Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Film Review: Silent Movie

"Silent Movie"
** (out of ****)

They just don't makes comedies like they used to, right? How many times have you heard someone say that? The comedies today are so vulgar. Why do comedians have to use so many four-letter words? Whatever happened to good, "clean" comedies, like the ones starring Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jack Benny or Laurel & Hardy?

This is actually not a new argument. Audiences have been complaining about the state of American comedies for decades. Some audiences don't care for the low-brow comedy of Adam Sandler, Tom Green or Mike Myers or comedies like "Bridesmaids" (2011) or Amy Schumer's stand-up. It relies too much on "shock value".

In the 1970s this was also a topic of discussion and criticism concerning the comedies being made. One man that was usually on the receiving end of this criticism was comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks. Mr. Brooks once tried to explain his comedy style by saying "my comedy rises below vulgarity". Did Mr. Brooks rely too much on shock value? How else does one explain the "Springtime For Hitler" musical number in his directorial debut comedy "The Producers" (1968)? Or what about a man punching a horse in "Blazing Saddles" (1973) and the excessive use of the "n" word heard in the movie?

Or were people being too "up-tight"? Mr. Brooks' comedies were funny. Everything in his movies was done with good cheer. No need for anyone to be offended. Others would argue, no, Mr. Brooks did push buttons and good for him. It is good for comedians to walk that fine line of pushing the limits of what is acceptable and what isn't. In the 1960s and 70s comedy was changing because of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and the Smothers Brothers. Mr. Brooks was no where near as socially conscious discussing the politics of the day. Did you ever hear Mel Brooks make a Watergate joke? Make a crack about Nixon? An anti-Vietnam statement? Vietnam and mistrust in the government may have provided good material for a lot of comics of the era but Mr. Brooks was more content making Hitler jokes.

This leads us to Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" (1976). There has always been a yearning, a nostalgia for the comedy of yesterday. In the 1960s and 70s college students were discovering W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Charlie Chaplin was allowed back into the country, after being deported and considered a threat to American values, to receive an honorary Academy Award, thus allowing sheep (movie critics) the opportunity to re-evaluate his work and give younger audiences a chance to become acquainted with him.

It was in this setting Mr. Brooks, whom had already released two of his most financially successful movies; "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" (1974), would release the first American silent movie theatrically released in 40 years, "Silent Movie".

When Mr. Brooks released "Young Frankenstein" he had to fight with studio executives to shoot the movie in black and white and now Mr. Brooks wanted to make a movie with no sound. Mr. Brooks was going backwards not forward. By 1976 movies were in color and had sound. It was standard practice. Still there was that nostalgia for "clean" comedy. Even comedy contemporary Woody Allen would pay homage to the comedy of yesterday when he released "Sleeper" (1973).

Despite good intentions "Silent Movie" is not a successful comedy. Audiences may find something to laugh at but Mel Brooks cannot pull off this homage to the great silent clowns of the slapstick era. There are too many contrasts at play. Mr. Brooks, at best, is a verbal comedian. Those close to him, Carl Reiner, Dick Cavett, often comment on Mr. Brooks' wit and fast tongue. You can't speak in a silent movie, so there goes Mr. Brooks' strength. Think of "The Producers", "Blazing Saddles", "History of the World - Pt. 1" (1981). What do you remember about those movies? If anything sticks out to you it had to do with dialogue. The "Springtime For Hitler" number? The "Spanish Inquisition" number? Pretty much anything Madeline Kahn says in "Blazing Saddles"? It is all verbal. The funny catchphrases - "It's good to be the king", "Put the candle back", "What hump?" All dialogue. It would be the equivalent of putting Groucho Marx  in a silent movie. It wouldn't work. W.C. Fields started off in silent movies. Those movies are nowhere near as funny or influential as his sound comedies. Dialogue and simply the sound of their voices is what made Mr. Marx and Mr. Fields funny. One could argue the same for Mr. Brooks.

Mr. Brooks is also a contemporary comedian. The comedy in "Silent Movie" is of today. The movie is not a period piece. It takes place in 1976 Los Angeles. The contemporary feel of "Silent Movie" doesn't mix well with the nostalgia of silent cinema. Mr. Brooks uses the silent movie as a gimmick. Compare it to modern day silent movies (yes, they do exist) like "The Artist" (2011) or "Blancanieves" (2013). Those movies told stories. Complete stories. They were told in a straight forward fashion. They were not parodies of silent movies. They were not gimmick movies. You can't say the same about "Silent Movie".

"Silent Movie" feels like a series of vignettes pasted together. This is not a coherent movie which follows a fully developed plot and established characters. Audiences might be tempted to say "Silent Movie" is a clear homage to the work of Mr. Keaton and  Mr. Chaplin but those men showed much more discipline in their filmmaking. Their comedies were much better structured although silent movies definitely had a way of going off course and creating vignettes.

"Silent Movie" has more of a Mack Sennett approach, a "go for broke" comedy style. If someone thought something was funny, it was going to find its way in the movie. "Silent Movie" has several "filler scenes". Scenes which do absolutely nothing to advance the plot. We see the three main characters driving on the streets of L.A., in the small sports car, as they are stuck in traffic. One time a character may say he is hungry and would like a pie. Then they stop for something to drink. While they are waiting at a red light the audience sees unusually restaurants and shops on the sidewalk. It may be worth a laugh or a smile to some but what's the point of all of this?

Mr. Brooks plays Mel Funn, a once famous Hollywood filmmaker whose's career went downhill do to drinking. Mr. Funn, along with his associates - Mr. Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Mr. Bell (Dom DeLuise), are going to attempt a comeback. Their idea is to make the first silent movie in decades.

Funn, Eggs & Bell schedule an appointment with the Studio Chief (Sid Caesar) at Big Pictures - "If it was big, it was made here". The studio, Mr. Funn learns, is in dire financial trouble. Profits have fallen off the charts (literally!). If the studio does not show a profit within the next month a conglomerate "Engulf & Devour" (Our hands are in everything) has threatened to buy the studio. Despite this the Studio Chief is reluctant to give a green light to Mr. Funn's idea. But, if Mr. Funn and his associates can guarantee major stars will appear in the movie, the Studio Chief will allow it to be made.

And major Hollywood stars do appear in "Silent Movie". Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Brooks), Liza Minelli and Paul Newman are among those that make cameos. Each appears, as themselves, in a small comedy sequence with Funn, Eggs & Bell trying to sign them for their movie.

When Engulf (Harold Gould) and Devour (Ron Carey, who behaves more as a valet than a business partner) discover what Big Pictures Studio is up to they plan to stop production by hiring a vamp, Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters), to seduce Mr. Funn and hopefully start him drinking again.

One can't deny on paper "Silent Movie" sounds as if it has potential. You can perhaps develop a background story for Mr. Funn. Get some poignancy out of the character by creating some emotional scenes, give the audience an underdog to root for, adding to audience involvement, get in some subtle jabs at the Hollywood industry and of course get some laughs in the way characters react to making a silent movie and resistance from movie stars to appear in one. And then you have to remind yourself Mel Brooks is making this movie and none of that is going to happen. Sure there are some minor efforts, but, they are only minor. None of it is played out to its full potential.

Oddly enough though it is not a silent comedy that "Silent Movie" resembles most. Fans of the sadly forgotten comedy team of Olsen & Johnson will recall their comedy "Crazy House" (1943), in which the boys try to sign as many stars as they can to appear in their own movie.

"Silent Movie" is not without its laughs. The movie works best when it plays around with the conventions of silent movies. For example, in one scene a character gives a long speech, going on a rant. However, when the inter-title cards are displayed only a short sentence is shown. In another example, one character clearly says a profanity when describing another character but the title card simply says 'you bad boy!'. The movie also plays with musical cues. The city of New York in seen on-screen as the orchestra plays "San Francisco". The conductor notices the mistake and the song "Manhattan" is now heard on the soundtrack.

"Silent Movie" is also not above stealing jokes from silent comedies. One sequence involves Devour helping Engulf put on his jacket but hi-jinks ensue as the task proves more difficult than you may expect. What happens is almost a recreation of what Buster Keaton did in the comedy "The Cameraman" (1928). Funn, Eggs & Bell walk in unison by taking a few steps and then skipping. Stan Laurel would do the same thing. Watch him in "Bonnie Scotland" (1935).

One has to admit though all of this is done with a lot of energy by the cast. Popular opinion suggest Mr. Feldman comes out looking the best, though Mr. Gould, Mr. Carey and Mr. Brooks turn in performances filled with a great deal of zest. The only one in the cast that seems to have really low energy is Sid Caesar. Mr. Caesar, who was a great star on television in the 1950s, would later admit his disappointment with his performance, revealing it was due to the fact he was in a very bad place in his personal life at the time of filming. Mr. Caesar was a very versatile comedian known for his pantomime skill and ability to fake his way in sounding as if he was speaking another language (known as "double-talk"). Sadly Mr. Caesar's gifts are not on display which may lead unfamiliar audiences questioning his comedic ability.

"Silent Movie" was a turning point in many ways in Mel Brooks' career. The comedy was the first time Mr. Brooks would give himself a starring role in any of his movies. It also marked the beginning of a decline in Mr. Brooks' movies in both financial success and critical appeal. "Silent Movie" has its defenders, the late Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, Roger Ebert, not only gave the movie a four-star review but also placed the movie on his list of the best movies of the year, but, its defenders are few and far between.

It is difficult to say if "Silent Movie" would have worked better if it had sound. The movie is funny in parts as it is but doesn't seem suited for Mr. Brooks. Mr. Brooks' humor requires the right target. He does well when satirizing specific movies which are serious and dramatic. Can you really satirizes something that is already funny like silent comedies?