You shouldn’t look at comedies too closely. What seemed funny at the time, no longer is. Jokes about gays, cripples, blind people, and stutterers haven’t survived into our politically (or critically) correct era. Curiously, as our humor gets cleansed by contemporary moral enforcers, the comedy has become crueler (especially on television).
But I am obsessing, after having written about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Younger Brother (1975) and Start the Revolution Without Me (1970). I finally decide to watch Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976) and see if I have found a successfully frenetic comedy. I have tried to judge it on its own merits, within the time it premiered in theaters, and not use Brooks’ later films against it (that is, detecting his decline in the way Silent Movie plays out).
The funniest moment, for me, was Charley Callas playing a blind man. The ultimate gag, the exchange of German shepherds, one being a ‘seeing eye’ dog, seemed less funny that Callas’ silly walk. Speaking of not seeing such a representation of the seeing impaired! This is Brooks using his actors’ talents brilliantly.
Of the stars that Mel, Dom, and Marty search out to star in their silent film – Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Paul Newman, Marcel Marceau, and Anne Bancroft – I laughed at the Paul Newman segment where we get a wheelchair chase. Newman has a broken leg dues to a racing accident (the debris is beside him at the convalescent home. He sees them coming and speeds away. Ridiculous comedy strikes my primitive funny bone. Meaning: it won’t take much to make me laugh. The scene with Liza Minelli also elicited some chuckles, as the trio fall over themselves in suits of armor as they try to sit a Minelli’s table for lunch.
My reluctance to see this film for forty years reflects, perhaps, my distaste for most silent films. Keaton and Chaplin comedies seem the most effective. The silent films of Fritz Lang, especially Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1923), are my favorites. And a few other films here and there, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise (1927).
It’s the silence in Silent Movie that most bothered me. It starts immediately with the trio driving to the studio in a yellow sports car. They pick up a pregnant woman who sits in the back and tilts the front of the car upward. They drive off and reach the studio on the back wheels. I wasn’t very amused by the gag but, as the film continued, I wondered what justified it being silent. Was the movie we were seeing going to be the film that Mel believes can save the Studio? Would we be screened the movie we had just seen at the end? I could live with this if I wasn’t struck by the lack of slapstick and effective silent comedy (e.g., the Keystone Cops).
It occurred to me that Brooks couldn’t pursue this avenue, having gone down that way in Blazing Saddles (1974). Harvey Korman is pursued to a movie theater (after being pursued through the movie studio when Blazing Saddles is being filmed) and on the screen is the very movie.
What to do? We never find out. The silent movie is filmed but before the premier, the corporate weasels, Engulf and Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey), steal the reel and are going to destroy it.
The film’s form matches the content unevenly. It’s as if they made it silent after filming it with sound. As for it being a homage to the silent film era, I don’t buy it. His ‘homage’ to Hitchcock in High Anxiety (1977) I found lame and predictable. In Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (1974), Brooks skewered the western and the horror film respectively (despite loving them). I don’t see why silent films shouldn’t be treated the same, in the way they are in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Sunset Blvd. (1950).
Lastly, I can’t avoid commenting on the so-called irony of Marcel Marceau speaking the only word in the film: “No!” when he turns down the offer to appear in Mel’s silent film. One’s reaction to it depends on easily one is amused. To me, it seemed obvious. But if you believe Mel can do no wrong, you think this is comic genius. A few months ago, I saw Marcel Marceau on Laugh In. Throughout the show, he spoke. He mimed but also speak. His speaking in Silent Movie doesn’t seem ridiculous.