Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Silent Movie" (1976)

Starring Mel Brooks, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise
Written by Mel Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy DeLuca and Barry Levinson
Directed by Mel Brooks

After hitting big with "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," Mel Brooks produced and directed a spoof of the old silent films, "Silent Movie."  In the film, Brooks plays Mel Funn, a movie director who had previously sabotaged his career by drinking too much.  Now, Funn has an idea for a movie that will be his big comeback: a modern-day silent picture.  It's a ballsy move, and his friends Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) aren't sure Funn can sell it to the Studio Chief (Sid Caesar).

Funn promises the Chief that he'll get today's biggest movie stars to sign onto the picture, and the Chief agrees to make the film.  Unfortunately, the Studio is about to be bought by the Engulf and Devour Corporation.  If Funn's "Silent Movie" is a hit, the Studio will have made enough money to remain independent.  As Funn and his friends go about Hollywood attempting to sign big-name stars like Burt Reynolds, James Caan and Ann Bancroft, Engulf and Devour's executives (Harold Gould and Ron Carey) plot to disrupt the making of the film so that they can take over the Studio.

What follows is a series of hilarious sketches and misadventures alternating between Funn and his gang trying to round up an all-star cast and the evil executives trying to get in their way.  What they didn't count on, of course, is that a bunch of A-list stars might actually want to be in their picture, so a lot of the hilarious mishaps that occur when Funn, Eggs and Dom try to convince them are sort of pointless.  Soon enough, they get their cast in place, but Engulf and Devour pull their most heinous idea yet: They hire the lovely Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) to pretend to be in love with Funn and distract him from completing the movie in time.  Even this plan ultimately fails, so Engulf and Devour eventually stoop so low as to simply steal the only copy of the film just before it's big premiere.

"Silent Movie" is a really interesting project because even though it's a spoof of the old silent films, it is, in itself, a silent film.  There's music and a variety of sound effects placed strategically throughout the film, but only one line of dialogue (delivered, hilariously, by a mime).  So a lot of the humor is of the physical slapstick variety.  Through the entire movie, people will get thrown about, bonked in the head, fall over, fall backward, slip, run into walls... all the classics.  There are also plenty of visual sight gags, and ironic use of title cards - that is, the dialogue doesn't match the on-screen action in hilarious ways.

Brooks, Feldman and DeLuise are masterful comic performers, even when they're not saying a thing (that we can hear, anyway; we see them speaking quite often in the film, but only rarely are told what the words are... mostly we just have to guess based on what it looks like they're saying and what's going on around them).  Brooks is master of facial expressions, while Feldman's creepy eyes are often used to great effect (mostly in jokes that make him out to be some kind of "mild-mannered pervert" involving attractive women).  DeLuise comes across ably as a dumbell (Dom Bell, get it?) who is always hungry or thirsty.  The other guest stars they surround themselves with are great, too.  Burt Reynolds' shower scene is a riot, and James Caan's unbalanced trailer is an incredibly fun, clever sketch.  Liza Minelli's appearance in the studio commissary is also a favorite.  Later, the three even get into an absurd high-speed chase on electric wheelchairs with Paul Newman!

"Silent Movie" is a little bumpy, though.  Without any dialogue, and with some of the sketches falling flat, the film feels a bit longer than it is.  It doesn't have quite the constant pep of "Blazing Saddles" or the incredible quotability of "Young Frankenstein."  But when "Silent Movie" gets it right, it fires on all cylinders.  It's a totally worthwhile entry in Brooks' filmography.

It's interesting that I chose to watch this film the same day as "King Kong", since they are both movies about people trying to make movies.  I certainly didn't plan it that way on purpose.  I'd been meaning to see "Kong" for quite some time, and a coworker of mine is often talking about his love of Mel Brooks movies, and I figured it was time to expand my knowledge of them beyond "Blazing Saddles" and "Spaceballs"...  Oh well.