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Movie characters addressing the audience.


DougieB
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I just saw "Jersey Boys" and it used this technique throughout. I never saw the stage show but I'm assuming the device was carried over from the theater. I remember "Delovely", the musical Cole Porter biopic, used a narrator who spoke directly to the audience. It's not very common in films, maybe because it can seem more jarring than it does in theater. I'm not talking about voice-over narration, but speaking in character directly to the audience in the course of the film. I thought it was very effective in "Jersey Boys", so I'm wondering how others feel about it when filmmakers use traditional theater techniques. In the recent "Anna Karenina", what began as a theater setting shot documentary style alternately expanded into traditional filmed settings and retreated back into the theatrical setting. I know people who find this kind of thing tolerable only if it's broadly done, as in the case of Bob Hope or Mel Brooks, but I have to say I'm open to it in more serious contexts if it's done well. Any thoughts?

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One example where this technique was done effectively was in the case of "The Matchmaker" with Shirley Booth.  Most of the main characters at one time or another spoke directly to the audience while in character.  To me, it enhanced the comedy aspect.

 

Terrence.

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One example where this technique was done effectively was in the case of "The Matchmaker" with Shirley Booth.  Most of the main characters at one time or another spoke directly to the audience while in character.  To me, it enhanced the comedy aspect.

 

Terrence.

I'd forgotten about "The Matchmaker". Great example. Maybe it works best in film if done by people who've also done theater.

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More really good examples. Especially in the cases of Alfie and Ferris Beuller, the feeling that the character is taking the audience into his confidence creates a kind of bond that maybe wouldn't happen otherwise. We get to share their experience vicariously along with them.

 

Sometimes in literature there's what's called an unreliable narrator, someone who can't be taken at their word. I suppose the same could happen with a film character, someone who's being deliberately misleading when he or she talks to the audience, though I can't think of an example at the moment. It seems like it would be a good setup for a noir.

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I'm not having any luck in thinking of non-comedies that use this technique.  I was thinking of mysteries and maybe thrillers with narration (which, as pointed out, isn't quite the same) - but "with narration" is indeed the same effect: acknowledging the audience, pointedly.

 

One might issue the argument: "What else is the Drama trying to accomplish other than a pointed, person-to-person relationship?"  In a comedy, after all, the comment to the audience seems to always be humorous, or another cutesy moment at least.

 

There were several Fibber McGee & Molly DVDs released in this past year and, in one of those, Molly is chuckling at Fibber's knuckle headedness, and she says, looking off her shoulder to us, in the camera, "Isn't that just like him?"

 

Fibber responds, "Who ya talking to? You're not going crazy, are ya?" and Molly looks and winks at us again, then turns as says, "No one, dear, I'm not talking to anyone you know.  I'll never be that crazy."

 

Red Skelton did it a few times in his comedies.  Groucho did it in several and, in fact, the ending sequence of WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER is a wonderful wink wink to the audience.

 

In the radio show BURNS & ALLEN, George was narrating to the audience quite a lot.  But when the show migrated to TV, he was leaning out of sets, talking to the audience, frequently, but he also did this AS narration, too - not just an 'inside joke'.

 

What is the point of this technique?  I think there's some 'bonding' element between a character and the audience.  If that's the correct 'goal', then maybe some narration will fit into that. 

 

I'm thinking of John Dehner's great narrative voice in THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL.  His reading mostly a 'straight' text (as opposed to jokes) but he makes ironic comments, too, that can be little but humorous. 

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Woody Allen used this technique several times, most notably in "Play It Again, Sam".  It became a major plot element in "The Purple Rose Of Cairo".  

Thornton Wilder, who wrote "The Matchmaker", used the character of the stage manager to serve as both narrator and character(or characters) in "Our Town".  It helps move the story along by connecting plot elements so the audience can better follow the story.  

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                 This is referred to as "breaking the fourth wall"

         a stage term for the space between the actors and audience.

 

A good example of this in a dramatical film would be, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) - Conductor 71 breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to us.. just for a moment.

 

One of my all-time favorite films, BTW.

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It's done a few times in the great film Tom Jones, most memorably when Joyce Redman as Mrs. Waters reports to us what's going on behind closed doors. In once scene, Albert Finney asks us whether we saw who stole his money.

 

 

 

 

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Marty Feldman here breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the camera in "Young Frankenstein"...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQ6eH8vcy9c

 

Well, at least I THINK he does anyway...but with those eyes of his, it was always kind'a hard to tell, ya know!!! LOL

 

And of course, the maker of this film would often do the same thing in many of his other films when he also acted in them...

1ddfdb68822ed58ca0a20fe99bf1366e.jpg

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I believe Lawrence Olivier in his Richard III addresses the audience on more than one occasion.  The introduction to to his Henry V is spoken to the audience.  I don't recall if any of Olivier's other history or tragedy adaptations had asides.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Marty Feldman here breaks the fourth wall and talks...Well, at least I THINK he does anyway...

 

Maybe not in that scene but a great film with many of these episodes, such as Marty Feldman never needing to say a word - just use those eyes when he's snuck into the Brain Depository ("After 5 pm, please slip brains thru slot...) with this scene

6911ef79bf14c59a142f3fe3a3786181.jpg

 

Then, it's the all-knowing-grin to the audience at one of the Frau Blucher moments:

tumblr_mt1hhwStG81rgco4uo1_500.gif

 

Marty has another one where he leans back to the audience after Gene Wilder's Dr. Fronk-n-teen goes berzerk, Igor rolling his eyes to us, "Quiet dignity and grace - !"

 

Peter Boyle gets a last '4th Wall word' in and, again, with just a look over his glasses, in bed, after wife Madeline Kahm emerges 'sizzling' from the bathroom...

youngfrank243.jpeg

 

I am hard-pressed to find a film with better examples of this wonderful 'device' between actors, writers and the audience.  The film probably would have been a big hit without any of these but these were firm commitments to absolutely nail this film into our consciousness, from its first viewing on.

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So, I was watching the director's cut of 'Superman' (1978) the other day and was reminded that Christopher Reeve breaks the fourth wall at the end of the movie when he, while flying in space, looks into the camera and smiles.

 

Made me think of this thread.

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Dark, that's right... y'know, I've been trying to think of a non-comedy and SUPERMAN has that clever moment, yes... but I think it could be argued that it wasn't a comedy.  Therefore - ding ding ding - we've got a NON-COMEDY entry!  wheeee...

 

I suppose a drama doing this would "break the spell" perhaps.  I mean - Farley Granger leaning back in his commuter car's seat, looking at us - "Is Robert Walker serious?!!" probably wouldn't have been a great insertion into STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. 

 

Or Karl Swenson in the Bodega Bay diner, crying, "Tis the end of the world!" when folks are mulling the possibility of THE BIRDS mounting an attack.  Swenson could lean forward into the camera, "I've always wanted to say that!" 

 

Yeah... drama filmmakers are probably gonna nix those scenes.

 

Say... what about those William Castle films?  Those aren't comedies (although they are certainly laughable - is that the same though?)  I mean, Vincent Price talks to the audience at the end of some of those.  And William Castle bursts into a couple, warning the audiences that "it's time!"

 

Those aren't comedies but were indeed used as 'breaks in tension' I suppose.  Laughable now, but comedies?  No... I think not.

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ALFIE is another great entry. 

 

Can anyone think of '30s and '40s films - non-comedies - that used this?  (I'm trying to think of THE SAINT films, THE WHISTLERs - those mystery-crime films where an actor is doing a bit o' narration.  That's what it is - narration, at that point.  But no, I don't recall any specific scenes yet.)

 

And the ALFIE usage is a good reminder to me because while Michael Caine may be sly and cute in some remarks, he's speaking his state-of-mind with no other need to demonstrate it.  It's an efficiency tool, practically.

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Can anyone think of '30s and '40s films - non-comedies - that used this?  (I'm trying to think of THE SAINT films, THE WHISTLERs - those mystery-crime films where an actor is doing a bit o' narration.  That's what it is - narration, at that point.  But no, I don't recall any specific scenes yet.)

 

I think I have one for ya, Ollie...

 

OUR TOWN (1940) and in which 'the stage manager' played by Frank Craven here directly informs the audience of the story they're about to watch, and of course does so throughout this film's entirety.

our-town-frank-craven-1940_i-G-67-6719-2

 

(...in fact, a number of other characters also break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience during this film)

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I was surprised to see it used in Rene Clair's "And Then There Were None" (1945), which TCM showed this past week. In a scene at a dinner table, people who were making confessions to each other were suddenly shown in closeup talking directly to the camera. It seemed gimmicky and unnatural and took more away from the scene than it added. At another point, Walter Huston gave a knowing look at the camera, even though (spoiler) it was a red herring, since his character wasn't the murderer. It wasn't used consistently and was kind of a dud dramatically. 

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OUR TOWN and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE are two more good entries.  I think the observation about AND THEN's "breakup of the scene" is an interesting point - this technique can certainly change the tenor of a scene and, probably never for the better, in case of dramas or serious moments.  I mean - what's Godzilla going to say - "I HAD to crush Bambi - it's my only role in this film!!"

 

What IS the purpose of "talking to the audience", though?  As Dougie points out, Walter Huston's all knowing wink is a red-herring.  Why bother - in a mystery - to lie to the audience, to trick them?  It's not like we're going somewhere else AND it's not like the movie isn't going to conclude witih All The Right Answers.  What purpose does Huston have? 

 

In YOUNG FRANK, I think those 'all knowing looks' from the various cast are powerful attempts to bond the audience INTO the film - exactly as PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO declares (or, actually, vice versa, in that film).  It's like strapping the audience into the rollercoaster cars, at that point.  "You bought yer ticket, sure, but we're gonna give ya a GREAT seat for this ride!!"

 

OUR TOWN's intro is much like that - where the 'narrator' of sorts is holding open an additional door - you didn't just buy a ticket... you didn't just take yer seat - you're on a ride now, a journey with the rest of us! 

 

Is that the Confirmation Intent of these?  I think it's close to that, at least.

 

Think about John Dehner's narration of HALLELUJAH TRAIL, where he clears his throat and stutters occasionally to make sure the audience knows his script's most ironic comments.  He can't read those lines flatly - he's gotta use his stern voice to produce an all-knowing giggle out in the audience.  "You're here for the whole ride, yes?  Well then... here ya go..."

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