Great Scene: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

August 10th, 2016 by

In a comedy, there’s nothing better than coming up with a great set piece, something the writers and actors can milk for all it’s worth — and then some. A classic example is the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). I suspect that countless males around the world know this scene by heart, including both of my sons who have been known to act it out line for line.

Here King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his loyal sidekick Patsy (Terry Gilliam) happen upon a bridge guarded by the cruel Black Knight (John Cleese):

As he moves, the BLACK KNIGHT bars the way.

None shall pass.


None shall pass.

I have no quarrel with you, brave Sir knight, but I must
cross this bridge.

Then you shall die.

I command you, as King of the Britons to stand aside.

I move for no man.

So be it!

ARTHUR draws his sword and approaches the BLACK KNIGHT. A furious fight now starts
lasting about fifteen seconds at which point ARTHUR delivers a mighty blow which
completely severs the BLACK KNIGHT's left arm at the shoulder. ARTHUR steps back

Now stand aside worthy adversary.

(Glancing at his shoulder)
'Tis but a scratch.

A scratch? Your arm's off.

No, it isn't.

(Pointing to the arm on ground)
Well, what's that then?

I've had worse.

You're a liar.

Come on you pansy!

Another ten seconds furious fighting till ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHTS's other
arm off, also at the shoulder. The arm plus sword, lies on the ground.

Victory is mine.
(sinking to his knees)
I thank thee O Lord that in thy ...

Come on then.


He kicks ARTHUR hard on the side of the helmet. ARTHUR gets up still holding
his sword. The BLACK KNIGHT comes after him kicking.

You are indeed brave Sir knight, but the fight is mine.

Had enough?

You stupid bastard. You haven't got any arms left.

Course I have.


What! Just a flesh wound.
(kicks ARTHUR)

Stop that.

(kicking him)
Had enough ... ?

I'll have your leg.

He is kicked.


The BLACK KNIGHT kicks him again and ARTHUR chops his leg off.

The BLACK KNIGHT keeps his balance with difficulty.

I'll do you for that.

You'll what ... ?

Come Here.

What are you going to do? Bleed on me?

I'm invincible!

You're a looney.

The Black Knight always triumphs. Have at you!

ARTHUR takes his last leg off. The BLACK KNIGHT's body lands upright.

All right, we'll call it a draw.

Come, Patsy.

ARTHUR and PATSY start to cross the bridge.

Running away eh? You yellow bastard, Come back here and take
what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off!

Here is the scene in all its absurd glory:

Personal note: When my son Will was ten years old, he got pneumonia. Laid him out. At the very end of his recovery, I saw that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was playing for one night only at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica. It was – and is – one of Will’s very favorite movies, and since he’d never seen it in on the big screen before, I asked if he’d like to go. He jumped at the chance.

Unfortunately as we were driving across town, his stomach became upset, so he kept asking me to slow down. Eventually I was crawling along at about 10 miles per hour with furious Angelino drivers honking at me and cursing me as they zipped by. I almost literally had to carry Will into the theater, walking the block and a half from where I found parking.

But you know what? It was worth it. Will loved seeing the movie in a theater. I probably spent more time looking at him than I did the screen, watching his lips recite line after line of dialogue he had memorized from his many viewings of the film on video tape.

To this day, he remembers that experience, a first moment of his recovery from pneumonia and a chance to see his revered Python troupe on a big screen.

This anecdote is a reminder of how important movies can be in our personal history, even ones as silly as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Great Scene: “The Wizard of Oz”

August 3rd, 2016 by

The tornado scene sequence in The Wizard of Oz is memorable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is without it, there’s no Oz and therefore no story. This meteorological event is (my terminology) The Lock, serving as the major plot point that transitions the story from the Ordinary World (Kansas) into the Extraordinary World (Oz). The script, credited to Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the books by L. Frank Baum (in IMDB, there are 15 other people who provided uncredited writing services for the project), is an interesting read, especially to see how much camera direction existed in screenplays of that era. In fact, to read the scene, you’ll need this guide to camera shot abbreviations:

CU: Close Up

MCS: Medium Close Shot

MS: Medium Shot

MLS: Medium Long Shot

LS: Long Shot

ELS: Extra Long Shot

And now the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz

MCS -- Dorothy and Professor -- Dorothy jumps up -- picks up her basket --

goes to b.g. --

DOROTHY don't suppose she could really be
sick, do you? Oh -- Oh, I've got to go home
right away!

But -- what's this? I thought you were
going along with me.

Oh, no, no, I have to get to her right....

MCS -- Dorothy picks up Toto -- CAMERA PANS as she comes forward down
steps -- she speaks to Toto -- reacts -- CAMERA PANS left as she runs to
b.g. -- picks up suitcase -- puts Toto to ground -- both run up hill in
b.g. -- wind blowing leaves around --

...away! Come on, Toto! Oh, what'll I do?
If we go home, they'll send you to the
Sheriff. And if we don't, Aunt Em may --
well, she may die! I know what I'll do -
I'll give you to Hunk. He'll watch out for
you. But we've got to hurry. Goodbye,
Professor Marvel -- and thanks a lot!

MLS -- Professor comes out of wagon -- CAMERA PANS him left to horse --
wind blowing -- Professor looks around -- starts out left with horse --

Better get under cover, Sylvester --
there's a storm blowing up -- a whopper, to
speak in the vernacular of the peasantry.
Poor little kid -- I hope she gets home all


MS -- Farm Yard -- chickens fly down into yard -- run to b.g. toward barn
-- wind blowing weeds and dust -- CAMERA PANS up -- Uncle Henry runs
forward -- speaks to Hunk -- Hunk exits into barn at left -- Uncle Henry
comes forward -- CAMERA TRUCKS back to Hickory working on wind machine --
they speak -- then hurry to b.g. -- Zeke in b.g. runs forward -- Hickory
exits into barn --

Hunk, get them horses loose! Where's
Hickory. Hickory! Hickory! Doggone it!
Hick --

Right here.

Hey, what are you doing there?

This is my chance! The cyclone is coming.
Let me show you what my machine can do!
You see, it goes --

Doggone you! Help Hunk get them horses

All right - you'll be sorry.

Go on, hurry up! Hurry up, I tell you!

LS -- Zeke points up to sky -- Hunk and others drive horses out of barn --

She's here -- it's a twister!

ELS -- The Gale Farm -- Cyclone approaching --

MLS -- Aunt Em runs out of house -- cups hands to her mouth -- calls o.s.
-- runs to b.g. to corner of house -- calls o.s. --

Dorothy! Dorothy!

MLS -- Dorothy and Toto near fence -- Dorothy looks to b.g. to house --

LS -- Uncle Henry -- Hunk -- Hickory and Zeke -- they turn horse loose --
it runs out right --

Come on -- everybody in the storm cellar!

MLS -- Dorothy and Toto moving forward against the wind -- weeds and
sticks blowing thru -- Dorothy stops -- picks up Toto --

MLS -- Aunt Em on porch -- Uncle Henry -- Hunk -- Zeke and Hickory run in
-- Aunt Em calls o.s. again -- then all start into storm cellar --

Henry! Henry! I can't find Dorothy! She's
somewhere out in the storm! Dorothy!

MLS -- Dorothy carrying Toto -- pushes gate open -- makes her way thru
wind -- CAMERA PANS right as she goes up on to porch of house -- chair and
things blow off the porch -- Dorothy opens screen door -- the door blows
off -- Dorothy exits into house --

MLS -- Zeke and Hunk exit into storm cellar -- close the cellar door --

MLS -- Dorothy in Living room -- CAMERA PANS left as she runs across room
-- calls o.s. -- TRUCKS back as she hurries forward to kitchen -- then
exits door left --

Auntie Em! Auntie Em!

ELS -- The Gale farm -- the Cyclone approaching --

MS -- Dorothy sitting on edge of bed -- holding Toto in her arms -- the
window blows loose -- hits Dorothy on the head -- she falls to floor -
then gets up dazed - sits on edge of bed - Toto jumps up near her - she
lies back on bed --

ELS - The Gale Farm - Cyclone hits it - swirling dust circles house -

ELS - The house spinning up thru dust -

ELS - The house spinning up thru dust - other wreckage flying thru -


CU - Dorothy lying on bed - opens her eyes - looks around -

MS - Dorothy and Toto on bed - Dorothy sits up - CAMERA TRUCKS back as she
sits up - looks out window - sees trees, furniture, etc. flying thru -

MS - Dorothy looking out window - turns - speaks to Toto -

We're not on the ground, Toto!

MLS - Shooting thru window - Chicken coop flies thru - then a little old
lady sitting ie rocking chair - knitting -

MS - Dorothy and Toto - Dorothy reacts -

MLS - Shooting thru window - Cow floats thru - Cow mooing -

MS - Dorothy and Toto - Toto barks - jumps down off the bed - (Cow o.s.

MCS - Toto crawls under bed -

MS -- Dorothy sitting on bed -- looking out window to b.g. -- reacts as
various things float thru -- Two men in row boat float in -- both tip
their hats to Dorothy -- Dorothy waves to them --

MCS - Toto looks out from under bed - Cow moos o.s. - he darts back under
the bed -

MLS - Shooting through window - Cow floats thru -

MCS - Dorothy rises - looks o.s. -

MLS - Shooting thru window - tree floats thru -

MCS -- Dorothy reacts -- turns --

We must be up inside....

MCS -- Toto looks out from under bed --

...the cyclone.

CS - Dorothy looking o.s. out window - reacts - CAMERA PANS as she sits on
edge of bed -

MS -- Dorothy -- seated on edge of bed -- looking out window -- Miss Gulch
floats in -- riding her bicycle -- Dorothy reacts -- looks down to Toto --
Miss Gulch moves in closer to window -- her bicycle changes to broomstick
-- her clothes into the flying robe and pointed hat --

MCS - Dorothy looking o.s. - reacts - puts her hands over her eyes -

MLS -- Dorothy lies face down on the bed -- Miss Gulch floating thru in
b.g. -- disappears --

MS -- the swirling funnel of the cyclone -- the house spins in apart from
the cyclone --

MLS - Dorothy holding Toto in her arms - throws herself down on the bed -
screams -

ELS - The spinning house - the cyclone whirling in the background -
(Dorothy screaming)

MLS -- Dorothy and Toto lying on bed -- house spinning -- Dorothy
screams --

ELS - The house whirling down thru dust - exits lower right -

ELS -- The house whirls in at top -- floats down thru --

ELS -- The house floating down thru clouds --

MLS -- Dorothy and Toto lying on bed -- the house crashes to ground --
Dorothy screams -- she looks around -- then gets up off the bed -- goes to
b.g. -- picks up the basket -- opens door --

MCS -- Dorothy walks forward -- looking around o.s. -- CAMERA PANS as she
walks to right f.g. -- exits --

Int. Farm House -- MCS -- Dorothy enters from l.f.g. and opens the door
to reveal Munchkinland -- CAMERA BOOMS forward through the door and around
to the right -- to shoot down on FULL SHOT of Civic Center of the Munchkin
Village -- Dorothy looks around confused by it all --

MLS -- Dorothy with Toto in her arms looks about the Village and speaks --
Munchkins rise before camera in f.g. and watch her --

Toto -- I've a feeling we're not in Kansas

CS -- Dorothy with Toto in her arms -- looks about and speaks --

We must be over the rainbow!

Here is the movie version of the sequence:

Funny thing is if you eliminate the camera shots, the scene description – at points – reads pretty much akin to modern standards. For example, what if we tweak this paragraph:

Dorothy sits on the edge of her bed... clutches Toto in her arms. The
window blows loose... smacks Dorothy on the head.

She falls to floor... staggers up dazed... collapses on her bed. Toto
jumps up near her...

It would be an interesting exercise to rewrite parts of the script to modern style preferences. Then when someone asks how you’re writing is going, you can honestly say, “I’m rewriting The Wizard of Oz!

Seriously how much nicer is it not to have to insert all those camera shots into a screenplay? We have much more readable scripts nowadays. Now if we could only come up with stories as great as The Wizard of Oz!

Great Scene: “Little Miss Sunshine”

July 27th, 2016 by

In the movie Little Miss Sunshine (2006), which was released 10 years ago yesterday, there is this wonderful scene: The ending dance sequence where 7 year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) performs on stage of the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant. In the audience watching Olive do her dance routine is her father Richard (Greg Kinnear), a failed self-help motivational speaker, his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), a woman whose idea of a home-cooked meal is a bucket of take-out friend chicken, their son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who took a vow of silence until he becomes an Air Force pilot, and Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), who is living with the Hoover family after a botched suicide attempt. Olive’s dance routine was choreographed by her grandfather Edwin Hoover (Alan Arkin), who after having been kicked out of a retirement home because of unacceptable behavior, dies of a heroin overdose en route to the pageant.

We are talking about one seriously dysfunctional family.

And now perhaps the biggest disaster of all: After a series of cuter-than-cute dance routines by other young contestants, each one more chaste and endearing than the previous one, Olive takes the stage to live out her biggest fantasy — performing at the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant:

Then Olive finds what she's looking for:

Kirby, in the sound booth.

He nods at her. She nods at him.

Then Olive turns around, her back to the audience.

Kirby turns a VOLUME knob up to "6". He hits "play".

[The music clearly depends on the rights. For specificity, 
we'll use "Peach" by Prince.]

A BLAST of hard rock 12 bar blues comes out of the speakers.

Everyone is surprised.

The music is hard-driving and nasty. It is completely different 
from the other pageant music we've heard so far.

For the first four measures, with Prince saying, "Here she 
comes," and "She got them gold hot-pants on again," Olive 
barely moves, rocking her shoulders and hips to the beat.

Dwayne, Frank, Sheryl, and Richard all glance at each other.

This is not what they expected.

No one knows what to make of Olive rocking, her back turned.

However, when the first verse begins, Olive turns and 
strides up on the stage -- hands on hips, shoulders swinging 
-- with an absolute and spectacular physical self-confidence.

She rocks out, busting crazy moves this stage has never seen: 
shakes, shimmies, twirls, dips, undulations -- a melange of 
MTV rump shakin', Solid Gold Dancers re-runs, and 
out-of-left-field inventions of her own. Other moves are 
clearly drawn from Grandpa's sixty-year career of strip-bar 

She dances with a total command -- an exuberant, even witty 
mastery of her body, the music, the moves, everything.

Most of all, she's doing it for herself -- for her own sense 
of fun -- and the judges are instantly irrelevant.

The audience is stunned. No one moves. Mouths hang open. Sheryl, Frank, and Dwayne gape. Richard is baffled. RICHARD What's she doing? What the hell is she doing? When the first verse ends, Olive punctuates the 12-bar vamp with a series of violent pelvic thrusts. Everyone is totally shocked. No one knows how to react. SHERYL Oh, my God...! Abruptly, Frank starts laughing in disbelief. He stands and begins cheering Olive, pumping his fist and grooving to the music. Richard stares at Frank. Cautiously encouraged, he stands and cheers along with Frank -- tentative at first, then more and more unselfconsciously. Sheryl and Dwayne join in, relieved and amazed. Grandpa was right -- she's blowing them out of the water. As the second verse ends and the guitar solo begins, Olive punctuates the vamp with another series of thrusts. This is too much for the contest Official from the registration desk, who sits near the stage at the table of contest JUDGES, including Miss Florida. She looks around and spots Sheryl, Richard, Frank, et al, standing and cheering. The Official gets up, walks up the aisle and yells at Sheryl. OFFICIAL What is your daughter doing? Sheryl -- taken aback -- shrugs. Richard leans in. RICHARD She's kicking ass, is what she's doing! The others smile and nod. The Official is incensed. She turns and walks back to the sound booth. She yells at Kirby. OFFICIAL Turn it off! KIRBY What? OFFICIAL Turn the music off!!! KIRBY (fake deaf) What...?! He smiles and cranks the music up to "8". Mothers and children in the audience clap their hands over their ears. The audience polarizes -- some (the Grizzled Biker; Miss Florida) stand and cheer while others sit dumbfound or frown disapprovingly, shaking their heads. Still others flee for the exit, heads down, hands over their ears. The Official, furious, leaves Kirby and stalks down the aisle to the stage. Sheryl watches with growing worry. SHERYL What's she doing? Look...! She shakes Richard, points. The Official goes to the MC -- at the side of the stage -- waves to him. He bends down, listens. He nods. The MC walks onstage and tries to stop Olive from dancing, grabbing her arms. Olive doesn't know what he's doing, but she won't let him break her routine. She wiggles away and keeps dancing. Richard -- outraged -- races to the front of the auditorium, leaps on the stage, jumps on the MC's back and rides him -- piggy-back -- into the wings. They crash to the ground. Olive stops dancing, turns and looks at Richard. Richard, grappling with the MC, waves her on. RICHARD Keep dancing, Honey! Just dance! Olive turns and stares at the audience. Dwayne, Frank and Sheryl are gesturing -- "Keep going!" Olive -- hearing the music, seeing Sheryl, Frank, and Dwayne cheering her -- starts to dance again, fluid and relaxed. Richard disentangles himself from the pissed-off MC as STAGEHANDS step in and pull them apart. Richard shrugs off their restraining hands, then turns to watch Olive dance. The Contest Official steps forward and angrily confronts him. OFFICIAL Get your daughter off stage now! Richard -- taken aback -- hesitates. She presses him. OFFICIAL If you don't stop her, she'll be disqualified! Richard stares at her. Then he nods. RICHARD Okay. He turns and walks out on stage. Olive, seeing him, is confused. He steps up behind her. Then Richard starts dancing. They dance together: Olive in front, Richard backing her up. Richard looks at the Official with a defiant, fuck-you smile. Sheryl, Frank and Dwayne, watching, can't believe it. DWAYNE Holy shit...! FRANK (to Sheryl) You married that guy? Sheryl shakes her head -- she can't believe it either. Frank runs down the aisle, jumps on stage, and dances next to Richard -- a surprisingly competent set of butt-wagging, party-music moves. Dwayne follows Frank up on stage. Sheryl pauses a moment and watches her family. Richard waves to Sheryl to join them. A beat. Then Sheryl walks, then runs, and jumps up on stage. Richard helps her up, and they dance together. Kirby cranks it up to "10". MUSIC is overpowering everything. As the song winds up, Sheryl lines up next to Olive for a unified series of thrusts. As the final cymbal crashes, Olive pulls up her shirt to reveal "Peach" is written on her tummy with magic marker. Audience MEMBERS respond with a standing ovation. Frank and Dwayne strut around with their arms in the air, like victorious professional wrestlers. Richard picks up Olive, swings her in the air. Sheryl walks over and hugs Richard and Olive. FADE TO BLACK AND SILENCE

Screenwriter Michael Arndt deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2007 because the script is a gem — exemplified by this scene. Every beat in the movie has been building to this moment. This is the Big Set Piece — and the scene delivers on every level, from the comic chaos of Olive’s dance routine to the satisfaction of this flawed and fractured family, coming together as one to support Olive in her moment of glory.

And don’t overlook the obvious: How Arndt manages to describe the action without bogging down the reader in endless details of Olive’s routine:

She rocks out, busting crazy moves this stage has never seen: shakes, shimmies, twirls, dips, undulations — a melange of MTV rump shakin’, Solid Gold Dancers re-runs, and out-of-left-field inventions of her own. Other moves are clearly drawn from Grandpa’s sixty-year career of strip-bar patronage.

The description is visual, fun, and establishes a clear feel for the moment.

As great as the scene is on paper, the job that co-directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, the actors, and the choreographer did in translating it onto the screen is equally masterful. There all sorts of grace notes throughout, each carrying with it meaning and emotional subtext. Check out the scene from the movie:

You can go here to see an extended interview with Arndt in which he describes how he came to write, then sell Little Miss Sunshine.

Great Scene: “Sideways”

July 20th, 2016 by

If one of my students can’t quite grasp the concept of “subtext,” often I’ll have them read this scene in the movie Sideways. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (based on the novel by Rex Pickett), it’s a great script for many reasons, not the least of which is that Payne & Taylor make us care about Miles (Paul Giamatti), the story’s largely unlikeable protagonist.

In this scene, Miles and Maya (Virginia Madsen) have been sharing a few moments alone together. Up to this point, there have been some indirect ‘messages’ each has sent to the other signaling perhaps a mutual romantic interest. And then Maya asks a question:

                      Why are you so into Pinot? It's like
                      a thing with you.

            Miles laughs at first, then smiles wistfully at the question.
            He searches for the answer in his glass and begins slowly.

                      I don't know. It's a hard grape to
                      grow. As you know. It's thin-skinned,
                      temperamental, ripens early. It's
                      not a survivor like Cabernet that
                      can grow anywhere and thrive even
                      when neglected. Pinot needs constant
                      care and attention and in fact can
                      only grow in specific little tucked-
                      away corners of the world. And only
                      the most patient and nurturing growers
                      can do it really, can tap into Pinot's
                      most fragile, delicate qualities.
                      Only when someone has taken the time
                      to truly understand its potential
                      can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest
                      expression. And when that happens,
                      its flavors are the most haunting
                      and brilliant and subtle and thrilling
                      and ancient on the planet.

            Maya has found this answer revealing and moving.

                      I mean, Cabernets can be powerful
                      and exalting, but they seem prosaic
                      to me for some reason. By comparison.
                      How about you?

                      What about me?

                      I don't know. Why are you into wine?

                      I suppose I got really into wine
                      originally through my ex-husband. He
                      had a big, kind of show-off cellar.
                      But then I found out that I have a
                      really sharp palate, and the more I
                      drank, the more I liked what it made
                      me think about.

                      Yeah? Like what?

                      Like what a fraud he was.

            Miles laughs.

                      No, but I do like to think about the
                      life of wine, how it's a living thing.
                      I like to think about what was going
                      on the year the grapes were growing,
                      how the sun was shining that summer
                      or if it rained... what the weather
                      was like. I think about all those
                      people who tended and picked the
                      grapes, and if it's an old wine, how
                      many of them must be dead by now. I
                      love how wine continues to evolve,
                      how every time I open a bottle it's
                      going to taste different than if I
                      had opened it on any other day.
                      Because a bottle of wine is actually
                      alive -- it's constantly evolving
                      and gaining complexity. That is,
                      until it peaks -- like your '61 --
                      and begins its steady, inevitable
                      decline. And it tastes so fucking

            Now it is Miles's turn to be swept away. Maya's face tells
            us the moment is right, but Miles remains frozen. He needs
            another sign, and Maya is bold enough to offer it: reaches
            out and places one hand atop his.

                      Bathroom over there?


            Miles gets up and walks out. Maya sighs and gets and American
            Spirit out of her purse.

So what is Miles really talking about? In the External World of this screenplay universe, he’s talking about wine, but in the Internal World he’s talking about — himself. “Pinot needs constant care and attention… only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it… tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities… only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential… coaxed into its fullest expression… the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient.” In that moment, this is Miles’ beatific expression of his own self-image, a misunderstood person, unappreciated novelist, and an unrequited romantic.

Now let’s look at Maya’s monologue to see who she’s really talking about: “It’s a living thing… continues to evolve… actually alive… constantly evolving, gaining complexity.” Again these words resonate about the speaker as Maya works as a waitress, however she’s evolving by taking college courses, learning about wine, and has aspirations about taking that up as a career.

In dialogue, subtext is where characters talk about Subject A (in the External World), but mean something about Subject B (in the Internal World). If you find your characters’ dialogue to be too ‘on-the-nose’ or play too much ‘up top’ in scenes, find something completely unrelated to what you want the characters to communicate — washing dishes, changing the oil in the car, playing golf. Give them some bit of business to do – then see what your characters do with that to communicate what they really mean to talk about.

Great Scene: “Young Frankenstein”

July 13th, 2016 by

Ah, the old song-and-dance routine. A Hollywood staple. Images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron swooping across the silver screen. And of course, that incomparable duo Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle from the fantastic comedy Young Frankenstein (1974). Adapted by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks from Mary Shelly’s famous novel, the movie provides one send-up of horror movies after another including this great dance scene, where Wilder, playing Dr. Frankenstein, introduces his creation The Monster, played by Boyle, to a live theater audience:

109	ANOTHER ANGLE								

	as A SPOTLIGHT hits the darkness next to him.

	And there -- IN TOP HAT AND TAILS -- stands the Monster.
	he is heavily made up.

				(playing the piano
				and singing)
			If you're blue and you
			don't know where to
			go to, why don't you...

	The Monster accompanies the music with short, simple
	"Soft Shoe" steps.

			...go where fashion

			Poo -- tmmm anngh ma Ritz!

			Diff'rent types who wear
			a day coat, pants
			with stripes and cutaway
			coat, perfect

			Poo -- tmmm anngh ma Ritz!

			Dressed up like a
			million dollar
			Trying hard to
			look like Gary

			Soo -- pah doo -- per.

	The Audience's faces are absolutely blank.  Inga and
	Igor are thrilled.

			Come let's mix where Rock-
			e -- fellers walk
			with sticks or 'um-ber-
			el-las' in their


			Poo -- tmmm anngh ma Ritz!

	The Monster gets a tomato right in the face.  He stops cold.

			Dressed up like a
			million dollar
			Trying hard to
			look like Gary
			Coo -- per.


				(to the Monster)
			That's your cue.  Go on!


				(trying to cover)
			...Su-per du-per.
			Come let's mix where Rock-
			e-fellers walk
			with sticks or 'um-ber-
			el-las' in their

	The Monster knows it's his cue:  he just looks at Freddy.


			For  God's sake -- go on!  Are you
			trying to make me look like a fool.
			Sing, you amateur!  Sing!!

	The Monster gets a raw egg in his face.

			Get him off!
			What else can your toy do?

			Fake??  You stupid call
			my creation a fake???  What do you
			know about truth?  You're the fakes!
			All of you!  I wouldn't come to you
			with a hang-nail.

	The monster gets another tomato in his face.


				(running to him)
			Wait!  Stop!  Don't give them the
			satisfaction.  I know it's tough,
			but look at how far we've come!
			Are you going to throw it all
			away now??

	The Monster thinks, as the tomato drips down his face.
	He is touched by Freddy's reasoning, but still burning
	with resentment.


			Don't you think I know that?  But
			what are you judging by?  Bucharest???
			This was always a hick town.  They
			can't get a 'Bus and Truck' company
			to come in here.  Are you going to
			let these idiots get the best of you?
			...Or are you going to stand up like
			a man and show them that you've got
			more dignity in your little finger
			than they've got in all their beer-
			bloated bodies put together?

	The Monster considers this plea for a moment.  Then gives
	Freddy a colossal W H A C K and jumps into the Audience.

110	THE AUDIENCE									110

	screams and scatters for the exits.


				(as he picks himself up
				off the stage floor)
			I chose the wrong song.

Here’s the scene as it plays in the movie:

I happened to catch the last half of Young Frankenstein a few months ago. It still holds up. Definitely add it to your to-see list.

[Originally posted April 17, 2009]

Great Scene: “Kramer vs. Kramer”

July 6th, 2016 by

Here is an IMDB plot summary of the 1979 movie Kramer vs. Kramer, screenplay by Robert Benton, based on a novel by Avery Corman:

A just divorced man must learn to care for his son on his own, and then must fight in court to keep custody of him.

There are two scenes in the movie that have always stuck with me, a classic example of a set-up & payoff. This first is the morning after Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) has left her husband Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) and their son Billy (Justin Henry). Ted, who has been a working father and knows very little about housework, perhaps even less about his son, tries to keep things upbeat as he and Billy wake up:

	Ted struggles to his feet and THE CAMERA TRACKS WITH
	THEM as they start toward the kitchen.

			When is mommy coming back?

			Soon.  Very soon.

	By now they are inside the kitchen, Ted looks around.

27    HIS P.O.V.: There, on the kitchen cabinet is a
	box of "natural grain" cereal, a jar of honey, some
	wheat germ, and a banana, with carefully written
	instructions from Joanna underneath.

	ON TED--He takes one look at the note, crumples it
	up and tosses it in the wastebasket.

				(the camp counselor)
			I'll tell you what, kiddo--why
			don't I fix us some French toast?

			Wow!  French toast, really?

				(the camp counselor)
			Sure.  Didn't I ever tell you
			French toast was my specialty?
			I'll bet I never told you that.
			Now then, the first thing we
			need is...
				(trying desperately
				to remember)
			... eggs!  Right?

	Billy nods.  Ted opens the refrigerator and takes some

			This is terrific ... isn't this

	As Ted begins the process of making French toast, it
	soon becomes obvious that he has no idea of what he is
	doing.  What follows is a symphony in incompetence on
	Ted's part.  He breaks the eggs into a bowl and ends up
	with most of the shell mixed up with the egg.  Then he
	takes a piece of bread and drops it into bowl.

				(saying it will
				make it so)
			I'm having a good time...Are you
			having a good time?

	ON BILLY--watching all of this with increasing

			You forgot the milk.

				(still the camp
			That's right.  You're absolutely
			right...It's been a long time
			since I made French toast.

	Ted takes a container of milk, pours it into the bowl
	so that it is filled to the brim.  Then he sloshes the
	bread around until it is half-dissolved.

			Look at this, isn't this

	He lops off a huge hunk of butter, drops it into an
	omelet pan and turns up the flame.

	ON BILLY--watching.  He looks as though he is about to
	throw up.

			What about my orange juice?

				(the counterman)
			Right.  One O.J. coming up.

	He opens the refrigerator and starts to get the orange
	juice.  As he does, black smoke begins to billow
	ominously from the frying pan.


	Ted turns, spots the smoke.

			Don't worry.. .Everything's


	He lunges for the handle of the frying pan, which by
	now is very hot.  He grabs it, lets out a howl of pain
	and the whole mess, frying pan, butter, bread, goes
	crashing to the floor.

	CLOSE ON TED--Suddenly all the rage comes pouring out.

			Goddam! Son of a bitch!

	REACTION, BILLY--terrified.

	WIDE SHOT--as Ted kneels down and begins to clean up
	the mess.

				(to himself as much as
				to Billy)
			It's okay.  It's gonna be okay...
			Everything's going to be all

There is a second french toast scene which is toward the very end of the movie, the morning when Billy is going to live with his mother:


	ON TED AND BILLY--They stand side by side, like a
	surgeon and his assistant.  Spread out on the counter
	in front of them are the makings of French toast.
	The following is done with great efficiency, in
	contrast to the first time we saw them go through the
	same ritual.  They work in silence except for an
	occasional command.  Each concentrating on this last
	moment of closeness, each doing his best to avoid
	thinking about Billy's departure.  Finally:

	ON BILLY--looking at his father, trying to memorize
	the older man's face.

	Ted turns, sees his son watching him.

				(with false gaiety)
			Hey?  What's doin' with that
			bread?  Let's see a little hustle
			around here.

Here are the two scenes as they appear in the movie:

The second french toast scene is at the 1:55 mark in the clip:

A good set-up & payoff can serve as a measuring stick of a character’s metamorphosis. In this case, these two little scenes show at first how little Ted knows about parenting, then by the second scene, how well he’s evolved into becoming a real parent.

Also note this terrific little change in the dialogue: In the first scene, instead of Ted swearing a generic “Goddam,” as in the script, Ted blurts out, “God damn her.” It’s a fantastic way to show Ted projecting his anger and hurt over what Joanna has done — leaving him — onto the pain and frustration of burning his hand with the skillet. Her shadow has loomed over the entire scene. That one little change brings Joanna — and her absence — to the forefront of the moment.

What other scenes do you recall from Kramer vs. Kramer?

[Originally posted September 3, 2010]

Great Scene: “Thelma & Louise”

June 29th, 2016 by

A great ending to a movie is (in my view) the only ending it should have. Oh, a movie could have multiple endings, but a well-constructed plot should lead to the story’s only real ending. And when that ending is both logical and shocking, then you have the makings of a great scene — like the climax of Thelma & Louise (1991), written by Callie Khouri.

Think about it: What other ending could T&L have? They turn themselves in? That would have been a false choice, going against everything these two women had been doing and saying for the bulk of the movie. Clearly the idea of turning themselves in is sparking through their minds as they look at “each other really hard,” but both of them know they can’t turn back now. They’ve gone too far and learned too much, about each other, themselves, and life.

The movie’s ending was a critical component, too, in the movie’s box office success because everybody talked about it when it was released.

Here’s the scripted version of the ending to Thelma & Louise:

            INT.  CAR - DAY

            Louise and Thelma are looking at each other.

                                  POLICE (O.S.)
                           (over loudspeaker)
                      Turn off the engine and place your
                      hands in the air!

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            Hal is about to crawl out of his skin.  He can't believe
            this thing is getting out of control.  He jumps in front of

                      Max!  Let me talk to 'em!  I can't
                      believe this!  You've gotta do
                      something here!

            Max goes around Hal and continues walking.  Hal jumps in
            front of Max again and blocks his way.

                      I'm sorry to bother you, I know you're
                      real busy right now, but how many
                      times, Max?  How many times has that
                      woman gotta be fucked over?  You
                      could lift one finger and save her
                      ass and you won't even do that?

                           (grabbing Hal)
                      Get a hold of yourself!  You are way
                      out of your jurisdiction, now come
                      on!  Calm down!  Don't make me sorry
                      I let you come!

            Max lets go of Hal's lapels.

                           (under his breath)
                      Shit!  I can't fucking believe this!

            Hal walks along with a look of total disbelief on his face.
            He's shaking his head.  Slowly he breaks into a trot and
            starts heading toward the front line.

                      Hey.  Hey!

            Hal is running now and clears the front row of cars.

            There is a lot of confusion among the officers on the front
            row.  Some shout, some lower their guns to look.

                                  ARIZONA COP #1
                      What in the hell?!

                                  ARIZONA #2
                           (lowering his rifle)
                      The son of a bitch is in my way!

            INT.  CAR - DAY

            They are still looking at each other really hard.

                      You're a good friend.

                      You, too, sweetie, the best.


            MUSIC:  B.B. King song entitled "Better Not Look Down" begins.
            It is very upbeat.

                      Are you sure?

            Thelma nods.

                      Hit it.

            Louise puts the car in gear and FLOORS it.

                                                                 CUT TO:

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            Hal's eyes widen for a moment at what he sees, and then a
            sense of calm overtakes him and he mouths the word "alright."

                                  B.B. KING SONG (V.O.)
                      I've been around, I've seem some
                      things, People movin' faster than
                      the speed of sound, faster than a
                      speedin' bullet.  People livin' like
                      Superman, all day and all night.  I
                      won't say if it's wrong or I won't
                      say if it's right.  I'm pretty fast
                      myself.  But I do have some advice
                      to pass along, right here in the
                      words to this song...

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            The cops all lower their weapons as looks of shock and
            disbelief cover their faces.  A cloud of dust blows THROUGH
            THE FRAME as the speeding car sails over the edge of the

                                  B.B. KING SONG (V.O.)
                      Better not look down, if you wanna
                      keep on flyin'.  Put the hammer down,
                      keep it full speed ahead.  Better
                      not look back or you might just wind
                      up cryin'.  You can keep it movin'
                      if you don't look down...

                                                                FADE OUT

                                      THE END

And here’s the movie version. Sans B.B. King and with slightly different dialogue between Thelma and Louise:

Great scene. Great ending.

[Originally posted April 24, 2009]

Great Scene: “Double Indemnity”

June 22nd, 2016 by

Great dialogue often makes a great scene. And some of the best dialogue in Hwood movie history exists in older movies — like this one Double Indemnity (1944), currently the #47 most popular film on the top 250 list. This scene occurs early in the movie where Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), smooth-talking insurance salesman, first intersects with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), wife of one of Neff’s clients.

When Neff first enters the Dietrichson house, he has a ‘chance’ meeting with Phyllis, he at the bottom of the stairs, she at the top of the stairs — wrapped in nothing but a towel. He proceeds into the living room, waiting for Phyllis to “put something on.” When she enters the room, Neff goes on for a bit about insurance, but then the conversation takes a turn down double entrendre boulevard, one sexy juiced-up line after another:

His eyes fall on the anklet again.

              I wish you'd tell me what's engraved
              on that anklet.

              Just my name.

              As for instance?


              Phyllis. I think I like that.

              But you're not sure?

              I'd have to drive it around the block
              a couple of times.

                    (Standing up again)
              Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by
              tomorrow evening about eight-thirty.
              He'll be in then.


              My husband. You were anxious to talk
              to him weren't you?

              Sure, only I'm getting over it a
              little. If you know what I mean.

              There's a speed limit in this state,
              Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

              How fast was I going, officer?

              I'd say about ninety.

              Suppose you get down off your
              motorcycle and give me a ticket.

              Suppose I let you off with a warning
              this time.

              Suppose it doesn't take.

              Suppose I have to whack you over the

              Suppose I bust out crying and put my
              head on your shoulder.

              Suppose you try putting it on my
              husband's shoulder.

              That tears it.

Neff takes his hat and briefcase.

              Eight-thirty tomorrow evening then,
              Mrs. Dietrichson.

              That's what I suggested.

They both move toward the archway.


               Will you be here, too?

               I guess so. I usually am.

               Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

                      (Opening the door)
               I wonder if I know what you mean.

               I wonder if you wonder.

He walks out.

Great stuff, each character trying to top the other in their little dance of seduction, the dialogue courtesy of screenwriter-director Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler, based on the novel “Three of a Kind” by James M. Cain. Of course, Phyllis has to play hard to get — if she immediately fell into Neff’s arms, he’d be suspicious of her motives. But this is clearly the first step in her efforts to esnare Neff in her plan to have him kill her husband.

One interesting side note: The emergence of subtext in dialogue was hastened by the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. Here is a partial list of some prohibited items:

Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
White slavery;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
Children’s sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:

The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
The use of firearms;
Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Third-degree methods;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
First-night scenes;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
Surgical operations;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy.”

The prohibition regarding all things sexual meant that writers were forced to use innuendo and metaphors to suggest sexual themes, something we see in spades in the example here in Double Indemnity.

Here is the scene in the movie:

[Originally posted June 19, 2009]

Great Scene: “Whale Rider”

April 20th, 2016 by

The 2003 movie Whale Rider is a wonderful story, aptly described in this IMDB plot summary:

A contemporary story of love, rejection and triumph as a young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize.

The girl in question is Paikea, performed magnificently by Keisha Castle-Hughes in a role for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.

In this scene, many threads come together. Pai has invited her grandfather (another great performance by Rawiri Paratene) as her special guest to a school concert, her way of reaching out to him after he has blamed her for much of what has gone wrong with the local community by virtue of Pai’s birth — as a girl, not a boy who could become a tribal leader — and by Pai’s meddling in the ways of training, again in his mind not her place because of her gender. And yet, Pai still loves her grandfather, the current leader of the village, and font of knowledge about the Maori traditions which Pai has soaked up.

The scene begins with an announcement by Pai’s teacher that the young girl won an award for the speech she is about to give. One layer of subtext is that her grandfather is absent, so part of Pai’s emotional state is influenced by her disappointment. But there is so much going on in this scene, it is a remarkable moment… and a stunning performance by such a young actor… with a dramatic cross-cut to the grandfather making a stunning discovery on the beach.

We need movies like Whale Rider, ones that take us into specific subcultures around the world to educate us about our differences… and remind us of our shared humanity.

[Originally posted May 20, 2014]

Great Scene: “Sunset Blvd.”

April 6th, 2016 by

It’s one of the most famous endings in Hollywood film history with one of the most famous last lines of dialogue as well: Sunset Blvd. (1950), co-written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, their 17th and final collaboration, and directed by Wilder. Here is a plot summary from

In Hollywood of the 50’s, the obscure screenplay writer Joe Gillis is not able to sell his work to the studios, is full of debts and is thinking in returning to his hometown to work in an office. While trying to escape from his creditors, he has a flat tire and parks his car in a decadent mansion in Sunset Boulevard. He meets the owner and former silent-movie star Norma Desmond, who lives alone wit her butler and driver Max von Mayerling. Norma is demented and believes she will return to the cinema industry, and is protected and isolated from the world by Max, who was his director and husband in the past and still loves her. Norma proposes Joe to move to the mansion and help her in writing a screenplay for her comeback to the cinema, and the small-time writer becomes her lover and gigolo. When Joe falls in love for the young aspirant writer Betty Schaefer, Norma becomes jealous and completely insane and her madness leads to a tragic end.

In the final scene, Norma (Gloria Swanson) is coaxed down to be arrested by the illusion that she is filming a movie scene. Max, played by famed German director Erich von Stroheim, is perceived to be Cecille B. DeMille by the now deranged Norma. Here is the script:


          Max makes his way down the stairs through the crowd
          of newsmen to the newsreel cameras, which are being
          set up in the hall below.

                  Is everything set up, gentlemen?
                  Are the lights ready?

          From the stairway comes a murnur.  They look up.

          Norma has emerged from the bedroom and comes to the
          head of the stairs.  There are golden spangles in
          her hair and in her hand she carries a golden scarf.

          The police clear a path for her to descend.  Press
          cameras flash at her every step.

          Max stands at the cameras.

                  Is everything set up, gentlemen?

                  Just about.

          The portable lights flare up and illuminate the

                  Are the lights ready?

                            2ND CAMERA MAN
                  All set.

                  Quiet, everybody!  Lights!
                  Are you ready, Norma?

                      (From the top of the
                  What is the scene? Where am I?

                  This is the staircase of the palace.

                 Oh, yes, yes.  They're below,
                 waiting for the Princess ...
                 I'm ready.

                 All right.
                      (To cameramen)
                      (To Norma)

          Norma arranges the golden             GILLIS' VOICE
          scarf ebout her and proudy    So they were grinding
          starts to descend the stair-  after all, those cam-
          case.  The cameras grind.     eras.  Life, which can
          Everyone watches in awe.      be strangely merciful,
                                        had taken pity on Norma
                                        Desmond.  The dream she
                                        had clung to so des-
                                        perately had enfolded

          At the foot of the stairs Norma stops, moved.

                 I can't go on with the scene.
                 I'm too happy.  Do you mind,
                 Mr. DeMille, if I say a few words?
                 Thank you.  I just want to tell
                 you how happy I am to be back in
                 the studio making a picture again.
                 You don't know how much I've missed
                 all of you.  And I promise you
                 I'll never desert you again, because
                 after "Salome" we'll make another
                 picture, and another and another.
                 You see, this is my life.  It always
                 will be.  There's nothing else -
                 just us and the cameras and those
                 wonderful people out there in the
                 dark...  All right, Mr. DeMille,
                 I'm ready for my closeup.

          FADE OUT.

                         THE END

And now the movie version:

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia about the movie’s equally famous opening scene:

Originally opened and closed the story at the Los Angeles County Morgue. In a scene described by director Billy Wilder as one of the best he’d ever shot, the body of Joe Gillis is rolled into the Morgue to join three dozen other corpses, some of whom – in voice-over – tell Gillis how they died. Eventually Gillis tells his story, which takes us to a flashback of his affair with Norma Desmond. The movie was previewed with this opening, in Illinois, Long Island, New York, and Poughkeepsie, New York. Because all three audiences inappropriately found the morgue scene hilarious, the film’s release was delayed six months so that a new beginning could be shot in which police find Gillis’ corpse floating in Norma’s pool while Gillis’ voice narrates the events leading to his death. Distortion caused by water meant that this scene had to be filmed via a mirror placed on the bottom of the pool.

If you haven’t screened Sunset Blvd. recently or ever, do yourself a favor and watch it.

[Originally posted November 20, 2009]