Sunday, February 21, 2016

Hail, Ceasar! Hail Hollywood!

Hail, Ceasar!
Written, directed, edited and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen (with Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johannsen Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum)

In 1927 Warner Brothers studios released The Jazz Singer. the first feature length sound film. For 25 years thereafter the production of movies was dominated by five big movie studios: Warner Brothers, Leow's/MGM, Fox, RKO, and Paramount. These studios owned both the means of production and distribution. They had captive writers, actors, directors, film editors, and movie houses. Writers, actors, and directors worked together and produced film, after film, after film.  Talent was developed as property, as strategic business assets. The studios were wildly successful in part thanks to collusive agreements to fix prices. And they created many great movies along the way.

By 1939 there were more movie houses in the United States (15,000) than banks. The studios released 365 films that year and moviegoers spent $80,000,000 in tickets per week!  See L.A. Times.  That year included such films as The Wizard of Oz (with Judy Garland) Gunga Din  (with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), Wuthering Heights (with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (with Robert Donat),  Dark Victory (with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and the dashing newcomer Ronald Reagan), Love Affair (a smash box office hit with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer,  The Little Princess (with Shirley Temple), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,  Stanley and Livingstone (with Spencer Tracy),  and Only Angels Have Wings  (with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur).

Only Angels have Wings was directed by Howard Hawkes, a patrician director from wealthy background. He is considered one of the greatest directors that most people have not heard of.  His Wiki entry boasts that he has influenced many great film directors, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, John Carpenter, and Quentin Terantino. His work is admired by Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Truffault, and--it appears--the Coen brothers. Watch for it.

Hail Ceasar follows the adventures and existential challenges of Eddie Mannix, the namesake of a real-life Hollywood "fixer." The film is set near the end of this Hollywood studio system era, in 1951 during the Second Red Scare. The House Un-American Activities Committee was in full swing and was paying particular attention to Hollywood. In this charged atmosphere Mannix has the challenging job of protecting the reputation of the studio's stars and keeping their failings out of the tabloids. During the course of this film, which covers just two days, Mannix has to deal with a series of emergencies, including the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of a starlet, a director's rejection of a young actor that the studio wants to develop, the disappearance of the leading star during the filming of that year's blockbuster, a biblical epic (Hail, Ceasar!), handling the delivery of ransom money, and the exorcism of a star's crazy ideas that threaten to interfere with moviemaking.

It's enough to drive a normal man to drink or, in this case, to religion. Lester Mannix is good at his job, and a good Catholic.  He finds himself in confession more often than the priest thinks healthy. He is the head of a stereotypical 1950's family, which he neglects a little too much. Lockheed wants to hire him away to use his fixer talents for the development of jet planes and nuclear bombs. The pay on offer is good. Maddix has a big decision to make but his wife is clueless about what he does and is of no help in making life's big decisions. Maddix has just himself, his God, and ultimately the movies to turn to.

The straight storyline of this film is overlaid to entertaining and often hilarious effect with the plots and scenes of a number of the movies under production by the studio, the fictional "Capitol Studios," and with some big ideas that are all jumbled together and sprinkled throughout the film. What is the value of movies and movie making? Is it just a tool to confirm the status quo? Are films just an opiate for the masses? What is the nature of God? What is the relative merit of making movies or atomic bombs? What is the purpose of work? What is happiness? What is the merit of capitalism versus communism? What does it mean that Hollywood teaches us history while making up the facts? [Really, Tiberius Julius Ceasar was nowhere near Mount Calvary and no Ceasar had a Christian epiphany until Constantine in 312 A.D]

For a glorious 106 minutes we get to revel in classic Hollywood: the musicals, the dialogue set pieces, film noir, biblical epics, mermaids with synchronized swimming, and some great philosophical questions along the way... all in a comedy as only the Coen brothers can do comedy.  The Coen brothers, who are pretty close to a classic Hollywood film studio unto themselves have paid a great and earnest tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the result is very funny.