Review: Silent Movie

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Silent Movie is Mel Brooks’s best film to date, and his first unqualifiedly successful movie. His earlier films, funny as they are, are hampered by unevenness and overemphasis, and by the kind of selfcongratulatory distrust of the audience that makes Brooks hold his shots too long, zoom in insistently on his sight gags, use the same joke again and again under the misapprehension that that makes it a running gag, or—when in doubt—have an unlikely person say “bullshit” or burst into Cole Porter. Silent Movie is a more personal film than the others, and—probably not coincidentally—the first in which Brooks has cast himself in a lead role. In fact, there is a sense in which Silent Movie is Brooks’s 8 1/2: The end title informs us “This was a true story,” and though we are reasonably certain that the man who made Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein didn’t exactly have to go through hell to convince a studio to let him do a silent movie, it must have been a daring and difficult idea to promote. (One wonders whether Alan Pakula, who once confessed an urge to make a contemporary silent film, ever made serious overtures to the studios.)

This kind of semi-autobiographical telescoping is amplified by Brooks’s more effective reuse of an idea from Blazing Saddles: climaxing the movie with a screening of the movie, showing the audience the audience-reaction, and then romping out of the theater into the world itself, ripping the curtain between real world and reel world apart at the seams. Brooks portrays Mel Funn, aging film director whose career was ruined through excessive drinking, and who tries—like a farcical Norma Desmond—to stage a comeback by means of a wildly anachronistic script idea. This is anachronism the other way—not the kind that, in scene after scene of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, made an ultimately tiresome contemporary joke out of an originally promising genre parody. In period contexts, anachronism is funny only as long as it is the occasional exception rather than the rule (which is why B.C. is funnier than The Flintstones, and why The Twelve Chairs is better than Blazing Saddles).

But if the setting is contemporary and the anachronism is out of the past, then the anachronism can be the whole gag and work effectively. The imposition of silence upon his directorial product, in fact, appears to be just the sort of self-disciplinary device Brooks has needed to achieve more controlled, polished work. The comedy is now restricted to predominantly visual gags, though some verbal humor slips by in the titles and in signs and newspapers glimpsed during the film. But the absence of specifically vocal comedy makes Silent Movie no vehicle for Gene Wilder; the more visually oriented (and funny-looking) members of the Brooks stock company become the core. Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman are the loyal partners who support Funn in his struggles to line up major Hollywood talent to grace his silent film. From The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, then, Brooks has taken the central device of a partnership or team effort with a specific goal in mind—though this time instead of chicanery for profit, the motives are pure (“I’ll save the studio!”).

Silent Movie also permits an apotheosis of Brooks’s penchant for parody: here he burlesques a wide range of silent-film models, including Griffith- and Keaton-like treatments of love and despair, the melodramatic depiction of conspiracy and villainy, a Keystone-ish chase in wheelchairs, a Laurel & Hardy pie fight with cans of Coke as the principal weapon, and—funniest of all—an outrageous lampoon of DeMille’s reverent-spectacle style in a sequence in which Funn goes on a bender with a man-sized bottle of scotch and becomes Lord of All the Winos. The closest this more controlled Brooks ever comes to the kind of pushy lockerroom vulgarity that killed Blazing Saddles and finally turned Young Frankenstein‘s promising extended parody into a tired and tiresome fuck-joke is a brief blackout involving what happens to a boardroom table when the company directors are shown a picture of the lustful vamp who’s been hired to thwart Funn’s efforts. It’s funny enough—and incidental enough—to justify itself without limiting the film around it.

In fact, most of the throwaways and blackouts Brooks uses in Silent Movie are well-prepared and justified, and not emphasized to death. This time his camera tracks or pans past a sight gag without zooming in or holding the shot until it isn’t funny anymore. What Brooks has finally achieved—not throughout this film, but in most of it—is a stylistic return to the subtlety and pace of the sketch work he used to write for Your Show of Shows. As if in acknowledgment of that fact, he has cast Sid Caesar as head of the endangered film studio, and the great man does his best work since his TV program signed off for the last time. What Caesar does as a heart patient when DeLuise and Feldman start playing video ping-pong on his intensive-care monitor is worth the price of admission. And so is everything else in Silent Movie.

SILENT MOVIE
Direction: Mel Brooks. Screenplay: Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy Deluca and Barry Levinson, after a story by Clark. Cinematography: Paul Lohmann. Production design: Al Brenner. Editing: John C. Howard, Stanford Allen. Music: John Morris. Production: Michael Hertzberg.
The players: Mel Brooks, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Sid Caesar, Harold Gould, Ron Carey, Bernadette Peters, Liam Dunn, Fritz Feld, Chuck McGann, Hennie Youngman, Charlie Callas, Harry Ritz and The Biggest Stars in Hollywood (plus Marcel Marceau).

© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.