The Coen Brothers Make A Hilarious & Visually Lush Film That Spoofs 1950s-Era Filmmaking Under The Hollywood Studio System. ( With Lots Of Back-Handed Tributes To Classics Past & Present. )
Four-time Oscar®-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Fargo) write and direct Hail, Caesar!, an all-star comedy set during the latter years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum, the film Hail, Caesar! is set in the early 1950s at the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age.It follows a single day in the life of a studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he solves problems for the biggest Hollywood stars and studios, whose assignments involve a disgruntled director, a singing cowboy, a beautiful swimmer and a handsome dancer. As if all this wasn’t enough, Mannix faces his biggest challenge when Baird Whitlock gets kidnapped while in costume for the swords-and-sandals epic “Hail, Caesar!” If the studio doesn’t pay $100,000, it’s the end of the line for the movie star.
Along the way, the film examines and skewers various styles and personas of Hollywood during the era. It showcased the enormous invisible power the Hollywood Studio system used to wield in order to “manage” public perceptions and images of film stars under contract with them.
The real life Mr. Mannix, who died of a heart attack in 1963, was the general manager of MGM Studios (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) Mannix from the 1930s through the ’50s. According to E. J. Fleming’s book “The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine” and other sources, his was an all-purpose job. It involved keeping tabs on movie budgets (Mr. Mannix reported daily to Louis B. Mayer, and spied on him for the studio’s New York-based overseer, Nicholas M. Schenk); monitoring Western Union traffic (he was said to have been handed every telegram sent or received by an M.G.M. player); and burying the misdeeds of stars like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer (who married the production chief Irving Thalberg, after a fling with Mr. Mayer).
Spencer Tracy bedded Judy Garland when she was just 14. Mannix used that information to keep the alcoholic Tracy in line. Joan Crawford made a lesbian porno before she became famous. Mannix locked it in a vault. A drunk-driving Clark Gable probably killed a pedestrian in 1933. Mannix managed to pin the accident on a low-level studio employee. “Once Mannix took care of a problem, [he] ‘owned’ the actor,”.
Mannix’s most celebrated “fix” was the murder of MGM director Paul Bern in 1932. Bern had recently married the studio’s biggest star, Jean Harlow. But he also had a wife back in New York. With the help of police (who were on his payroll), he rearranged the scene to look like a suicide.
He is also rumored to have ordered the killing of original “Superman” George Reeves.
Mannix probably would have ended up a low-level mobster buried in the Meadowlands had he not gone to work for Nick Schenck in 1919. Schenck owned amusement parks and movie houses. Mannix became his right-hand man. When Schenck acquired MGM in a deal, he dispatched Mannix to Los Angeles to keep tabs on the studio, and Mayer in particular. In his heyday, unlike those mild- mannered contemporary operatives, Mannix was suspected of plotting murder and accused by the news media of beating his wife, who died in a car crash in Palm Springs, just before a planned divorce filing. But he was nonetheless buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, on Sept 3, 1963, after a solemn high requiem mass. Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, then the archbishop of Los Angeles, presided. James Stewart was a pallbearer.
In “Hail, Caesar!,” Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix gets into the spirit. He hunts up a husband for his bawdy, pregnant water ballet star, played by Scarlett Johansson. He also slaps around his major studio-star (played by George Clooney, as a none-too-bright actor).
In the film, Scarlett Johanssen plays a Hollywood star donning a shiny green mermaid tail in preparation for a stunningly choreographed synchronized-swimming routine straight out of the 1952 Esther Williams tuner “Million Dollar Mermaid“. Or quite possibly a reference to the Busby Berkley style musical productions involving choreographed synchronized swimming.
Channing Tatum plays a sailor-suited character named Burt Gurney; a song and dance performance role which evokes a a musical number (“No Dames”) that pays homage to “On the Town” by way of “South Pacific,”. Tatum taps and shuffles about like the Gene Kelly musicals of the era, such as Singin’ in the Rain. The performance sequence was surprisingly impressive. The sequence has veiled references to closeted gay actors in Hollywood around the time. A virtual sword of Damocles of blackmail was always hanging over the heads of homosexuals in Hollywood at the time, and that hectic and deforming terror plays as an undercurrent in the power wielded by Eddie Mannix.
Ralph Fiennes plays the prestigious director Laurence Laurentz tasked with making an elegant parlor drama called “Merrily We Dance”. It also means he is subject to Eddie Mannix’s style of enforcing the studio’s questionable decision to cast the handsome, dumb-as-a-stump cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich in a great role), a recent audience hit in a recent string of Westerns, the only star talent available at short notice. much to the quiet chagrin of the prestigious director. There is a scene of Laurence Laurentz, whose patient attempts to steer the hopeless Hobie through a single line of dialogue, which provide the film with one of its most delicious moments.
The film pokes fun at communism and the McCarthy Red Scare.There’s a kidnapping of a major star (George Clooney) just as the film’s director plans to shoot the film’s climactic final sequence. In the film, George Clooney is intellectually seduced with economic & political theories & then kidnapped by a ring of Communist screenwriters who have been blacklisted. The ring is supervised by a Soviet agent, who is also the studios singing and dancing star Burt Gurney by day (Channing Tatum), who is seen making a dramatic escapes to a Russian submarine that resurfaces off Malibu, a reference to the cold war paranoia in films such as ” The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming “ & “ Russkies ” .
The Coen brothers use satire to concoct a witty evocation of Hollywood’s communist witch-hunting era (McCarthy’s “House Un-American Activities Committee) also portrayed in a more serious form in the recent film “Trumbo” (about the legendary blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) — a connection driven home when Baird awakens in Malibu to find he’s been kidnapped by a cabal of disgruntled screenwriters, who have joined the Communist Party to protest “the pure instrument of capitalism” that studios like Capitol Pictures have become. “Capitol Pictures” is the fictional amalgamation sly amalgam of the Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony lots, a representative of the studio system culture & influence of the day.
There also the presence of rival Hollywood gossip columnists and identical twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton, reminiscent of the vicious Hollywood gossip & society columnist rivals of the era – Hedda Hopper & Pouella Parsons.
Frances McDormand makes a cameo as a film editor working feverishly at her Moviola. It’s a hilarious scene for the content, but also interesting to see that attention paid to the process of making a movie.
Hail, Cesar! also takes on religion too. Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix is portrayed as a religious guy. In one amusing early scene, Eddie consults an Eastern Orthodox clergyman, a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor and a Jewish rabbi to discuss the religious content of Baird’s Roman epic; the ensuing discussion pokes deft fun at the petty sectarianism of organized religion, and the ease with which it can be pounded and churned into big-screen mainstream film material. The film being shown as being filmed in Hail Cesar! is also titled “Hail Cesar! with a sub-title “The Tale Of The Christ” and most certainly references earlier religion-themed films like “Quo Vadis” and “The Bible”.
In “Hail, Caesar!,” the Coen brothers portray movies as inseparable from the way they’re made. Their Hollywood is inseparable from Eddie Mannix, from a fixer who can smack actors in the face, commandeer a suitcase full of cash, make legal troubles vanish with a handshake and a bankroll, deal with criminal matters on his own and keep the authorities out of them. Of the films-within-a-film that the Coens show in production at Capitol, there’s one big genre that’s missing—the film noir—because Eddie’s story, off-screen, is the real-life film noir that pervades every movie unawares.
The movie is written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who most recently co-wrote the screenplays for current Best Picture nominee “Bridge of Spies,” which Steven Spielberg directed, and the 2014 Angelina Jolie-directed drama, “Unbroken.” The last film they directed was 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which introduced many filmgoers to Oscar Isaac, one of the new faces in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
The Coens see the absurdity and the narrowness in the grandeur of the Hollywood mythology on which they were raised. Movies are different now because the people who make them don’t—and can’t—exercise the same sort of plenipotentiary power; because studio heads are no longer godlike; because studios as such, with their closed complexes of soundstages and paternalistic control over actors’ lives, no longer exist. Yet the Coens look back upon those movies with a specific nostalgia for a lost faith. The religion that the Coens grew up with wasn’t Christianity, but it was the American religion—Hollywood.
The American religion of Hollywood is also, in the Coens’ antic view, the essence of American power. A sidebar involving Eddie with Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin today), a big-time military contractor puts him in the face of a challenge—the confrontation of Hollywood’s “make-believe” with real life, of his “frivolous” work with “serious” businesses, of military might versus what ultimately will become known as soft power.