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Rob Edelman: Hail Joel And Ethan Coen

In HAIL, CAESAR!, which came to movie theaters last month, Joel and Ethan Coen offer a knowing parody of Hollywood and movie industry types as they existed 60-plus years ago. You have pretty faces, both male and female, who are superstar personalities. But once the cameras stop rolling, they are crass, pushy, or laughably thickheaded. Is this any different from some of those in the current celebrity set? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

But what is unusual about HAIL, CAESAR! is the Coen brothers’ take on the behavior and actions of industry types who are more concerned with spewing politics than creating entertainment. The same holds true for the film’s central character, a studio executive/fixer craftily played by Josh Brolin, whose name is Eddie Mannix. How many viewers will know that, once upon a time, there was a real Eddie Mannix? This Mannix, a Hollywood studio executive and producer, was born in 1891 and died in 1963. By all accounts, his life and career-- including his alleged mob connections and his alleged involvement in the death of George Reeves, who played Superman in the popular 1950s TV series-- are the total opposite of the fictionalized Eddie Mannix portrayed in HAIL, CAESAR! 

However, to fully appreciate HAIL, CAESAR! and all its nuances and references, it would be helpful to have an understanding of what Hollywood and movies were like during the industry’s Golden Age. Now certainly, HAIL, CAESAR! is not the first film to offer an insider’s view of Hollywood. A list of the finest only begins with THE PLAYER, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, IN A LONELY PLACE, GET SHORTY, SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, S.O.B., the first two versions of A STAR IS BORN, and the Coen brothers’ BARTON FINK. One of the all-time best is SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, which features a character who is right out of HAIL, CAESAR! (albeit from a different time period). She is Lina Lamont, memorably played by Jean Hagen: a silent screen luminary who, off-camera, is a comically pompous egomaniac. 

Another is SUNSET BOULEVARD, which is set in the very same era that the Coen brothers depict in HAIL, CAESAR! In one of the film’s many spot-on sequences, a struggling screenwriter, played by William Holden, desperately pitches a story idea to a big shot Paramount Pictures producer. “It’s about a baseball player,” the writer explains, “a rookie shortstop batting .347. This poor kid was once mixed up in a holdup, and he’s trying to go straight, except there are a bunch of gamblers that won’t let him. Can you see Ty Power as the shortstop? Ya got the best man for it right here on this lot. Alan Ladd. Big change of pace for Ladd... And there’s a great little part for Bill Demarest. One of the trainers. An old-time player who got beaned. Goes out of his head sometimes.”

Unfortunately for the writer, a drone from the studio readers’ department reports that she found the script “flat and trite.” The executive then observes, with subtle sarcasm, “Of course we’re, uh, we’re always looking for a Betty Hutton. Do you see it as a Betty Hutton? Now wait a minute. If we made it a girls’ softball team, put in a few numbers. Might make a cute musical, IT HAPPENED IN THE BULLPEN: THE STORY OF A WOMAN... ” Such is the creative process in Hollywood. This was so in 1950, and it’s changed very little 66 years later. 

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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