Breaking the Fourth Wall

It isn’t something we think about much while we’re watching the characters in a film, a play, or on TV. They might be interacting in a living room, bedroom, office, or other indoor setting, but we are essentially viewing them through an invisible “fourth wall.” After all, if every production set retained all four walls, as they would in a real life home or building, we wouldn’t be afforded a very good view of the action, would we? Moreover, since we’re following the characters within a fictional story, we certainly don’t expect them to acknowledge us, the audience, as we sit in a theatre or on a sofa at home. However, there have been films and programs featuring characters who would break the fourth wall, however briefly, by turning to the audience directly to share exactly what he or she is thinking at that moment. They might do so by expressing a thought verbally, or with a raised eyebrow, frown, or weary look.

Breaking the fourth wall isn’t used often in comedy, but it can create a stronger affinity with the character who briefly acknowledges us. A handful of the most popular film comedies in the past few decades (the Airplane! and Naked Gun films, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) have indulged in the practice, but the gag hearkens back to a much earlier era.

Oliver Hardy is most commonly credited for being the first film comedian to break the fourth wall, via his exasperated looks and silent pleas for sympathy to the camera/audience, in response to a ridiculous comment or inept action by his pal Stan Laurel.

Ollie perfected the look in their silent films, and carried it into the sound era–however, he didn’t actually speak to the audience.

 

On a more verbal level of wall-breaking, Groucho Marx habitually spoke to his audience from the screen, beginning with the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts (1929). His asides become increasingly brazen in the brothers’ second feature, Animal Crackers, released in 1930 (both films were adapted from their Broadway hits). In one Animal Crackers scene, after he delivers a weak pun, Groucho turns to the camera and admits, “Well all the jokes can’t be good, you’ve got to expect that once in a while!” This practice reaches an apex of sorts in Horsefeathers (1932).During a scene in which Groucho, Harpo, and Chico vie for co-star Thelma Todd’s affections,

Groucho must wait his turn while Chico flirts with Todd at the piano. Finally, Groucho gets up, strides to the camera, and says, “I’ve got to stay here. But there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out to the lobby until this thing blows over.”

 

W.C. Fields, known for his delightful way of muttering now-classic lines to himself throughout most of his films, takes a casual turn to the camera in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). Awaiting an ice cream soda at a snack counter, he informs us, “This was supposed to take place in a saloon, but the censor cut it out. It’ll play just as well.”

Breaking the fourth wall surfaced in the early television age, most notably on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which premiered in 1950. In each episode, Burns takes periodic opportunities to offer his comments on that week’s plot before returning to the action, or would turn to the camera in mid-scene to register a look of skepticism on the proceedings.

In addition, he often retreats to his den on occasion, turns to us, and says something along the lines of, “Let’s see how Gracie’s going to handle the vacuum cleaner salesman,” before switching on his TV to watch Gracie and the other characters in conversation within the story–thus allowing Burns to both retain and break the fourth wall at the same time!

Other sitcoms have featured characters known to take a moment to speak to us directly. In The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, thoughtful teenager Dobie (often seen mimicking the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker) keeps us apprised of each new dilemma, perhaps with an idea of how to deal with the situation and its consequences.

The 1965 season brought us Gidget, another smartly-written sitcom, following the life of California teen Frances “Gidget” Lawrence. Like Dobie, Gidget, in her moments alone, often takes time to share with us her hopes, frustrations, and questions of the day.

Comedian Garry Shandling revived the technique in his 1980s cable sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and the technique also worked well for the 1990s children’s sitcom Clarissa Explains It All, starring Melissa Joan Hart. In each episode, clever pre-teen Clarissa speaks to her viewers much in the same manner as Gidget had a generation before.

Then there is The Office, created in the U.K. by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, using the “mockumentary” style of filming.

Gervais’ character, David Brent, and others in the fictional office of a paper company, go about their day while being followed and interviewed by a documentary crew. With this style, of course, there is no fourth wall to begin with, and therefore no wall to “break” (but the sideways glances Gervais gives the camera are priceless nonetheless).

Perhaps the most interesting way of breaking the fourth wall on TV has come with Modern Family, winner of five consecutive Emmys for Best Sitcom (and topic of a future blog here). The members of the extended Pritchett/Dunphy family are also subjects of a documentary crew, and, when not being filmed in their daily activities, periodically take part in brief interview segments, as they sit on their respective living room sofas and speak to the camera about the events we’ve either just witnessed, or are most likely to see shortly.

And, during the “action” scenes, they treat us to the same kind of sideways glances and/or mortified stares at the camera, much to the same hilarious effect Oliver Hardy achieved 80 years earlier. The show has always walked a razor-thin line of having the characters aware of being filmed, but without overindulging in the conceit (i.e. a character never turns to the camera mid-scene to remark on the action within that scene, but he or she often does so during an abrupt cutaway to their sofa interview). To me, it’s television bliss.

There’s likely to be still more wall-breaking in future films and TV shows, so here’s hoping they’ll continue the line of innovation established by their comic predecessors.

Two Smashing Films, With Love, at 50

Anglophiles, take note: This year marks more than the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Recently, I realized that 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of two films that don’t have much in common with each other, except that they were filmed on location in London during the height of the “Swinging Sixties” era of fads in music, fashions, and lifestyles that came and went with the wind. One of these films, To Sir With Love, is a drama, and the other, Smashing Time, is a daffy, slapstick comedy. While the two obviously had very different goals when they were made, they’re still enjoyable today for what they brought to movie screens in 1967.

To Sir With Love, written and directed by James Clavell (based on E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel), stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackery, an engineer who lands a teach job in London’s East End, until something more suited to his skills comes along. He positively reeks of personal integrity in a hostile environment of rough, Cockney-speaking hooligans. And those are just the girls. The boys are jaded, angry, and definitely uninterested in actually learning anything in school. In his classroom, the articulate and patient Mark struggles to get a handle on what makes his students tick, and tries to teach them anything he can think of that might make an impression on them. Early failures, plus one or two tense confrontations, leave him discouraged. His weary fellow teachers look on with sympathy, but without much optimism that his efforts will succeed.

Clockwise from bottom: Lulu, Judy Geeson, Sidney Poitier, Suzy Kendall

Then it dawns on Mark that conventional lessons and textbooks would be useless to his class, and what they really need is an education on how to enter the real world as mature, responsible adults. He insists that they address each other as “Mr.” and “Miss,” but, with some prodding, he also opens up a bit about himself and his early life, which they find intriguing.

Seeing a glimmer of hope, gives them a cooking lesson, and arranges a field trip to an art museum. In perhaps the most beautiful sequence of the film, we’re treated to a photo montage of the students as they explore the museum and its classical art and sculptures. The images are accompanied by the famous “To Sir With Love” theme song (sung by Lulu, who plays one of the students). It’s an unforgettable scene.

The two women who have fallen for Mark: Pam…

There are setbacks in Mark’s growing relationship with his class, however. He learns that one of his students, Pamela Dare (the charismatic Judy Geeson), is falling in love with him–and so is one of his teaching colleagues, Gillian (Suzy Kendall).

…and Gillian

At semester’s end, Mark is offered a job as an engineer in an electronics firm, which he accepts, but he isn’t prepared for the heartfelt goodbye his once-rebellious students have prepared for him. The final scene…well, if you’ve seen the movie, you remember it. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? It’s been out for fifty years!

 

Smashing Time, written by George Melly and directed by Desmond Davis, couldn’t be a more different film, yet it gives us another but cheerier helping of London in 1967, as seen through the eyes of adventurous extrovert Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave), and her put-upon best friend Brenda (Rita Tushingham), who have traveled from the north to seek fame and fortune, and all the city has to offer.

Once there, they soon lose their money, get themselves hired and fired from a number of jobs, and encounter characters ranging from a snooty boutique owner, to a lecherous, middle-aged playboy (Ian Carmichael) who has Yvonne in his sights, until Brenda masterfully sabotages his attempted seduction. The girls also meet a slick manager (Jeremy Lloyd) who actually succeeds in turning tone-deaf Yvonne into a singing sensation.

Meanwhile, Brenda finds herself attracted to a young, arrogant, but successful fashion photographer Tom Wabe (Michael York), who is equally attracted to her, and quickly makes her a print and TV model, rivaling Yvonne’s own inexplicable popularity. The girl’s friendship then threatens to veer into a personal rivalry.

Along the way, we’re treated to a bit of music (sung by the girls), a good old-fashioned pie fight, a hilarious satire of the pop music recording industry, and even a parody of the Candid Camera style of hidden-camera reality TV shows. Cramming so much into the film makes for a few uneven patches, and it’s all very silly, but mostly very funny, and the two leads are charming.

Yvonne and Tom Wabe find themselves victims of several airborne pies.
Yvonne’s awful singing is magically transformed into a #1 hit.

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike her shy, frumpy title character in her film Georgy Girl the previous year, Redgrave barrels through Smashing Time like a bull in a china shop, with Tushingham equally wonderful as her more sensible, eye-rolling foil. Their hijinx gives the film an undeniable energy. Plus, we even get to wander down the famously trendy Carnaby Street, set to Redgrave’s cheerful warbling on the soundtrack, giving us a glimpse of London’s symbol of pop culture among the “with it” young people at the time.

Seek out both of these films, and enjoy!
Until next Tuesday…

Today, I am a blogger.

Considering how long it’s been taking me to get comfortable with 21st century technology, today marks a big step for me. I still don’t use a smartphone. I don’t text. I don’t tweet. But, as of today, I do blog! While it’s already become a commonplace thing to do (and, in some circles, mocked), I hope this weekly blog will prove to be both informative and entertaining. It will focus mostly on various aspects of pop culture, and from a historical perspective, whenever possible.

I’ve written five non-fiction and three fiction books. Hopefully, there is more to come from each side of my writing brain. I’ve always had diverse interests competing for my attention: science, history, world events, and, of course, pop culture–probably before it was even called pop culture. Ever since my childhood, I’ve absorbed whatever has fascinated and/or entertained me in movies, television, music, etc., and I’ve always been curious and eager to learn, rather than just experience it passively, without knowing the story behind the creation.

A little bit about how I got to be this way…

One day, when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, I was having lunch at home (back when we had an hour to go home every day for lunch), when I decided, for no reason other than curiosity, to listen to my parent’s 8-track tape of Beethoven’s Greatest Hits. I liked it! So, for the next few years, I became obsessed with Beethoven, reading about his life, and listening to records of his music, given to me as birthday and holiday gifts by somewhat confused but supportive family members. I didn’t really understand Beethoven’s music the way an adult with a more sophisticated set of ears would, and I probably didn’t read his biography from cover to cover, but I just thought he was cool. Plus, I kind of liked impressing my elders with my new musical preferences (even though it wasn’t much of a chick magnet in the 6th grade).

A year or two later, I gave a random listen to a Benny Goodman album, featuring the big band music my parents had grown up with in the 1940s. I loved that too, and promptly immersed myself in big band jazz. Around the same time, I discovered the Marx Brothers films on TV, and read about them as much as I could as well. I often talked my parents or older brothers into driving me from our home in suburban New Jersey into New York City, so I could attend all-day Marx Brothers film festivals. My current love of past and present comedy grew from the Marxes, Laurel & Hardy, and W. C. Fields. Again, it was always important to me to learn as I laughed, even if I had to teach myself. Watching “The Odd Couple” film and sitcom led me to buy a collection of Neil Simon’s plays. I memorized “The Odd Couple” and a few others, just for the love of his brilliantly funny dialogue. And, I learned how to write comedy from this–or so I like to think.

And then there were the Beatles. They’ve been a constant in my life since I was about three years old, dancing to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” even before I could sing it. The Fab Four are still a presence in some part of my consciousness every single day.

Many Beatles fans are also Anglophiles by extension, and I’m no exception. I spent my ninth birthday in London, where my family visited my brother during the college year he spent studying there. I fell n love with London and its environs and culture, all while peeking around every corner with the hope of catching an errant Beatle walking by or crossing the street.

And, most Anglophiles love British comedy, too, and again I’m no exception (how’s that for a segue?) Upon discovering “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and the wave of Britcoms that followed that classic series across the pond, I videotaped hundreds of hours, and eventually decided to do something constructive with all of that footage, resulting in my book “Best of the Britcoms.”

You get the idea, even though I’m leaving out quite a lot. But his is just my introductory blog, and with some luck I’ll fill in the gaps as I go from week to week, and from pop culture topic to pop culture topic. Some weeks I’ll use this space to delve more deeply into topic I’v discussed in my books; other weeks I might give new life to a passage from a book or magazine article I’ve written that never got to see the light of day. And there are a fair number of past and present movies, TV shows, and albums about which I’d like to offer my two cents. Hopefully, you’ll find yourself equally interested in may of the topic that clutter my mind on a regular basis, and will return each week to share a bit, and even learn a bit.

See you next week!

–Garry