1950s, 20th Century America, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Comedies, Eddie Mannix, Esther Williams, Films about Hollywood, George Clooney, George Reeves, Hedda Hopper, Joel and Ethan Coen, Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Spencer Tracy, The Robe, Tilda Swinton, Veronica Osorio
Hail, Caesar! (2016, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen) is a rather fluffy film set in 1950s Hollywood. While LA Confidential used the period as the setting for a thriller, the Coen brothers use it as a chance to explore the silliness of the period. The plot, such as it is, involves Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a ‘fixer’ who works for Capital Pictures, covering up scandals before they can get into the media. The studio is in the middle of making a prestige Sword-and-Sandal pic about a Roman general who undergoes a religious conversion when he accidentally meets Jesus at a well. But the star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) gets kidnapped, and Mannix has to scramble to find him. There’s not really much actual history here, other than the general setting, but I figured I’d dig into some of the characters and look at whom they might be based on.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the film, you may wish to do so before reading this post, since it discusses major plot points.
Eddie Mannix was actually a real person, but Brolin’s character bares only a superficial resemblance to the real thing: basically, they’re both married, Catholic, and work as fixers, but that’s about it. The real Eddie Mannix (d.1963) was MGM’s comptroller and general manager, and worked closely with MGM’s head of publicity to control press coverage of the performers who worked for the studio. It was his job to fix the actual scandals by paying off witnesses and victims, getting the police to look the other way, and so on. He is alleged to have covered up a car accident that Clark Gable got into by making John Huston take the blame for it. (In the film, Mannix at one point alludes to covering up a similar incident.) He reportedly arranged for the destruction of a pornographic film that Joan Crawford had made while she was a teenager. When Spencer Tracy went on one of his periodic benders. Mannix had a system for how to deal with the star.
And he was largely responsible for destroying the reputation of an unfortunate young dancer and actress named Patricia Douglas, who was hired to provide companionship at a drinking party for 300 of MGM’s salesmen. Douglas was raped during the party, and when she tried to pursue charges, first in criminal court and then in civil court, Mannix used his contacts in the legal system to make the charges go away.
Mannix also had an ugly set of relationships. He cheated on his first wife, Bernice, with a dancer named Mary Nolan, whom he beat so frequently that she required 15 surgeries. When she tried to sue him, he had the police run her out of town. He may have arranged Bernice’s death in a car accident. His second wife, Toni Lanier, eventually had a long-term affair with Superman star George Reeves, with Mannix’ blessing. When Reeves called off the affair in 1958, Toni was deeply distressed, and Reeves suddenly had a car accident after the brake fluid drained out of his brake line. Not long after that, Reeves committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Connect the dots if you’re so inclined.
Baird Whitlock and Hail, Caesar!
Whitlock is an established actor who, like Spencer Tracy, has a tendency to go on long benders from which Mannix has to retrieve him. Some reviews have suggested Whitlock is modeled on Kirk Douglas, apparently because of Douglas’ involvement in Sword-and-Sandal pics like Spartacus, but I think he’s actually based more on Richard Burton, because Hail, Caesar! seems to be a spoof of The Robe. Both films are about a jaded Roman soldier who converts to Christianity after a brief encounter with Jesus; both feature a scene in which the tormented soldier stares up at Jesus as he hangs on the cross, and both films have a strategy of only filming Jesus from behind and focusing instead on the soldier’s face. The bloated speeches that Whitlock gives sound a lot like speeches from The Robe. But Quo Vadis and Ben Hur are other obvious inspirations for Hail, Caesar!
Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, who is very obviously modeled on Esther Williams. Like Williams, Moran is a bathing beauty whose water ballet films are a major money-maker in the 50s. (In fact, the Coen brothers arranged for Williams’ tank to be restored so they could film Moran’s mermaid sequence in it.) Moran is on her second divorce, working on a film, and having an affair with director Arne Slessum (Christopher Lambert), when she discovers she’s pregnant. Desperate to protect her wholesome image, Mannix arranges for her to discretely surrender the baby to a third party, with the intention of then adopting the baby as if it weren’t her own. Similarly, Williams discovered that she was pregnant by her second husband while working on Pagan Love Song; she later divorced that husband. While working on Million Dollar Mermaid, she had an affair with Victor Mature. But the detail about Moran giving up the baby and then adopting it back is taken from Loretta Young’s life, when she got pregnant with Clark Gable’s child, reportedly during a train ride.
Hobie Doyle and Carlotta Valdez
Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy. He’s an expert trick-rider and good with a lasso, but totally out of his league when he gets cast in a drawing-room romance as a playboy. Some have suggested that Doyle is modeled on Kirby Grant, best known for the tv series Sky King, but while Grant did singing cowboy films, his central shtick seems to have been trick piloting. Doyle’s more likely to be modeled on Gene Autry, who like Doyle is both a singer and an expert rider. Roy Rogers is another possibility.
Doyle gets sent on a studio-manufactured date with Latina dancer Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), who is pretty obviously Carmen Miranda. She even makes a joke about being able to dance with fruit on her head. But Miranda’s heyday was the 40s (her career went into decline after WWII), and Carlotta is a young woman. The film doesn’t delve into Miranda’s abusive marriage, alcoholism, or drug usage at all.
Laurence Laurenz and Burt Gurney
Hobie’s movie is being directed by the stuffy British Laurence Laurenz (Ralph Fiennes), who is appalled at how poorly-cast his leading man is. In one amusing sequence, he finds himself forced to give Doyle elocution lessons so he can say the line “Would that it were so simple” without his Southern accent. Laurenz seems to be a version of Laurence Olivier, especially once it’s revealed that he’s having an affair with Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum).
Gurney is a song-and-dance man. We get to see Gurney perform a classic 50s dance number called “Dames”, which is filled with innuendo (it’s probably the best scene in the whole film). It’s clearly a riff on Gene’s Kelly’s Anchors Aweigh, although the Coens were also reportedly inspired by Fred Astaire and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain. But I doubt there’s any evidence that Kelly (or Astaire or O’Connor) was gay, or that he was a communist sympathizer. And Tatum’s dance style is much more like Kelly’s working class masculinity than Astaire’s upper-class elegance.(See Update.)
Thora and Thessaly Thacker
Tilda Swinton plays twin sisters Thora and Thessaly, both of whom are gossip columnists in the mold of Hedda Hopper or Luella Parsons. Both women were famous for their ability to ferret out celebrity gossip, and although they had initially been friends, they came to hate each other and feuded for years.Hopper was both feared and despised in the late 30s and 40s for the damage her column could do; Tracy once kicked her in the ass after she revealed his relationship with Katherine Hepburn, while Joseph Cotton pulled a chair out from under her. Joan Bennett once sent her a skunk as a Valentine’s Day gift.
But the angle that Thora and Thessaly are also twin sisters was taken from Esther Lederer and Pauline Philips, better known as Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren. Landers reportedly became angry when her sister decided to start her own advice column just a few months after Landers had begun hers (without giving her any warning). For much of the rest of their lives, they had a stormy relationship (Van Buren reportedly one tried to persuade a paper to drop her sister’s column and run hers instead) and when Landers died in 2002, they were reportedly not on speaking terms, despite an apparent reconciliation in the 1960s.
Update: As a commenter on this blog pointed out, the affair between Laurenz and Gurney probably owes something to the rumors that Olivier and Danny Kaye were lovers. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support the claims, but that doesn’t mean the Coens might not have gotten inspiration from the rumors. And Kaye was suspected by the FBI of being a Communist, which fits Gurney’s character.
Want to Know More?
Hail, Caesar! [Blu-ray]is available at Amazon. If you’re in the mood for another look at Hollywood in the 1950s, check out L.A. Confidential [Blu-ray].
Like I said, there isn’t much actual history here, but if you want to read more about Hollywood scandals, you can try The Hollywood Book of Scandals : The Shocking, Often Disgraceful Deeds and Affairs of Over 100 American Movie and TV Idols