Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy likeminded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after Hail, Caesar!.
With Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers send up a certain period of Hollywood cinema. It’s almost specifically MGM movies of the 1940s and 1950s parodied and paid homage by the comedy, which is mostly set on the lot of the fictional Capitol Pictures.
That’s the same studio of the Coens’ Barton Fink, which is definitely worth a look now if you’ve never seen it. But it’s necessary that you be familiar with the filmmakers’ entire back catalog, as Hail, Caesar! could be considered a culmination of their work so far.
Besides their own, there are a lot of essential movies to recommend to you after you’ve seen the Coens’ latest. Yes, many of them are the classic features that clearly inspired the fake films within the film. But there are just as many additional picks related to the tone of Hail, Caesar! as well as its cast.
Montana Moon (1930)
Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy character in Hail, Caesar! is hard to pin down as far as there being a single inspiration, though his name clearly evokes William ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ Boyd. So, here’s the first musical Western credited with introducing the character type. And like many of them, it has “moon” in the title, just like Hobie Doyle’s Lazy Ol’ Moon. The cheesy MGM feature, which stars a young Joan Crawford. also mixes cowboys with formally attired folks, making it a good bridge between Doyle’s two films within the film.
Down Argentine Way (1940) and The Gang’s All Here (1943)
Veronica Osorio plays a character in Hail, Caesar! who is very obviously based on Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian singer famous for her fruit hats. Her Hollywood debut, Down Argentine Way, was part of her start as a cultural ambassador encouraged by President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, which is metaphorically represented in her being set up with an American cowboy actor. The Gang’s All Here is where the fruit hats alluded to in the Coens’ movie is most prominently featured. It also stars James Ellison, who was better known for Westerns. Osorio’s character’s name, Carlotta Valdez, references Vertigo.
Bathing Beauty (1944) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
The other most obvious inspiration for a character in the new Coen Brothers movie is Esther Williams, the Olympian-level swimmer turned aquatic musical star. Scarlett Johansson plays a similar actress, leading a spectacular Busby Berkeley style synchronized water ballet number. Although the later Million Dollar Mermaid is the more famous, and seemingly the reason Johansson’s character wears a mermaid costume, the overhead shot in Hail, Caesar! is most reminiscent of her first big splashy musical of this sort, Bathing Beauty. Or maybe it’s closes to Neptune’s Daughter. Just see at least one Williams musical.
Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On the Town (1949)
Channing Tatum’s singing seamen scene calls to mind these two MGM musicals starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors on temporary shore leave. As Lou Lumenic points out in the New York Post, Kelly was linked to communist groups but hardly to the extent that Tatum’s character is. One thing I wish about the Coens’ number: it needed a dancing cartoon mouse a la Jerry in Anchors Aweigh.
Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959)
These two MGM movies jointly informed the main film within the film, Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. Both are set in Rome during the start of Christian influence, both are remade adaptations of late 19th-century historical religious novels and the latter’s source is also subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” and has a famous chariot scene. Quo Vadis stars Robert Taylor, who testified against communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Life of Brian (1979) and History of the World: Part 1 (1981)
Much of the interruptive Golden Age of Hollywood-skewing numbers of Hail, Caesar! feel more like these two comedies than the actual movies they’re all lampooning. As I noted in my review of the Coens’ film, it even has a lisping Roman, a la Life of Brian’s Biggus Dickus. And those film within a film bits are like parts of a sketch comedy such as Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part 1, which not only features people literally shouting “Hail, Caesar!” but also has an Esther Williams inspired number during its Spanish Inquisition segment.
While Josh Brolin plays a fictional character somewhat inspired by and using the actual name of MGM “fixer” Eddie Mannix, for something closer to the real deal check out this 1950s set drama about the death of Adventures of Superman star George Reeves (Ben Affleck). Mannix, who is played by Bob Hoskins, is implied to have had a lot bigger skeletons in his closet than the sneaking of cigarettes. The movie implies he murdered Reeves. Interestingly enough, Brolin’s then-wife Diane Lane plays Mannix’s wife, Toni.
Aubrey Plaza as Dora the Explorer (2012)
Osorio is likely a new face for many viewers of Hail, Caesar!, and I admit I had never seen her in anything before, either. She comes from a comedy background and is a veteran of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. I figured it appropriate to feature one of her “short film” skits where she’s similarly sort of portraying a real person. Her impersonation of Aubrey Plaza is, she admits, really just an impression of Plaza’s Parks and Recreation character, April.
Beautiful Creatures (2013)
Ehrenreich isn’t nearly as wonderful in this YA adaptation, but now that he is getting a lot of attention, we need to remind our readers how much FSR as a whole loves Beautiful Creatures and all its campy Southern Gothic charms (I included it on my list of the best sci-fi and fantasy films of 2013). Would that it twere more popular, maybe it could have been a franchise.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
As David Ehrlich acknowledges in his excellent, very favorable review of Hail, Caesar!, the film has a lot in common with this Wes Anderson comedy. For one thing, both feature Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and Fisher Stevens. Ehrlich continues: “Both films bake their darker underpinnings beneath a frivolous screwball glaze. More crucially, both films probe the ultimate value of storytelling, and leverage their findings into lucid summations of their creators’ entire career and creative worldview.”
Bonus: You Must Remember This “MGM Stories Part 8: Eddie Mannix”
This bonus item is not a movie. It’s a podcast episode, in which host Karina Longworth explores the life and career of the real Eddie Mannix. Actually, You Must Remember This in general is worth listening to after seeing Hail, Caesar! I listened to the latest episode, the start of a new season on the Hollywood Blacklist, which fit well with the communism in Hollywood plot of the Coens’ movie. I’m pretty sure it’s also the place I first heard about Clark Gable date raping Loretta Young (another inspiration for Johansson’s character), among other secret and/or forgotten histories of the Tinseltown.