Hail, Caesar! Is A Love Letter To The Hollywood Studio System

George Clooney in Hail, Caesar! Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Hail, Caesar! isn’t just a love letter to the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age but a brilliant satire about the 1950s studio system.

“Would that it were so simple?” – a line that Hobie Doyle struggles with in a sophisticated costume drama

Hail, Caesar! had been some ten years in the making by the time of its release in 2016. Things reached a point where George Clooney messed with them by listing the film among his upcoming projects. It is truly amazing how a classic Clooney prank–which led to the project being listed on IMDb in the years before the script was written–will push a film into reality. Thank you, George. No, really. Meanwhile, Clooney describes his character as “maybe the dumbest character I’ve played for them.” The actor certainly looks like he is having fun playing the “clueless movie star.”

The Coens are not afraid of poking fun at filmmaking even as they make a Hollywood love letter. There’s a brilliance in using a 1951 setting even as they poke fun at the late 1940s and early 1950s. In as much fun as there is in the satire, there is seriousness by way of the old-school look and all the design work, not just Roger Deakins’ cinematography alone. But anyway, this particular point in time during the studio system was an interesting time. The Paramount consent decree forced studios to divest from theatrical exhibition. They were also dealing with the rise of television, which led to shrinking theatrical audiences. Throw in rising tensions from the Red Scare and Cold War, too. Hollywood responded with escapist entertainment in the form of Biblical epics, Technicolor musicals, Busby Berkeley-style aquatic spectaculars, Westerns, and sophisticated dramas.

If you’ve read any books about classic Hollywood, you’ll know that studios had their fixers. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) happened to be a real person. He is doing for Capitol Pictures what he had done in real life at MGM although the Coens write a fictitious Mannix as a composite between the real one and Howard Strickling. Mannix is portrayed as a flawed man, always going to confession. He helps the studio in making sure that talent have a clean image in the eye of the press and fans. If they get in trouble, he fixes things by covering it up. Everyone else is playing a character that draws inspiration from real people in Hollywood. For instance, identical twins Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) represent the Hedda Hopper-Louella Parsons rivalry.

The film within a film, Hail, Caesar!, stars Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as Autolycus Antoninus. This is the Coen brothers’ entry point into satirizing the historical inaccuracies of so many epic films. This problem plagued Hollywood’s Golden Age of filmmaking. For example, head over to my review of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. I’ll be honest, on first glance during my December 24 rewatch, I thought for sure that it must have been sloppy filmmaking. Nope, it’s just a brilliant satire in that regard. The renaming of Judea to Syria Palaestina did not take place until after the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE, leading to a substantial Jewish expulsion from Eretz Yisrael. This film would have you believe it was 26 CE or earlier during the reign of Tiberius, over 100 years earlier!

Whitlock going missing is just another problem that Mannix must deal with. He’s filming an expensive epic so running off is not in anyone’s best interest. Whitlock gets kidnapped and wakes up to find himself surrounded by Communists. As such, this is also our entry point into the Hollywood blacklist and Red Scare. A number of Communist screenwriters form a group known as The Future. They ransom the studio for $100,000, which is how Mannix learns of a Communist in the studio’s ranks. Anyway, The Future brainwashes Whitlock so much that Mannix has to knock some sense into him.

There’s a lot of fun in watching the rise of Hobart “Hobie” Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). The singing cowboy is perfect in Westerns but has no business in starring in the sophisticated drama that they are assigning him. This speaks to the do-as-we-say mentality of the studio system. Actors could decline roles and studios would suspend them. In any event, the focus on Doyle certainly says something about how we view celebrity and image. But still, he is not sophisticated drama material. Just ask European film director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). A longtime resident in the US, the Laurence Olivier-esque filmmaker would prefer Doyle not be in the picture. Meanwhile, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is an Esther Williams-type, who becomes pregnant during a production. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) plays a Gene Kelly-esque performer but there’s a lot of mystery to who he is.

There are a few standout set pieces when it comes to the Golden Age musicals. On the one hand, we have the “No Dames” musical, which draws inspiration from the movies where Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra are Navy sailors on leave, such as Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. The sequence is the Coens’ way of subverting what audiences know about the movie musicals of that era. The sequence really says something about the stereotypes and gender roles during the Hollywood Golden Age. When a group of sailors are about to enter, you fear the worst but then they join in the crowd. While Burt Gurney is a Gene Kelly-esque, that’s where their similarities end. Kelly would never have been a Communist.

The other standout musical piece is the synchronized swimming scene with DeeAnna Moran. It’s right out of an Esther Williams musical with crane work and all. Moran is a swimmer that becomes pregnant, which is a problem for the studio. Mannix tells her to give the baby up to foster care and then discreetly adopt, much like what happened with Loretta Young. Surety agent Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill) agrees to foster the child.

A film like Hail, Caesar! must be a dream come true for production and costume designers Jess Gonchor and Mary Zophres, respectively. The costumes exude glamour and undergo constant transformations as we traverse the various soundstages and sets filmed at various Hollywood studios, most notably Warner Bros. because it still contains a classic look. Interestingly, the filmmakers utilized backdrops that were previously featured in Ben-Hur, a testament to the meticulous attention to detail. It truly is a cinephile’s dream, as echoed by some of the actors in the bonus features who describe the film itself as a special feature. The impressive turnover in using the water tank at Sony’s Stage 30 for both the Busby Berkeley-esque film shoot and the Soviet submarine scenes adds another layer of technical achievement.

Hail, Caesar! is a brilliant satire depicting a bygone era of filmmaking that we’ll never see again.

CAST: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Max Baker, Heather Goldenhersh, Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, Ian Blackman, Fred Melamed, Josh Buthal, Robert Trebor, Geoffrey Cantor
NARRATOR: Michael Gambon

Universal Pictures released Hail, Caesar! in theaters on February 5, 2016. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.