Saturday, October 24, 2015

SILENT MOVIE 1976

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Were I to try pinpoint the source of my lifelong indifference to silent films, my best guess would be my traumatized reaction to the opening sequence of the 60s TV show, Silents Please, when I was just an impressionable tyke. Silents Please was a half-hour TV program highlighting films and stars of the silent era. It ran in reruns on Sunday afternoons but never it seems at scheduled times I could avoid. It always popped up as a time-filler following a football game or (most terrifyingly) at night when I least expected it. I don’t recall ever seeing an entire episode all the way through, for each episode began with a  startling command from an unseen announcer for Silents Please (a pun I didn’t appreciate then and don’t appreciate now), which was my cue to high-tail it out of the living room before the title sequence montage of silent movie clips began.

When I was small, I couldn’t have been more than four or five, silent movies would crop up occasionally on television. I just remember being creeped out by the grainy images, deep shadows, jerky movements, and the ghoulish white makeup and exaggerated dark eyes of the actors. But what did me in about Silents Please was that the show’s opening montage featured a quick “reveal” of Lon Chaney in full The Phantom of the Opera drag, and it scared the hell out of me. The nightmares it inspired kept even comic silent movies off my radar for much of my childhood, an antipathy that stayed with me well into maturity.
The Three Silent Stooges
Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), Mel Funn (Mel Brooks), and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman)
In later years, when I attended film school, my wholesale disinterest in classic films of the silent era made me a majority of one amongst my peers. I saw and studied a great many silent movies in Film History class, but in the end I remained impressed (what they were able to achieve with no dialog and such low-tech equipment is quite remarkable), yet unmoved. When I’d try to relay these feelings to my cinephile classmates, they looked at me the way I look at people who tell me they like Vin Diesel movies.

It was during my college years that Mel Brooks released Silent Movie, a contemporary silent film fashioned as a Hollywood spoof and affectionate homage to the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett, and Hal Roach. Child of the 70s that I am, I guess this was the first silent film I remember taking a liking to. 
Touted as the first feature-length silent film to be made in over forty years, 20th Century-Fox released Silent Movie at the height of Mel Brook’s popularity. Following the blockbuster success of Brooks’ western spoof, Blazing Saddles, and his horror spoof, Young Frankenstein, former television gag writer, Mel Brooks, was hailed by critics and audiences alike as the king of motion picture comedy. Rather remarkably, both of these films directed and co-written by Brooks came out in the same year. At the close of 1974, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein occupied the  #1 and #4 slots, respectively, on the list of the year's top boxoffice moneymakers.
Previous to his late-blooming emergence as the comic voice of the 70s, I only knew Mel Brooks as the writer/director of one of my favorite comedy movies, The Producers (1967); the co-creator of one of my favorite TV shows, Get Smart; and for that 2000 Year Old Man skit he performed with Carl Reiner. But by the mid-70s, EVERYBODY was talking about Mel Brooks. At 50 years of age, Brooks was suddenly a hit with the college crowd. Naturally, with such a high degree of success, Brooks could virtually write his own ticket when it came to his next film. Sort of.

When Brooks announced his follow-up project was to be a silent film, the natural assumption – given his reputation for lampooning Hollywood movie genres – was that it would be a movie in a vein similar to that of his previous hits: a period-accurate recreation of a 1920s era silent film with doses of irreverent, slightly raunchy, contemporary comedy. Perhaps because director Peter Bogdanovich had already began production on his own comic film set in the early days of silent movies (Nickelodeon - 1976), Brooks opted to set his film in the Hollywood of today (today, as in 1976, today). A modern-day silent movie poking fun at the motion picture industry and a gentle spoof of the comedies of yesteryear. 
Vilma Kaplan: A Bundle of Lust
Bernadette Peters, in what could be called the Madeline Kahn role, as the seductress
hired by Engulf & Devour to corrupt Mel Funn
Since Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein had successfully launched two of the most valuable players in the Mel Brooks repertory off into careers of their own (Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn), their inability to participate in Brooks' followup project was a hurdle audiences were eager to see if Brooks (casting himself in his first lead role) could surmount.

Silent Movie’s premise casts Mel Brooks as Mel Funn, a once brilliant movie director whose career has hit the skids due to alcoholism. Hoping to make a comeback, Funn pitches his idea of making a modern-day silent movie to the head of Big Pictures Studio (Sid Caesar). After initially rejecting the suggestion, the failing studio, desperate for a hit to avoid takeover by NY conglomerate, Engulf & Devour, relents after Mel promises he can fill his movie with big name stars. Funn, with the help of his two associates Bell & Eggs (DeLuise & Feldman), thus embarks on a slapstick quest to secure the biggest names in Hollywood for new his silent movie.
Art Imitates Life
Silent Movie actually spoofs Mel Brooks' real-life efforts to get a studio
 interested in his making this silent movie

As a follow-up to the phenomenon that was Young Frankenstein, the level of anticipation and expectation surrounding the release of Silent Movie was both its blessing and its curse. Folks expecting the envelope-pushing effrontery of Blazing Saddles, or the technically impeccable lunatic genius of Young Frankenstein, were forced to content themselves with a genial, sometimes hilarious, mostly hit-and-miss, comedy that delivered a good time, but not really much else.
There were gentle jibes at silent movies (verbose exchanges translated in terse title cards). Satirical jabs at the movie business (a sign on an executive's door reads "Current Studio Chief"). And sight gags galore. But it was all rather safe and old-fashioned. In fact, none of the jokes would have looked out of place on a typical episode of Get Smart, and that had gone off the air in 1970.

When Mel falls off the wagon, his friends embark on a search for him accompanied by the usual cliche dissolves of neon-lit nightspot signs. Only this time capped with a Brooks-ian touch of the unexpected

People went to see Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles multiple times, wanting to relive favorite comic moments or catch bits of business missed the first time out. Conversely, Silent Movie was a pretty straightforward affair. All the laughs are accessible, obvious, and intentionally broad. Much in the same way that suspense in a horror film can be sustained even after multiple viewings, while “gotcha” scare moments in horror are effective only once; Silent Movie’s funny but unsubtle slapstick and vaudeville-level mugging didn’t invite a lot of repeat business. 
While failing to live up to the success of its predecessors, Silent Movie was nevertheless a sizable hit, ranking #11 on boxoffice charts at the close of the year. Citing the silent movie angle as more gimmick than legitimate satirical target, critical and popular opinion varied as to the relative merit of the enterprise as a whole. Most willing to forgive its elemental inconsequence in favor of applauding what clearly was a labor of love for Brooks; an affectionate valentine to the comics and style of comedy that inspired him in his youth.
Sid Caesar as The Studio Chief
Mel Brooks got his start as one of the staff writers for Caesar's 1950s
variety program, Your Show of Shows

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’m from the generation raised on Laugh-In style blackout comedy. I remember when it was business as usual for corny variety shows to encourage their movie star guests to “let their hair down” in groan-inducing, out-of-character skits and musical numbers. I grew up at a time when stand-up comics all had pseudo-ethnic, faux chummy/hilarious names like Shecky, Totie, Marty, Sandy, and Morty.
In short, I came from the era that produced Mel Brooks.  
Hilarious in 1976, meh in 2015
Now that all major movie studios are owned by conglomerates, this jab at the 1967 acquisition of
Paramount Studios by Gulf & Western Industries barely rates a smile
Because my personal comedy tastes run towards the cornball and old-fashioned, I was perhaps less disappointed than many when Silent Movie came out and proved to be a film so tame it could have been made before The Producers. But even I hoped for something more, even while acknowledging that Brooks’ experiment with the genre was largely successful and good for a few laughs. Not particularly memorable, retell over the watercooler at work, laughs...but laughs.
With its excellent wall-to-wall score (John Morris) of jaunty, amusingly responsive music;  hyperactive grab bag of exaggerated sound effects; and its non-stop barrage of sight gags, blackout skits, and slapstick physical comedy; Silent Movie is as much a send-up of those old Warner Bros. cartoons as it is a take-off on silent-era comedies. 
"Poverty Sucks!" - "Yea for the Rich!"
Ron Carey as Devour / Harold Gould as Engulf
PERFORMANCES
With Silent Movie, Mel Brooks’ usually behind-the-scenes talents (with the occasional voiceover or cameo) are for the first time placed front and center, and, at least for me, the movie suffers for it. Brooks is an undeniably funny writer, gag man, and skit performer; but he’s no actor. And I don't think I ever grasped or appreciated how significant a role a good comic actor plays in making a motion picture work (Gene Wilder is the all-time best) until I watched what happened when a talented Catskills standup comic cast himself as a leading man. 

As an actor, Brooks is very much in line with the borscht belt comic, Ernie Bernie (Sid Gould) from That Girl, or the woefully schticky comic played by Johnny Haymer in Annie Hall. They do bits of comedy business and make with the funny faces, but they don't know how to bring a character to life. Brooks is the worst thing in the film. As cute as he is, every moment he's on is like when you're at an office party and the boss comes in trying to show you what an average Joe he is. Brooks plays his material almost like he's patting himself on the back for coming up with it.
Mel Brooks is too likable to actually spoil the film for me, but his lack of...what is it, lunacy? abandon?...seems to have the effect of muting the talents of Feldman and DeLuise. As much as I admire Mel Brooks as a comedy genius, I can honestly say Mel Brooks' films only began to suffer after Mel Brooks began starring in them.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The star cameos in Silent Movie are a great deal of fun and a major part of the attraction when the film was released (remember, this was the era of the disaster film, star casting was all the rage). Back in the 70s it was exhilarating to see these celebrities poking fun at their images. Now, I watch these sequences filled with so much nostalgia. Not just because so many of its performers are no longer with us, but because the film is brimming with familiar faces. Comics, character actors, and TV personalities whose faces you recognize, but whose names you often don't know.

Ranking of celebrity cameos. Favorite to least-favorite:
1. Surrounded by gigolos, Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Mel Brooks for any youngsters out there) looks to be having a great deal of fun playing herself as a haughty movie star (the original choice to star in Mommie Dearest, she would have been great). Not only does she get to dance, but she dazzles us with her ability to cross her eyes...one at a time! 
2. Oddly enough, Burt Reynold's egotistical movie star bit plays funnier now. Back in the 70s, he used this routine to excess on his many late-night talk show appearances. Fresh off the flop film  Lucky Lady with Liza Minnelli, Reynolds was nevertheless a really hot property at the time, with two other films in release in 1976 and Smokey and the Bandit just a year away.
3. Liza Minnelli, the star I most wanted to see in a Mel Brooks movie, is pretty much wasted in a segment requiring her to do little but react to the slapstick antics of Brooks, Feldman, and DeLuise (or their stunt doubles). Decked out in a costume from her Vincente Minnelli directed flop-to-be,  A Matter of Time and rebounding from the debacle that was Lucky Lady, the Cabaret star wouldn't appear in another hit movie until 1981s Arthur. And that wasn't even hers!
4. What's Marty Feldman looking at there? Tough guy James Caan plays off his macho but dumb image in a brief physical comedy sequence involving an off-balance dressing room trailer. The sequence is cute, but doesn't have much impact.
5. A wheelchair-bound Paul Newman, looking ridiculously gorgeous at 50, spoofs his love of auto racing by leading Mel and his associates on a high speed chase. Once again, an amusing sequence, but so reliant on stunt doubles, Newman winds up making a cameo in his cameo.
6. The use of legendary French mime Marcel Marceau in a silent movie is inspired and provided the film with one of its biggest laughs. But I'm afraid his brief sequence (whimsically involving walking against the wind to answer a phone) only reminds me of how simultaneously terrifying and annoying mimes can be.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
I don’t pretend to know how or why comedy works, but I know that a great many fondly remembered sequences from comedies work well for me precisely because they are silent. I’m no fan of Jerry Lewis, but his 1960 directing debut, The Bellboy, is a favorite because he keeps his mouth shut in it for all but the last scene. And while no one should be deprived of hearing Peter Sellers saying, “Birdie num numin an Indian accent, Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968) is at its most uproarious when it’s silent.
Another Brooks-ian Sight Gag
When it comes to updates of the silent movie, Mel Brook’s Silent Movie doesn’t come anywhere near approaching the comic eloquence and grace of Michel Hazanvicius’ Oscar-winning silent film, The Artist (2011); but Brooks gets points for being the first out of the gate and for succeeding in achieving what I honestly think were his modest goals. He made a funny little movie that said “Thank you” to the silent comics and filmmakers who inspired him to become a comedy legend himself. 

As for me, know I’ve grown fonder of silent movies over the years (Metropolis-1927, is a favorite), but I’ve still have yet to garner the courage to watch The Phantom of the Opera.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
I worked at Honda dealership for a time in 1979, and Mel Brooks came in to the service department to pick up his car.
I remember asking a co-worker for permission to temporarily hijack his job (escort the customer to his car) so I could talk to Brooks for a while and get his autograph.

BONUS MATERIAL
Here's the intro to the TV program, Silents Please.  I guess I scared easily as a kid.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

19 comments:

  1. I'm really intrigued by the "Silents Please" show you mentioned. I did an online search and there are clips of it on YouTube... Was this hosted by Ernie Kovacs? I can imagine not being enthused about it as a youngster, but it would be fascinating now, no?

    As for Mel Brooks, I hadn't heard of this movie before. What a cast! The actors alone would make it worth checking out.

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    1. Hi
      I have to admit, I'm a little intrigued to see "Silents Please" now myself. I honestly hadn't thought of it until I wrote this post. Seeing the intro failed to trigger any repressed trauma, so I should give the internet a look.
      As for this film, even if you find the comedy wanting, the movie itself is quite a time capsule view of Hollywood. Lots of recognizable LA locations, and as you say, what a cast!
      Thanks so much for stopping by and reading this!

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  2. You could approach The Phantom of the Opera via The Phantom of the Paradise, a semi-satirical version which re-imagines the villain as a Phil Spectorish record producer.
    There's been something of a revival in silent or almost-silent films lately: as well as The Artist, there's Blancanieves, a bull-fighting version of Snow White and La Antenna, where nearly everyone's voice has been stolen...

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    1. Hi Roger
      My gosh, "Blancanieves" and "La Antenna" sound pretty fascinating! It would be funny if contemporary silent films came to change my attitude about classic silents.
      Phantom of the Paradise" is a big favorite of mine. I even like the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Phantom..."; I'm just a scaredy cat when it comes to Lon Chaney. Whose film I'm pretty sure is the tamest of the lot - But I'm not gonna chance it.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment and opening my eyes to so many intriguing silent movie options.

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  3. Dear Ken: When I saw you were participating in the Silent Cinema blogathon, I just knew this movie would be the one you would review! :)

    I enjoyed reading about your youthful exposure to (or rather, avoidance of) silent movies. I recall that when I was growing up in the late 1960s/early 1970s, I avoided old movies of any kind. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that when they were shown on TV, it was always in faded, worn prints; many times the quality of the image was so bad it was difficult to tell even what was going on in a scene. That made the old movies a chore to watch.

    As for Mel Brooks--when I was a youth, being a "good boy" in Catholic schools, I would never have watched one of Brooks' movies because they were considered "dirty." (All that sexual innuendo, you know!) So I only caught up with "Silent Movie" when I was in college, and by that time, having become a classic film buff, I had no interest in movies made after the early 1960s!

    But maybe I should give the movie a try today. Just reading your essay and reviewing the cast was a real 1970s nostalgia trip for me! I remember especially that Bernadette Peters was everywhere in those days (For example, I remember all her guest appearances on "The Carol Burnett Show").

    As for actual silent movies, I have grown to love them in more recent years. Two that I find especially wonderful are "City Girl" and "Lucky Star," two offbeat romances from the very late silent era (in fact, on their original release they were part-talkies, but the all-silent versions are the only ones that survive). My husband, however, can only watch silent movies when he is well-rested or he tends to fall asleep. :)

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    1. Hi David
      Ha! You know me too well. I should have ran a contest giving odds on whether or not I could be lured away from the 60s and 70s to write about a silent era film!
      Your comments about the quality of old movies on TV in our youth jogged my memory as to how common it was to watch grainy, poor quality old movies. The pristine, high-def restorations available on DVD today are the sharpest version of these films folks of our generation ever encountered.

      And yes, the raunch factor in Mel Brooks movies was a big attraction back in the day (so tame now, of course). When I was in high school, Blazing Saddles was the equivalent of "Porky's" or something. It was cool status symbol to be able to say you got in to see this R-rated film.
      And yes, Bernadette Peters was on The carol Burnett Show so often I thought she was a regular member of the cast. Both she and Carol Kane got a pretty good ride out of having a distinctive "period" look during the 70s nostalgia craze. Peters was like to go-to girl for anything trying to evoke the feeling of the 1930s.

      I see both silent films you mentioned are on YouTube. All this talk about silents is sure to have me exploring one or two. I appreciate knowing what are some people's favorites. I saw a Norma Shearer silent on TCCM some time ago and I was impressed with the subtlety of the acting. Nothing Norma Desmond about it.

      I think I should try to get my partner to watch a silent movie with me, as it stands now, I don't think he believes I can be quiet for that long. i'm sure he's afraid I'd start giving a running commentary.
      Thanks David, for sharing your old childhood memories (that Catholic school stuff runs deep) and always giving my posts a look!

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  4. Hi Ken. I'm happy you wrote about Silent Movie. I was excited to see a new silent movie. I agree it didn't have the energy or daring of Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. The audience was pretty quiet the first time I saw it. Give The Phantom of the Opera a chance. Be prepared to laugh at one intertitle: "Darling, it is I, Raoul." Everything with Chaney is wonderful.

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    1. Hi Joe
      The quiet audience is kind of what I remember, too. The whole nostalgia thing in the 70s was pretty full-throttle by this time and the idea of a new silent movie did seem to fit in with what looked to be Brooks' gimmick (Spoofing movie genes). But the goodwill of audiences at the beginning of the film seemed to wane a bit as it wore on.
      Maybe one day I will see the silent "Phantom" all the way through. I certainly have seen enough clips of it by now.
      Sounds like you're a big Chaney fan!
      Thanks very much for reading and commenting, Joe!

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  5. Hi Ken
    I am entering a Mel Brooks phase now as I largely completely missed him the first go-around. Look forward to seeing this!

    My reaction to SILENTS PLEASE! very nearly dovetails yours. My father, who was an older Dad, just loved it and tried to get me to watch. Like you, I couldn't stand it. In retrospect, this was probably an early attempt on my Dad's part to bond with me and share something of importance to him. In light of that, I regret not sitting down with him.
    Since that point with the arrival of sophisticated restoration work and silent films being shown at their proper speed, I've come to appreciate them as a wholly unique art form distinct from talking cinema.
    I also fell in love with Lillian Gish. And that alone made the personal turn around well worth it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CG7-t_hxIoU

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    1. Hi Gregory
      Sort of strange to consider that the silent films our parents liked were no older to them than the 60s films I adore. I wonder if young people today look at 60s films and find them slow. That was certainly my problem with silent movies back in the day. A single visual joke seemed to be run into the ground before it was let go.

      Interesting that you too have a memory of Silents Please from your childhood, and indeed, it's too bad the films held so little interest it wasn't something you and your father could have shared.
      Like you, I find that technology has made silents ore accessible, and while I don't recall ever seeking a particular film out (Stroheim's Greed, perhaps) I do find I can appreciate them better now. TCM helped a lot there.
      Not sure that I ever saw a Lillian Gish film (beyond Altman's "A Wedding" and "Night of the Hunter") but I love that clip you linked.
      Thanks, Gregory!

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  6. I'm a big fan of Mel Brooks, but I realized around the time of History of the World that my enjoyment of a Mel Brooks movie is pretty much in indirect proportion to how often he's onscreen (The 12 Chairs probably being the exception). He's funnier being "Mel Brooks" on a talk show then as any character.

    Still, I enjoyed Silent Movie, thanks in no small part to Marty Feldman. Even though it's so slick, it, like some other '70s movies, seems to have a thrown-together "let's make a movie" feel to it.

    I enjoy silent movies, but still tend to avoid them--they seem to require so much more focus and concentration than I have the energy for after dinner. Still, I'm often amazed at the technical and performance achievements in the better ones. There also seem to be so many that would be worth my time to watch, even with the frightening data on how many seem lost forever.

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    1. Hi
      I so agree about Mel Brooks. I suppose with comics like Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen appearing in their own films, Brooks may have felt it was a natural progression, but it just seemed like the inspired craziness left his movies when he began appearing in them.
      And yes, "Silent Movie" does have a more slapdash feel to it than either High Anxiety of History of the World.

      i know what you mean about the special investment required od some silent films. I pretty much have to be in the mood to hunker down and give them my full attention. Sometimes (like with one of those Joan Crawford "dancing" silents) I don't have the patience I'd give to something like Napoleon.
      Your mention of The 12 Chairs jogged my memory. I'd forgotten how much I liked that one. Thanks for commenting!

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    2. I haven't seen The 12 Chairs, so don't know how it holds up. However, one of my favorite movies is a cameo-filled Fred Allen vehicle, It's in the Bag, based on the same story (though a lower budget--there are only six chairs). One odd thing about it is that it's Alma Reville's only non-Hitchcock screenplay credit in the US.

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    3. I've never heard of "It's in the Bag", but the premise easily lends itself to a potentially funny film. My strongest memory of Mel Brook's "The 12 Chairs" is that it played at a movie theater where I once worked, and the projectionist somehow got the reels out of order. The film screened all day out of sequence and no one noticed until the last show.
      Speaks volumes about an audience's to make sense of the nonsensical. Which explains the popularity of a lot of 60s and 70s films.

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  7. Wow, Ken, you really are on fire! So many reviews to enjoy. Thanks for this great review.

    I remember seeing "Silent Movie" as a teenager and being slightly amused by it. All I remember of it is Bernadette Peters on a swing trying to entertain an audience and also the Burt shower scene. He was hot! I have completely forgotten about Liza Minelli being in it. I would like to check it out for that reason as I'm sure she has some good reactions to whatever's going on in her scene.

    I also want to see what Mel Brooks is like as an actor. It such a long time since I saw his films. Interesting what you say about how his films suffered with him in leading roles. I do remember liking his "High Anxiety" which I saw several times on video cassette (remember those?).

    I laughed when you described your classmates reaction to your opinion on silent movies and yours toward V. Diesel. I do like one silent film and that is "Metropolis" by Fritz Lang but I don't think it would change your mond about those kinds of films!

    It's wonderful to read your reviews. This is absolutely the best site on the internet for Classic Movies!
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      it's funny, I hadn't seen this film in a long while, either, and the strongest lingering memory I had as well was of Bernadette Peters swinging from the rafters in an effort to entertain a restless audience. I couldn't remember another joke!

      It's rather fun seeing "Silent Movie" now, and seeing all those "hot" stars of the 70s in something other than their own films. Reynolds went full-tilt redneck comedy not long after this with his Smokey & the Bandit franchise, so I saw him less and less as a youth. But I like him here, and am reminded of why people were so taken with him in his heyday.
      I feeling about Mel Brooks as an actor are just my own, I don't know that anyone else thinks his films suffered by his presence. He certainly went on to make so many that SOMEONE must have enjoyed him as a leading man. I just never warmed to him except in small parts and on TV, where he has this avuncular charm that I find hilarious and appealing.
      I am glad you continue to find my posts enjoyable, for I certainly like hearing from you. We have seen a great many of the same films it seems, and share a reluctant appreciation of silents. Thanks, Wille!

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  8. Hi Ken,

    Golly I haven’t seen this picture in years despite liking it quite a lot when I saw it in the theatre. It isn’t one of Brooks’ masterworks but it is a fun, pleasant time passer.

    I agree about Mel Brooks not being an ideal Mel Brooks movie leading man but like Woody Allen he seems bound and determined to be in the star spot. The only movie where his broad technique really worked to the film’s advantage was To Be or Not To Be because Joseph Tura was a show boater who thought he was a great actor. Then too he had the magnificent Anne Bancroft to rein him in and balance his clowning with the right amount of gravity.

    Back to Silent Movie, it is a bit of fluff but at least Brooks attempted something that for anyone else would have been turned down flat. I don’t remember it well but I remember the manic energy it puts out there as well as the some of the cameos. Bancroft’s little spot is the highlight and I think Marcel Marceau’s bit is memorable more for its gimmick than the actual performance. I never really thought of Liza Minnelli in the context of her suitability as a Brooks player but your mention of it makes me curious how she would have fared. With her exaggerated features and goofy body language he might have been able to utilize her unique presence, heaven knows few others in Hollywood ever figured out how to use her properly.

    Bernadette Peters is fun in the film but she has more of a 30’s baby doll Busby Berkeley vibe than a silent vamp one that would have fit the film better and that Madeline Kahn would have been able to deliver more easily.

    I don’t remember that intro, I can see how Lon Chaney as the Phantom could give a young kid nightmares, but there was a station when I was a kid that ran silents on Friday nights. I would on occasion give one a try, loved Orphans of the Storm with the Gish sisters and The Extra Girl with Mabel Normand, but it suddenly disappeared and it was decades before I saw another. I can’t say I’m a devoted fan but I’ve been trying of late to fill in the gaps of the classics recently, Pandora’s Box, The Last Laugh, Garbo’s catalog, The Wind etc. and as with sound films some are easier to take, Garbo is astonishing but Mary Pickford makes my teeth hurt, than others. I’ve only found one I ever wanted to watch more than once though, the mind-blowingly trippy The Unknown with Lon Chaney and an almost unrecognizable Joan Crawford.

    Your write up of this makes me want to hunt it down and give it another look after all these years to see if my memories of it hold up.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Yes, "Silent Movie" is a pleasant time-passer. And because it's really not much more, i think that's why so few people remember it or think of it.
      Funny you should mention Brooks' "To Be or Not to Be" and Woody Allen. When I saw that dullard Tim Matheson in the Mel Brooks' film, my mind immediately went to "This is what Mel Brooks wishes he looked like." I think the same thing when Woody Allen casts Tony Roberts. Neither comic is leading man material, but their idea of what an "attractive" man is, is always tall, bland and dull. Sort of like Streisand's taste in leading men.

      Liza Minnelli comes to mind in context of Mel Brooks primarily on the strength of how hilarious she was on that TV show "Arrested Development." It would have been marvelous had Brooks been able to utilize those very attributes (quirks?) you mention. Everyone at the time was just so eager to fashion her into the 70s answer to her mother, she really was never used well after "Cabaret".

      You're spot on about Bernadette Peters Talk about a talented and beautiful lady who just doesn't register strongly on film. I've never seen her on stage, but in movies she's good, but seems to lack that indefinable something.
      It sounds like you have a more extensive familiarity with silents than I. I'm sure I'm missing a great deal...perhaps one day I'll come around. Since you actually saw "Silent Movie" in a theater, hope you one day check it out again. Even if only to see how well it has/hasn't aged for you. Thanks, Joel!

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    2. Silents are a beast of their very own and as such have a certain rhythm that you have to slowly adjust too. Anyone I've ever talked to about it I've advised to start off with an adventure flick along the lines of The Thief of Bagdad or The Three Musketeers where the interpolation of title cards isn't that necessary to follow the story and then move on from there.

      Or a Clara Bow comedy, she's amazingly alive in her pictures. It's such a shame she had such mike fright and other problems she was very vivid onscreen. If you've never seen it you should try and catch "Call Her Savage", it's one of her few talkies. Being a pre-code it's impossibly crammed with melodrama that would never make the grade just a few years on (even a scene in a gay bar), poor Clara is put through the wringer and the denouncement is wildly ridiculous but it provides a real glimpse of her special charisma. An added bonus is that the cast also contains that other ill-fated beauty Thelma Todd.

      I have one friend who told me he tried watching Birth of a Nation out of curiousity and couldn't make it though. I told him it was no wonder, the movie is a hard sit for even a silent fan I would think, I watched it in three installments and it was still a challenge!!

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