Mel Brooksâ€™ 1976 comedy Silent Movie is the ultimate concept film. A silent movie released 50 years after the introduction of sound to cinema where some of the most famous voices in Hollywood history will been silenced. A film that is in every way an homage to the silent classics of the 1920s with the added benefit of color, better picture, and 1970s censors. What plot would fit such an outrageous concept? Make it about a director in the 70s trying to make a silent movie. Perfect!
In 1976 Mel Brooks was in the perfect position to make Silent Movie. He was just coming off of the two most commercially successful films of his career – Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both released in 1974. There were a slew of actors who wanted to work with Brooks and he could convince a studio to back just about any idea he could dream up. Under other circumstances, the film may have not been produced, but with Brooks having proven himself as a solid Box Office bet, 20th Century Fox was on board.
Silent Movie was more than just a film with a quirky concept and an homage to the comedies of the â€˜20s. It represented Brooksâ€™ and many other actorsâ€™ desire to prove that they could do the same type of comedy that was done in the classic silent films. They wanted to show that the gags made famous by Chaplin, Keaton, and a slew of others werenâ€™t only possible back then. To reverse a quote from the film, they wanted to prove that â€œslapstick is [not] dead.â€
The efforts were only mildly successful.
Silent Movie has some moments that are very funny, but ultimately it fails to invoke the same fast-paced humor of silent films or the same ironic social comedy of Brooksâ€™ better films. The gags are hit and miss and most of them drag on too long. However, it is definitely true that second-rate Mel Brooks comedy is still funnier than what most directors can offer.
The film gives Mel Brooks his first lead role as Mel Funn, a washed-up director who is trying to save his career and a major movie studio by producing a blockbuster silent movie. Along with the help from his strange sidekicks Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), Funn travels around Hollywood courting the biggest names in acting to appear in his picture. Some of the actors who appear in the film as themselves include Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, Marcel Marcieu, and Paul Newman.
While Funn and his crew are working on recruiting talent for their big film, the Engulf and Devour company is trying to thwart his efforts, hoping he will fail and they can buy out the movie studio. They send in several of their secret weapons including the voluptuous Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) who, acting on several of the Mel Brooks archetypes, ungracefully tries to seduce Funn and members of his entourage.
The plot of Silent Movie is episodic with each confrontation with an actor representing a new bit. Harkening back to the Vaudevillian slapstick golden years, Brooks creates archetypal characters with cartoonish names and attributes. In Charlie Chaplinâ€™s masterpieces, the well-polished comic bits played so naturally that they felt improvised. In Brooksâ€™ film some of the bits have that same comedy magic, but many of them felt almost too polished and they seemed to have lost a lot of their freshness through too many rehearsals.
From a technical standpoint the film is very clever. It is filmed with 35mm film using the same cameras and technology that Brooks used on his other 1970s films, but it uses a style that makes it feel like it was older. For instance – for several of the action scenes, cinematographer Paul Lohman uses a lower frame rate, but plays the film at regular speed. This effect makes the actors move at faster than normal pace, which replicates the effect the technology of the â€˜20s had. The unfortunate side effect is that the gimmick plays out as more as a nostalgia trip than a comic bit.
Mel Brooks is the master of the elongated joke, which he relies on a lot (either by choice or by necessity) in Silent Movie. His philosophy seems to be do something funny, then keeping doing it until itâ€™s not funny, then keep with it until itâ€™s funny again. A successful example of this includes a scene where Funn, Eggs, and Bell attempt to sit down at a cafeteria table in full knight armor while a patient Liza Minnelli watches bemusedly. However, other scenes dragged on leaving the viewer wondering if the filmmakers realize when enough is enough.
My biggest disappointment with Silent Movie, however, was that I missed Mel Brooksâ€™ brilliantly clever dialogue. Itâ€™s not the concept or the scenarios that make films like Blazing Saddles or The Producers masterpieces, but rather it is signature lines like â€œwhere the white women at?â€ and â€œdonâ€™t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party.â€ Nobody in Silent Movieâ€™s cast has the physical abilities of Chaplin or Keaton (with the exception of maybe Marcieu) and their talents would have better put to use speaking the glorious wit of Mel Brooks.
Bottom Line: Silent Movie is a great film to watch in brief doses, but taking it all in at once might leave you reaching for your Blazing Saddles DVD.