movies are made, my favorite movie about making movies is BE KIND REWIND.

    And though it doesn’t qualify at all because it’s a documentary, LOST IN LA MANCHA has got to be the most interesting glimpse behind the making (or unmaking, as it were) of a film that I’ve seen.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Though it’s about as far as you can get from an accurate depiction of how movies are made, my favorite movie about making movies is BE KIND REWIND.

    It may be the most delirious depiction of the joy of filmmaking ever, regardless of anything else.

  11. DrSerizawa

    My favorite movie about making movies is Shadow Of The Vampire. Rumor has it that it is 100% accurate but don’t quote me on it. My second favorite is The Oscar because it is such an impressive pile of doodooo.

    I’ve thought that another reason Hollywood likes to make sanitized movies about itself is self-evident, since the industry has more than it’s share of supreme egotists. Can’t blame them though. Apparently the public has endless interest in celebritydom. Someone is buying those magazines in the checkout line.

    A close friend of mine was a carpenter on a few films and from what he says your comment about
    people standing around is spot-on. There would be no market for an accurate movie about making a movie. It would probably be the most boringest movie ever.

  12. Ken Hanke

    My favorite movie about making movies is Shadow Of The Vampire. Rumor has it that it is 100% accurate but don’t quote me on it.

    It’s a terrific film about filmmaking in its own way, and if it didn’t go all gonzo killing off characters who were people with post-Nosferatu resumes in the final scenes, I’d be willing to believe it was 100% true.

  13. Me

    A Cock and Bull Story is all i can think of im sure i will think of some more.

    What about Adaptation writing a movie is part of making a movie i guess.

    I forgot about Hollywood Ending your right that probably is the best qualified one out of Allens films.

  14. Me

    Contempt
    Barton Fink(if you qualify writing)
    Heart of Darkness
    Burden of Dreams

  15. davidf

    I haven’t seen WHAT JUST HAPPENED?. Does anyone know if it’s any good?

  16. Ken Hanke

    What about Adaptation writing a movie is part of making a movie i guess

    Writing a movie is not part of the process of actually shooting a film, though.

    Contempt

    A perfect example of a movie in the movie that it’s impossible to imagine anyone watching.

  17. Ken Hanke

    I haven’t seen WHAT JUST HAPPENED?. Does anyone know if it’s any good?

    Beats me. They sent me an awards screener, but I never got around to watching it.

  18. Jessica B.

    An interesting little take on movie making by a movie-maker is Mike Jittlov’s film, “The Wizard of Speed and Time”, the full length film, not the short. Well worth a look!

  19. Me

    I haven’t seen WHAT JUST HAPPENED?. Does anyone know if it’s any good?

    Beats me. They sent me an awards screener, but I never got around to watching it.

    I’ve seen parts of it on cable, it was ok. The parts i saw, it looked like it was more of a humorous take on a managers side of movie making and trying to juggle all the star egos. Im not really a Barry Levinson fan though i should check out his first couple of films before i make a judgment.

  20. Ken Hanke

    Im not really a Barry Levinson fan

    You could be on the road to something we can fully agree on with this.

  21. I haven’t seen WHAT JUST HAPPENED?. Does anyone know if it’s any good?
    It’s ok. I think it’s too realistic for its own good. Anyone who knows Barry Levinson or who has spent a lot of time in the film industry would probably find it a deeply painful experience to watch. For outsiders, it’s not satirical enough to be truly entertaining.

  22. Ken Hanke

    Anyone who knows Barry Levinson or who has spent a lot of time in the film industry would probably find it a deeply painful experience to watch.

    I find that to be true of most Barry Levinson movies.

  23. TigerShark

    The Last Command?
    Silent Movie?
    Tropic Thunder? (for a bit, anyway.)

  24. Ken Hanke

    The Last Command?
    Silent Movie?
    Tropic Thunder? (for a bit, anyway.)

    Yes, they all involve making movies, but do any of them offer any kind of realistic depiction of the process?

  25. brianpaige

    Are we counting Singin in the Rain as a movie about making movies? Though much like the rest of these examples, it isn’t exactly realistic. Even the nadir of John Gilbert’s early talkies doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel the way the initial preview of The Dueling Cavalier did.

    As an aside, I actually quite like some of Gilbert’s talkies.

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