This article contains some spoilers.
Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers’ latest film and, by all measures, their lightest in over half-a-decade. After eight years of somber reflection, from A Serious Man through True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis, they have returned to what they themselves have affectionately nicknamed their “Numbskull” films.
Originally envisioned as a trilogy, you can spot these installments due to their deadpan absurdity and penchant for casting George Clooney as the most hammy of morons: O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Intolerable Cruelty; Burn After Reading. However, well before Burn or even their Oscar wins for No Country For Old Men, the original third part in this series was intended to be Hail, Caesar!, a comedy of ignorance and in-jokes with the backdrop of old Hollywood.
Equal parts love letter and bemused mocking of the studio system that turned out as many formulaic daydreams as the superhero and tentpole crazes of today, there is a real sense of overwhelming nostalgia from the Coens, especialy as far as MGM is concerned. Indeed, the plot feels almost like a piecemeal afterthought when compared to the brothers Ethan and Joel finally getting to do their Stanley Donen musical number or their Biblical Epic for a day.
But what are the actual movies and Hollywood legends that Hail, Caesar! is peppered with? Join us as we unpack 13 references to old movies and gossip (and gossip columnists!) from that era…
The most obvious “Easter Egg” is also the most literal one (right down to the subtitle): Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Technically speaking, Ben-Hur is actually a literary product of the post-Civil War United States. But to most folks these days, it’s that film where Charlton Heston leads a team of white horses in the most thrilling chariot scene (or perhaps action scene, period) ever put to film. And that 1959 MGM classic is also a remake of a 1925 silent film by the same name.
Both are famous for their chariot races and pseudo-piety, but the 1959 one has a special degree of charming ham since it features Heston’s performance of a Hebrew marble statue converting to Christianity after meeting Christ. Director William Wyler famously remarked that “it took a Jew to make a good film about Christ,” and indeed the film features the committee approved religiosity we see in Hail Caesar! It also begins with the Christmas story as off-screen angels visit shepherds, and later features Judah Ben-Hur paying homage to the Emperor Tiberius.
But the best comparison is how the Coens lovingly skewer the scene where Ben-Hur (now a slave) meets Christ and is given water despite the protestation of awed Romans.
Another on-the-nose comparison is Scarlett Johansson playing a foul-mouthed Brooklynite version of Esther Williams, MGM’s very own “Bathing Beauty” and “Million Dollar Mermaid.”
Unlike Johansson’s character, Williams was less scandal prone—although she was married four times and thought her second husband was a “parasite.’ Training in the 1930s to compete for a gold medal in swimming, Williams missed her opportunity when the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled due to World War II. To make a living, Williams changed gears toward entertainment by appearing in a Californian “Aquacade” (a musical revue in the water). This eventually led to her becoming a sparkling wet movie star at MGM with films like Bathing Beauty (1944) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949).
But Hail, Caesar! is specifically nodding (and perhaps laughing at?) Million Dollar Mermaid, an MGM crown jewel from 1952 where Williams ostensibly is starring in a biopic about Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, the young woman who shocked the world by swimming the distance of 26 miles, and then further outraged it by wearing a scandalous one-piece bathing suit. However, the MGM version is most memorable for the scenes where Williams’ Kellerman goes all out for aquatic musical numbers involving fish feet in New York and Hollywood.
While Gene Kelly was most certainly not a commie spy (that we know about!), this ultimate song and dance man is clearly the inspiration for Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney. Of course there were many important top hat-wearing movie stars, but Kelly (like Tatum) was a far more athletic onscreen persona than the traditionally ballroom-oriented Fred Astaire. Also a few years younger, he wasn’t just about wowing with intricate tap maneuvers; he bounced around with acrobatic stunt work that made use of all environments.
Tatum is clearly trying to emulate that ability to transition from tap to ballet, to stunts in what is probably the best scene in Hail, Caesar! Forget Magic Mike or Step Up; give Tatum a musical and dance movie with the grace and humor of Stanley Donen’s best efforts, which included MGM’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and the Gene Kelly vehicle Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
…. I would not include Donen's On the Town (1949) as being of that caliber, but it is certainly a classic that stars Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as a trio of sailors who only have one day in New York to see the sights and pick up the dames. That is most obviously what the Hail, Caesar! number is referencing. Then again, it could also be winking at Anchors Aweigh (1945), which also starred Kelly and Sinatra as singing, dancing, and all around lovelorn sailors.
Ralph Fiennes has one of the funniest scenes of the movie when he tries to teach Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy how to properly speak for a drawing room drama. We imagine that a classical Hollywood old schooler like George Cukor had this problem multiple times over the years.
Cukor, while hardly British, still carried himself like an aristocrat at times and most surely was known around town for his alternative romantic proclivities as a closeted gay man. He was also a brilliant storyteller that jumped between period dramas, screwball comedies, and musicals, including (but not limited to) Little Women (1933), The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Gaslight (1944), Adam’s Rib (1949), A Star is Born (1954), and My Fair Lady (1964).
Helming lavish spectacles of the highest prestige, Cukor had a habit of bringing the best out of Katharine Hepburn throughout her career, as well as knowing how to photograph the most exquisite costumes. Simply look at the below clip from My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn (who many at the time thought was miscast as the cockney-turned-posh flower girl), and her in-story troubles with pulling off the proper affectation.
One of the best discoveries in Hail, Caesar! is how the Coens revealed a great comedic talent in Alden Ehreneich. The young actor plays Hobie Doyle, a sweet-faced cowboy who seems happiest when he sits back singing on his guitar. The “singing cowboy” trope was a regular of the gentler Westerns of yesteryear. Decidedly more Gene Autry than John Wayne, the Coens would appear to be channeling the Saturday morning cowboys who picked up a four-string guitar and let fly the song in their heart for the children who crammed into the local theater.
Another Western star famed for his ability to sing in film and television was Roy Rogers, who in addition to his sequin shirts was also a bit younger than Autry (who began his career in silent films). Rogers even appeared in a familiar sounding picture, 1938’s Shine On, Harvest Moon (1938), which you can view the opening of in the below clip. Still, Rogers was from Ohio while Autry, like Doyle, was 100 percent authentically Texan.
And if Hobie is Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, then J.R. Horne (who appears as Curly in one of Hobie’s movies) is most obviously Gabby Hayes. George “Gabby” Hayes appeared as a supporting sidekick to both actors, and he appeared in over 40 Roy Rogers films to boot. Noticeable for his garbled cadence and habit to mutter incoherent gibberish in place of dialogue, Gabby Hayes played Gabby Whittaker dozens of times for Republic Pictures, often with a bee in his bonnet about one incomprehensible thing or another.
Another classic movie star not from the MGM stable appearing in spirit in Hail, Caesar! is Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell who was briefly the biggest movie star in Hollywood during the World War II years. Indeed, after President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy encouraged trading with Latin America, Miranda became one of the biggest exports ever.
First appearing on the Great White Way, where she was described as having “saved Broadway from the World’s Fair” in 1939, Miranda quickly found herself appearing in 20th Century Fox star vehicles like Down Argentine Way (1940), That Night in Rio (1941), and United Artists’ Copacabana (1947), which partnered her with Groucho Marx. During the early ‘40s, she was the highest paid entertainer in Hollywood.
While few of her films have necessarily stood the test of time, her iconography of being able to dance with bananas and other assorted fruit on her head remains one of the most indelible images of ‘40s pop culture.
The fact that Tilda Swinton is playing twin gossip columnists (Thora and Thessaly Thacker) might be a Coen Brothers eccentricity, but both are still the same woman: Hedda Hopper.
Hopper was a one-time movie starlet during the silent era who became a gossip columnist when the spotlight began to wane during the rise of the talkies. Appearing as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times in 1938, Hopper made her name by eviscerating movie stars with salacious gossip and scandal. After becoming famous enough to finally purchase her Beverly Hills home, Hopper is said to have nicknamed it “The House that Fear Built.”
However, her twin sister rivalry in the Coen film is still based on some reality since Hopper did have a fierce competition with Louella Parsons, William Randolph Hearst’s personal columnist at the LA Examiner, who routinely boasted that she was read by 20 million readers. She also was a handy voice to have since Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, was starring in MGM (and later Warner Bros.) pictures.
Hedda Hopper is most notorious these days, however, for helping fan the flames of hysteria and Communist witch hunts during the 1950s, which was bleakly recalled in last year’s Trumbo where she was played by Helen Mirren.
Speaking of Trumbo, the hardships and travails introduced to the City of Angels after the formation of HUAC were lightly poked fun at in Hail, Caesar! During the 1940s and ‘50s, the U.S. House of Representatives went on a witch hunt in Hollywood for subversive elements and Bolshevik sympathies. Of course, this just led to the infamous Hollywood Blacklist where a lot of good people, including the initial “Hollywood Ten” (of which screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was a member) got blackballed after serving prison sentences in contempt of Congress.
It’s a disgraceful chapter in Hollywood history that was enabled by people like Hedda Hopper and John Wayne, however in Hail, Caesar! the absurdity of such fears was mocked when it was revealed that in this fictional world, HUAC and Joseph McCarthy were right! Every screenwriter in town is apparently a no-good commie, trying to brainwash the public with his scripts—and smuggling hundreds of thousands of American dollars to Communist spies like Burt Gurney. Unfortunately, the Coens’ joke felt a bit underserved and lacked a full punch-line beyond the inherent silliness of this illuminati-esque conspiracy occurring off the shores of Malibu.
Loretta Young began acting when she was only a child. Working in Hollywood for over 25 years, she appeared in dozens of pictures and was nominated for an Oscar twice (and she won one of them). Yet, she might be most remembered for how she had Clark Gable’s child out-of-wedlock… and the extremes she and MGM then went to hide that fact.
Having already seen one marriage annulled before working with Clark Gable on The Call of the Wild (1935), Young’s Catholic guilt did not stop her from having an affair with the then-married Gable. After becoming pregnant, she and the studio concocted an extravagant narrative, much like the one Scarlett Johansson’s DeAnne Moran almost goes through with in Hail, Caesar!, in which Young flew to England to rest from a “childhood” condition. Giving her interviews from bed and under the covers, Young hid her pregnancy as best she could. After the child was born, and named Judy, Young secretly lived with her daughter in Venice Beach until the babe was 19 months old. At this point, the daughter was transferred to the St. Elizabeth’s orphanage outside of California. Young’s mother subsequently picked up the girl the next day, and Young announced to Louella Parsons (small world, ain’t it?) that she was adopting this randomly lucky girl.
The elaborate conspiracy led to snickering around Hollywood as Judy Lewis—named after Young’s second husband, producer Tom Lewis, whom she married in 1940—resembled Gable’s facial structure. Young wouldn't admit the whole thing until her 1999 authorized biography.
Also the rumors about Clark Gable surface again in the sequence where Jonah Hill almost becomes the legal guardian of DeAnne’s daughter for a day (before marriage makes that moot). It is revealed by the movie’s Eddie Mannix that Jonah Hill’s Joseph Silverman is the ultimate company man since he once went to prison for six months to cover for one of their stars who had partaken in a hit-and-run.
This off-the-cuff joke is in reference to an actual (but untrue) rumor regarding Clark Gable. While Clark Gable was most certainly in a drunken car accident in 1945 that MGM’s Eddie Mannix tried to spin as a minor thing, the truth of the matter was that he simply wrapped his car around a tree and had to go to the hospital after devastating his body. However, there has long been a rumor (that Snopes extensively disproved) where Gable was in a car accident at some point, running over and killing a pedestrian. Afterward, he and MGM had an executive take the fall, claiming Gable was in the passenger seat. Subsequently, this mystery suit served a year in prison for manslaughter and received a $100,000 pay increase when he got out from MGM, plus a massive pension plan.
It’s an amusingly morbid piece of gossip that makes for a great Coen Brothers joke.
This one is a bit more of a reach, but when Scarlett Johansson seduces Jonah Hill in his office, the tone is far less Esther Williams aquatic musical star and much more film noir fatale. Also, I personally got the sense that she was channeling a bit of Lauren Bacall’s infamous siren call to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944) where the 19-year-old girl oozes sex with the lighting of a cigarette and some off-hand remark about lips and whistles. It certainly turned Bogie’s head…
The hardest homage to place is exactly who George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is supposed to be. The reason for the confusion might be simply due to Clooney not playing up any one movie star persona since he’s instead channeling the classic Coen Brothers “numbskull” that he has personified in three previous movies. But there are traces of at least two movie stars in the margins of his performance.
On the one hand, he is obviously overlapping with Charlton Heston’s shtick. Heston starred in three Biblical Epics, including the aforementioned Ben-Hur, and was noticeable for his stilted yet comfortingly monumental line deliveries. However, I suspect there is a little bit of Cary Grant in the performance too. This would be a natural inclination because while Cary Grant never played Biblical Epics, Clooney’s droll delivery and naturally suave demeanor has led to decades of comparisons to the coolest gentleman actor in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Also like Clooney, Grant had a preference for screwball comedy, which is what keeps Clooney doing roles like Hail, Caesar!
Additionally, there is the third act reveal that Baird Whitlock is in fact gay and had an affair with Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz to get his first role (Grant and Cukor worked together several times including in the classic Philadelphia Story). While it is unconfirmed, there are persistent rumors that Grant was gay since he lived with a man for several years—he also was married four times and had a daughter. Then again, Hail, Caesar! makes an excellent point about studio fixers in that system arranging optics…
So that is all I have collected after one viewing, but if I missed anything, feel free to let me know right below!