The Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar! Character Names and Filmic Tributes

Hail Caesar Ep03

For Atlantic Screen Connection podcast Ep03 about the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! I had decided to leave the references to older films out of the show. I felt that enumerating them all would be time consuming and make the show less succinct. As such, to compliment ASC Ep03 Hail, Caesar! I have put together a list of references and brief analyses of how the Coens may have come up with their main characters’ names and to what genres and films they are paying tribute to during the film. These references and interpretations are only for fun and should by no means be taken as 100% valid. I’d even say that some are a stretch, but pleasant nonetheless. Enjoy!

The Coens are well known for choosing peculiar names for their characters and Hail, Caesar! is no different. However, the interesting aspect of the character names employed in the Coens’ recent film is that their etymologies or their subtle references to genre tropes do give the audiences a brief description of the people that populate their picture and the situations or scenes they find themselves in.

What’s in a Name? Baird Whitlock

Baird Whitlock

George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, essentially an actor that is known for his off-stage antics mirroring the studio troublemakers of the time such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra, and Errol Flynn. When broken down, the etymology of Clooney’s character name is quite informative. Baird is Gaelic for “bard, poet, minstrel” and Whitlock is of Medieval and Old English origins that can signify two things: in Medieval English “whit” and “loc” separately mean literally “white” and “curls” as in white hair, which George Clooney has; however, in Old English “whit” means “demon” or “elf” and “lac” (that’s not a typo) means “play” or “sport,” so “elf or demon play.” Bards, poets and minstrels used to be performers and actors of the day; in literature elves and demons are rarely described as having a cooperative nature and are mostly known as trickster figures. As such, the Baird Whitlock name becomes demon actor or capricious elf-like actor. Therefore, the Coens cleverly crafted the name Baird Whitlock to mean “generic trouble-making actor” to epitomize some of the unmanageable stars of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood. Moreover, although we shall discuss the many film genres the Coens are paying tribute to with Hail, Caesar!, because the Peplum (Sword and Sandals epics) was popular in the 1950s, the Coens used that genre as the biggest backdrop for their film. Here are some the tributes the Coens are paying with the Baird Whitlock character.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Spartacus (1960)

Quo Vadis (1951)

 

What’s in a Name?   Hobie Doyle

Hobie Doyle

Many of the actors from the 1920s and 1930s that went on to achieve some level of success in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s had at one point or another starred in Westerns. John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart come to mind. As such, Alden Ehrenreich’s character, Hobie Doyle, follows in the footsteps of those Hollywood greats, but the Coens add a dash of B-Western stars Gene Autry, Jock Mahoney and Lash Larue to the mix. The name Hobie is from old German and signifies “having a bright intellect,” which when transposed onto Ehrenreich’s character, subverts what the audience comes to expect of him during the film as he is comes off as somewhat dimwitted at the outset. In addition, the name Doyle is originally from Ireland and means “the Dark Stranger.” When we are introduced to Hobie Doyle, he is a cheesy B-Western star in his own right and most importantly, he is a man of few words. What the Coens do with Hobie Doyle is recycle two tropes associated to the Western genre: The Stranger and the Cowboy. The Cowboy is known for his skills with a lasso and also for his compassion for other characters; the former, Doyle shows while waiting for Carlotta Valdez, the latter, by his concern for the well-being of the other actors while he and Eddie Mannix discuss the Baird Whitlock abduction. Similarly, the Stranger in Westerns is known for having no ties to anyone, coming to a town from an unknown place of origin and when law and order is restored, the Stranger leaves the town again. The audience aren’t given any background information on Doyle, but one can discern that he has no ties with anyone based on two facts: he is not in a romantic relationship, but rather being fixed for one with, again, Carlotta Valdez, and more importantly, Doyle’s appearance in a dramatic picture, which the Coens subtly substitute for the “stranger comes to town” motif in Westerns.  The Stranger is also defined by his silence, a trope recycled from 1960s’ Spaghetti Westerns especially Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West and Clint Eastwood in the Man with No Name Trilogy (Spencer Tracy could make an appearance on this list, but the former two are the best examples). Hobie Doyle’s silence is demonstrated in two separate instances, one being during the action sequence where the audience is introduced to him. He shoots a nameless henchman and does a few horseback stunt maneuvers before shooting another. The second is on Laurence Laurentz’s set, where Doyle is literally a stranger to drama, and where he cannot deliver a line until the line is changed for three words instead, preserving the quasi silence of the character. As a result, what the Hobie Doyle name does is foreshadow how the character comes to Hollywood a stranger, but because of his intellect, becomes the hero demonstrated by his ability to find Baird Whitlock at the end of Hail, Caesar!

Here are some B-Western stars that the Coens may have drawn inspiration from other than the big name actors such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy.

Lash Larue

Jock Mahoney

Gene Autry

 

What’s in a Name?   Burt Gurney

Burt Gurney

The Coens are paying tribute to both Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra with the Burt Gurney character played by Channing Tatum. Burt Gurney’s name gave me a little trouble because I wanted to stick with etymological interpretation of the names. I did with the name Burt, but the name Gurney proved to be harder to decipher. The name Burt echoes Hobie inasmuch as it means “bright.” Now if Hobie Doyle is the smart Dark Stranger, how does the “bright” inform the Burt Gurney character? The end of the film does show that Burt Gurney’s plan to kidnap Baird Whitlock for a ransom was a smart one, and therefore one can say that the contrast is there between both actors, Hobie and Burt being bright young stars in Hollywood, but Hobie is the Dark Stranger hero of the film that will find Baird Whitlock, but not foil the equally smart villain, Burt Gurney, a Soviet spy whose evil twisted plan to get money and flee the country succeeds. As stated above, where I had trouble was with the Gurney surname. What happened as I was researching, however, was somewhat pleasant. I chose to look at the name from a phonetics angle rather than an etymological one. You see, the letter “G” has two distinct phonemes: the hard “G” as in “golf” or the soft “G” as in “giraffe.” Now, where that brought me is to examine who the Burt Gurney character was and what arc he had throughout the film. Burt Gurney is an actor, yes, but he plays in musicals about sailors. Sailors are travellers. And what is a synonym for travel? Journey, which incidentally had me change the hard “G” sound of Gurney to the soft “G” sound that sounds like the “J” in “Journey.” Channing Tatum’s character is the only one that travels in the film and I mean travel as in port to port. Burt Gurney is a sailor in the musicals, but is also a defector at the end of Hail, Caesar! literally leaving on a journey aboard a Soviet submarine after asking for ransom money for Baird Whitlock’s release. Knowing that does not foreshadow anything, but in hindsight the song that the sailors sing somewhat gives the audience a clue by saying “We are heading out to sea and however it will be, it ain’t gonna be the same.” Burt Gurney is now rich and is leaving for the Soviet Union, so I guess it’s safe to say that he’s right “things ain’t gonna be the same” as they were in his Hollywood musicals. One last potential interpretation that I can throw out there is that the name “Gurney” is a tongue in cheek reference to the fact that there were no real casualties during the Cold War except perhaps spies. The Coens may be alluding to the fact that gurneys weren’t necessary in the U.S. during the Cold War.

Here are the key films that the Coens are paying tribute to with the Burt Gurney character.

On the Town (1949)

Anchors Aweigh (1945)

Thousands Cheer (1943)

 

What’s in a name?  DeeAnna Moran

DeeAnna Moran

Which brings us to the easiest name to decipher: DeeAnna Moran. Scarlett Johansson plays an Esther Williams type, queen of the Aqua-Musical genre that lasted from a brief period during the 1940s and 1950s. The origin of “DeeAnna,” depending on where you look, can bring you two interpretations: in Hebrew, “DeeAnna” means “girl from the valley,” or the one I prefer, because Hail, Caesar! is a Swords and Sandals film, from Roman mythology “Diana” or “DeeAnna” which mean goddess of birthing and the Moon. The name “Moran” is of Gaelic origin derived from the word “mor” which incidentally means “big.” Scarlett Johansson’s character has trouble getting out of her mermaid costume, at first it’s presumed she has gas, but when she’s revealed as pregnant the getting “big” becomes rather self-explanatory. The DeeAnna Moran name therefore is as simple as the character is pregnant and is getting bigger, although I’m positive the pregnancy scandal is based on some fact that eludes me at the moment. The issues that are to be discussed with regards to how women such as DeeAnna Moran were treated during the 1940s and 1950s are briefly touched upon in the film as well as in the ASC Podcast review of Hail, Caesar! (Ep03).

Here are clips of Esther Williams’ Aqua Musicals which inspired the Coens to create the DeeAnna Moran character.

Bathing Beauty (1944)

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

Other References of Interest

Eddie Mannix

The Eddie Mannix character is played by Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!, but also by Bob Hoskins in 2006’s Hollywoodland. The real-life Joseph Edgar “Eddie” Mannix was a studio fixer and executive producer, manager and vice-president for MGM from the mid-1930s to his death in 1963. He helped many stars including Spencer Tracey and Greta Garbo get out of tight spots with the tabloids, but he also was loosely linked to shady death of George Reeves. Brolin’s Mannix working for Capitol pictures means that the studio is a substitute for MGM.

The philosopher/screenwriters that hold Baird Whitlock in the mansion are a reference to the Red scare of the 1950s that saw the Hollywood 10 get blacklisted for allegedly having communist ties. Because of the references to Communism, the characters Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker played by the glorious Tilda Swinton should be based on Hedda Hopper, a journalist who made a fortune printing gossip about Hollywood stars, especially during the 1950s McCarthy witch hunts that were directly related to the Hollywood 10.

I’m sure there are many more references that I could dig up, but alas, I will stop there simply highlighting that there are a few references to Hitchcock’s I Confess and the winks the Coens make with the posters on the walls at the Capitol Pictures Studios. Check them out, as they are sure to open another world of tributes and symbolism just waiting to be unearthed. With Hail, Caesar! the Coens have crafted a wonder of filmic pastiche and a fun exercise in analysis (or plain crazy interpretation as I have done) for those who want to put in the time!

Comments, questions, additions to make to the list? Leave all that below and let the conversation begin! Be sure to listen to ASC Podcast Ep03: Hail, Caesar! Linked below!

Here is Big Picture Reviews take on Hail, Caesar!

Here is Richard Dyer’s article entitled “Entertainment and Utopia” which discusses the fundamentals and functions of the Musical genre

Here is a brief description of the Backstage Musical from Film Reference

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ashley Davis says:

    Great analysis of the names. I’m sure there was more than one scandal that inspired DeeAnna’s plot line. One involving Clark Gable just surfaced not too long ago.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Ashley!

      Yeah, Clark Gable seems to have been quite the scandal magnet. I remember reading recently that the pregnancy scandal came from Loretta Young. Her daughter was Judy Lewis and, incidentally, it was later revealed that her father was none other than Clark Gable, who Young said had date-raped her. I’m not 100% on those facts, but if they’re true, that’s quite a sad story.

      Like

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