Silent Movie

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Aided (?) by his hapless associates Eggs and Bell, dipsomaniac director Mel Funn aims to resurrect his fortunes and those of Big Picture Studios by filming the first silent movie in forty years. All he needs is for the world’s biggest movie stars to agree to appear in the picture – and to be free of distractions, such as those offered by seductive siren Vilma Kaplan.

Mel Funn (Brooks) is now as infamous for his drinking as he used to be famous for his movies, but he’s on the comeback trail together with his pals Marty (Eggs/Feldman) and Dom (Bell/DeLuise). He has a script for a silent movie that he’s desperate to get made, and the promise of a host of star names convinces Sid Caesar’s Chief of Big Pictures to greenlight the project. Funn and friends pester Burt Reynolds into appearing through sheer persistence, cosy up to James Caan, corner Liza Minnelli in a canteen, appeal to Anne Bancroft through flamenco dancing and Eggs’ wall-eyed kookiness, and race a recovering Paul Newman into submission around the grounds of a hospital in electric wheelchairs.

The film seems set to be a guaranteed hit, which is not what corporate suits Engulf and Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey) want to hear at all; they’re planning on getting hold of Big Pictures and a successful movie would scupper their chances of buying the studio for a song. When all their other plans fail, Engulf and Devour send in femme fatale Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) to distract Funn from his work; it works a treat, especially when Bell shows Mel that she’s being paid to be affectionate. Funn looks for solace in the bottle – a bleeding big one, at that – forcing his good friends to sober him up to finish the movie; however, the moneymen’s interference is far from over.

Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie may be one of the reasons why reaction to Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist was not universally fawning (though in many quarters, it was). Brooks’ film is not unique in revisiting the silent movie format – witness, for example, the start of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! – but the decision to film (practically) the entire movie without dialogue is still extremely brave.

Brave, but unfortunately not all that funny. The film is of necessity filled with sight gags both fleeting and extended, and while I’m sure many of them are original to this film, most feel fustily old-fashioned in both content and style (for example, the sped-up pay-off to Caesar’s ‘slapstick’ remark). It’s not so much the vintage of the material as the fact that while DeLuise, Brooks and especially Feldman do their best (Marty’s physicality shows a complete disregard for his own safety), the stunts and pratfalls were performed much more expertly half a century ago by the likes of Lloyd, Chaplin, Arbuckle and Keaton – that is, actors who had no option but to convey their comedy in visual terms.

The physical comedy provided by Engulf and Devour (itself a slightly awkward dig at the avarice of Gulf+Western*) is particularly trying, despite Gould and Carey’s hard work. Ironically, for all the effort that goes into setting up the silent jokes, the best gag is verbal, the sole word of spoken dialogue given to Marcel Marceau who is the only naysayer to Funn’s advances (while I’ve always found his act very weird, Marceau is impressive in his two-minute stint).

Aside from the jokes, Silent Movie remains a mixed bag. The plot just about covers the running time, while the music and sound effects complement the action without adding to it immensely; the same is true of the unpleasantly brown intertitles (and what is Brooks’ problem with ‘fags’?). While it’s always nice to see cameos from big-name stars (for younger readers, Reynolds, Caan, Minnelli, Bancroft and Newman were about as big as they came in the 70s: Bancroft being Brooks’ wife is merely a handy coincidence), some are used better than others.

Reynolds’ narcissism is funny and Bancroft has a whale of a time, especially when emulating Feldman’s distinctive appearance, while the others more or less grin and bear it; the absence of any footage from the film-within-a-film suggests that the stars agreed to appear as long as they weren’t held up too long. I’ve already mentioned that the three would-be filmmakers are adequate without being hilarious; Sid Caesar tends to mug at the camera, while there’s solid work from Bernadette Peters even if many of her talents are squandered by having her voice turned off.

It’s tempting to think that Brooks’ tribute to the silent era came after his spoofs on theatre, Westerns and black-and white horror because the subject simply didn’t inspire him much. The truth probably has much more to do with when Ron Clark approached Brooks with the story idea; however, the fact remains that while it has its moments – one great moment in particular – Silent Movie is a minor work in Brooks’ catalogue. It wouldn’t be the last film you’d watch in a best-to-worst Brooksathon, but you’d probably have stopped for at least one meal before you get round to it.

NOTES: Just as a writer (of sorts), I’d love to know how much – if any – time the four writers spent trying to come up with a suitable word that sounded like ‘Western’. Lessen? Messin’? Wastin’?

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