Beyond Caesar: The History and Movies Behind the Coens’ Latest
It’s no secret that the latest Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! borrows heavily from 1940s and 1950s Hollywood – our review said as much right in its headline. Let’s look a little below the surface to find out more about the background of the film, which pulls from various bits of Hollywood history and legend as well as the films produced in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The main character of Hail, Caesar! is an executive producer named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) that spends his time hushing up scandals, dealing with director-star conflicts, and generally trying to make sure production runs smoothly at Capital Studios. Eddie Mannix was a real guy, though his title wasn’t “Head of Physical Production” as it is in the movie, but Comptroller and later General Manager at MGM – he kept track of costs and profits for the studio, but also acted as a fixer for any trouble stars got into.
It’s tempting to think that the top-level boss Mannix checks in with often in the movie, Mr. Skank, is a fictional construct with a typically satirical Coen-y name, but he’s calling Nicholas Schenck (yes, it’s pronounced “skank”), the head of MGM’s parent company Loews. It’s interesting that the film excises MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer completely; Mannix was hired by the New York-located Schenck to keep an eye on Mayer in Hollywood to make sure he and MGM kept on track for maximum profitability. Mannix and Mayer became fast friends, however, and watched each other’s back.
Mannix worked as a fixer for MGM from the mid-1920s until the early 1960s; during that time, there were countless scandals he would’ve covered up – everything from paying off victims of minor car accidents in which MGM stars were involved, to arranging abortions to working with publicity manager Howard Strickling to manage the press. The Coens’ version of Mannix does similar things, but he’s ultimately a much nicer guy than the real Mannix, whose alleged activities include covering up a rape that happened at a studio party and maybe even being involved in the death of TV Superman George Reeves (this story is the subject of the film Hollywoodland, which seems to ultimately decide Reeves’ death was a suicide, but reality is less clear). Hollywood definitely had a seedy side underneath all the glamour and allure, and fixers like Mannix were right in the middle of it.
For more on Mannix and some of the sordid events he was in the middle of, listen to this episode of the You Must Remember This podcast; it’s about Mannix specifically. The whole MGM Stories series is relevant to the background of Hail, Caesar! as well.
In the film, an aquatic musical star named DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and Mannix has to figure out how to deal with it (the Coens probably wisely steer clear of the current hot topic that is abortion, even though that certainly would’ve been on the real Mannix’s list of options). Moran is based on Esther Williams, of course, whose impeccably choreographed swimming numbers remain unique in Hollywood history. Williams did, in fact, become pregnant during a production, 1950’s Pagan Love Song, but she was married at the time, so while the pregnancy would’ve been an inconvenience for the production schedule, it was hardly a scandal.
Instead, the scandal aspect is more based on the story of Loretta Young, who became pregnant out of wedlock in the mid-1930s after an affair with costar Clark Gable. She disappeared for a while and had the child, successfully concealing her daughter for over a year and then creating an adoption narrative to bring her home. It wasn’t until many years later that she revealed the truth, and that Gable had been the father (more on that story here). This closely aligns to Mannix’s attempts in the movie to figure out a way for DeeAnna to adopt her own child to avoid the scandal of an unwed pregnancy. There also may be a little bit of Lana Turner in DeeAnna, in the platinum blonde hair (Williams was a brunette) and the rumors of mob connections with one of her ex-husbands, which echoes the famous scandal involving Turner and Johnny Stompanato, who had ties to the underworld.
Thora and Thessaly Thacker, the two rival columnists played by Tilda Swinton, are quite obviously meant to be Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the two major gossip columnists…*ahem* I mean, serious journalists…in the classic Hollywood era. They were utterly vicious to each other and to whichever stars or studios they were talking down at any given moment. Hopper and Parsons weren’t sisters, though – that bit of inspiration comes from the advice columnists Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, pen names for twin sisters Pauline Phillips and Eppie Lederer, who were also huge rivals of each other starting in the mid-1950s.
Louella Parsons was the first gossip queen of Hollywood, moving out to Los Angeles in 1925 and working for William Randolph Hearst’s papers – she’d caught his eye by praising his mistress Marion Davies when many critics were dismissing her. Parsons quickly became one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood, and her disapproval was often feared more than that of movie critics. Hedda Hopper challenged Parsons’ supremacy starting in 1938, and was generally considered the most vicious of the two. It’s difficult to tell which twin is meant to be which in the movie, but a few clues suggest Thora might be Parsons (she mentions a job at Hearst). It would be interesting to look at them more closely – Hopper famously named names at the McCarthy communist trials, but I don’t recall if there was any mention of Thessaly’s politics in the film.
Incidentally, Hedda Hopper was also an actress – a fairly active one on stage and screen in the early 1930s. She switched to writing when she realized acting wasn’t really going to work out for her, but you can catch her in several 1930s films if you look. A notable one is 1939’s The Women, where she plays…a gossip columnist.
One of the more outrageous parts of Hail, Caesar! is the plotline where actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a communist ring calling themselves “The Future.” The pseudo-philosophy these guys spout is pretty ridiculous, and I doubt it’s a very accurate portrayal of actual communists in Hollywood – the satire, though, seems aimed more at the McCarthys and other anti-Communist leaders who thought leftist writers in Hollywood were a huge threat to national security. Communists scares related to Hollywood started as early as the late 1930s. If you read Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back, about the war efforts of five Hollywood directors, you’ll note how concerned some of them were that their writers were going to include pro-Communist propaganda in their war documentaries – and Russia was still our ally at that point!
By the 1950s, the Cold War was in full swing, and in Hollywood that manifested itself with Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which tried to ferret out Communists in Hollywood, asking people to name known Communists, and blacklisting many who refused. The Future in Hail, Caesar! all seem to be writers, so they’re probably based on the Hollywood Ten, a set of left-leaning writers including Dalton Trumbo who refused to cooperate with the HUAC hearings and were blacklisted for years because of it. That said, The Future talk big but are disunited, and many seem to care more about getting their share of the money the studios are making rather than in breaking down capitalism itself. This section of the film could bear more scrutiny, to be honest, but the Coens are going for laughs here rather than historical accuracy.
While many of the things we see happen on set seem farcical, they’re actually quite accurate. Actors, especially at the level Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is at on the totem pole, had very little control over what movies they were in, and if the studio wanted to “change your image,” they did. If they decided to put you in a drawing room operetta instead of a western, that’s what you did. As an example, John Wayne was already establishing his persona in low-budget westerns for poverty row studios in the 1930s – didn’t stop his studio from casting him as a suit-and-tie office clerk in Baby Face.
The kind of humor the film evokes around filmmaking, especially at poor Hobie Doyle’s expense, feels very reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain‘s evocation of the shift to talkies, right down to director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) working very hard to get Doyle to use the standard Mid-Atlantic accent.
In terms of specific referents for these folks, I’m not sure there are any; they may just be based on types. Doyle is obviously based in the singing cowboys of the 1930s and 1940s, from Hopalong Cassidy to Gene Autry to Roy Rogers, but his arc seems his own. Similarly, the two directors we see, Laurentz and Seslum, don’t necessarily seem to map to any directors in particular (please let me know if you have ideas who they could be!) – the opening of Merrily We Dance is highly reminiscent of the Ernst Lubitsch operetta The Merry Widow, but Laurentz doesn’t strike me as being particularly like Lubitsch.
The types of movies being homaged in Hail, Caesar! are very obvious, and sometimes even specific movies are pretty clearly in view. Here are a few to check out if Hail, Caesar! piqued your interest.
The Sword and Sandal Epic: Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis
The plot of the film-within-the-film Hail Caesar is an amalgam of major 1950s Biblical epics. Ben-Hur is about a first-century Jewish noble who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets put into slavery by the Romans. He works his way up from the galleys to adoption by a Roman leader, and ends up back in Palestine in time to see and believe in Christ. Quo Vadis is about a Roman centurion about 30 years after Christ’s death who loves a Christian woman and becomes intrigued by her religion. Hail, Caesar! largely takes its story and setting from Ben-Hur, but makes its main character a Roman soldier, like in Quo Vadis. Note that Ben-Hur, as in the clip below, takes care to only show Jesus from behind, never showing his face – a respect promised by Mannix to the multi-faith delegation he consults with early in Hail, Caesar!.
There are dozens of these films from this time period, though, if the genre interests you, from The Robe (in which a Roman centurion is transformed by receiving Jesus’ robe at the crucifixion) through Spartacus and beyond. Spartacus is also noteworthy for being Hollywood Ten writer Dalton Trumbo’s first credit under his own name since the blacklist – in fact, producer-star Kirk Douglas took some risk to his own career in breaking the blacklist to make sure Trumbo got on-screen credit.
The Musical: Anchors Aweigh and Million Dollar Mermaid
One of the most showstopping moments in Hail, Caesar! is when Channing Tatum shows his song and dance chops as Gene Kelly-esque hoofer Burt Gurney. He’s the leader of a group of sailors about to end their shore leave and realizing there will be “No Dames” when they go back to see. The song is reminiscent of South Pacific‘s “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” but the dance number is pure Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh or On the Town:
Just because I like to look for the obscurities, I’ll also point out that one section when Tatum and his buddy were dancing against the bar reminded me of “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ in the Rain more than anything else, and the way the bar set was designed was straight out of the terrific “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” number from the otherwise mostly forgettable Words and Music:
Did the aquatic number look over the top to you? Well, it is, but it’s actually not even as outrageous as some of Esther Williams’ actual numbers in her movies. Million Dollar Mermaid is not one of her best movies to my mind, though it is one of her most well-known (partially because it’s a biopic of famed swimmer Annette Kellerman), but it does have some of the most amazing set-pieces in any of her movies, and this one seems to be a particular inspiration for the number in Hail, Caesar!.
There aren’t any musical numbers from her in the film, but Carlotta Valdez (though named after the elusive mystery woman in Vertigo) is based on Brazilian singer/dancer Carmen Miranda, whose outrageous headwear is legendary. Miranda was almost always brought in as a specialty act rather than as an actress playing an actual character, but her popularity was second-to-none – literally, as by 1946 she was Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer. In 1941, she had become the first Latina to put her footprints in the concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Today, most people consider The Gang’s All Here to be one of her greatest achievements – a Technicolor confection that features her famous rendition of “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat.”
If nothing else, this selection should be enough to show that the Coens really aren’t exaggerating anything in terms of what Hollywood musicals were like in the heyday of the studio era – if anything, they’re toning them down.
Singing Cowboys: The Arizona Kid, etc.
As I mentioned, Hobie Doyle could be any one of a number of singing cowboys, a very popular type in the 1930s and 1940s, but his western in the film is titled Lazy Ol’ Moon, which happens to be a song Roy Rogers sang in The Arizona Kid in 1939, so that’s what we’ll go with. Hobie’s clean-cut persona seems to fit quite well with Rogers’, so it’s likely that Rogers was a major influence on his character.
Tracing all the references and connections in Hail, Caesar! would take a much longer post, but hopefully, this gives a good idea of the kind of rich background the Coens are working with, and the vast amount of material they’re homaging – and how much there is to explore if Hail, Caesar! got you interested in the time period!