The Sunday Intertitle: Brown is the New Black
The brown intertitles are one of the many reasons to be skeptical of Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE, his least-seen movie from his seventies run of hits. There’s a lack of panache in the film-making (signature shot — zoom in, a bit too fast, on somebody, panning as they cross the cheap, barren set) and even a basic lack of care (establishing shot on New York is a photograph with a large smudge on it — I was waiting, and waiting, for a gag revealing it to be just a photo, but no — this movie was too cheap to buy a stock shot cityscape of Manhattan; shot of studio commissary sign, zooms out, briefly catches some extras standing in the middle of the steps, before an offscreen A.D. presumably yells “Action Two!” and they start moving…).
Some of the jokes don’t work, and some are the wrong jokes, and some aren’t even jokes at all — a man walks out of an acupuncturist’s with big needles in his back. And? It’s funny because it’s true?
And the cast — Mel Brooks is a very enthusiastic performer (he grins a lot), and can sometimes magic laughs up out of sheer exertion of that enthusiasm. But he’s not a visual comic. Marty Feldman is funny looking, alright, but his Harpo Marx lechery here comes off a bit creepy. And Dom De Luise is basically used for fat man jokes.
The best jokes tend to conceptual jokes, deploying words, as when Brooks cusses out Feldman for his ungentlemanly approach to a beautiful woman, clearly using strong epithets, and the intertitle bowdlerizes it (“You bad boy!”). It’s a silent movie whose heart is real gift is for verbal humour.
It’s a huge relief when Burt Reynolds shows up. Yes. Because Burt, it turns out, has a gigantic flair for slapstick and silent playing (strong hints of this in his work for Bogdanovich), and he has a comic character to play that’s fully worked out — a self-parody that destroys the dignity of the Burt Reynolds brand so conclusively that your respect for him actually goes up. In his short bit, he plays an inventive series of variations on the theme of self-love, and there’s an endearingly stupid gag with a steamroller.
The other guest stars are mostly very good too, which is a relief since Harold Gould and Sid Caesar are compelled to overact uncomfortably. Bernadette Peters is a great cartoon character with a kind of silent movie look, but there’s no writing to help her get a character going. (I had forgotten Barry Levinson was a writer on this — I guess that kind of explains TOYS, which would otherwise be an entirely mysterious anomaly in his career).
A lot of the best jokes involve signs — I could certainly do a “Things I Read Off the Screen in SILENT MOVIE” post. If your best jokes involve signs, perhaps you are not the right people to make a silent comedy.
Marcel Marceau bit is pretty great. It doesn’t require the audience to love mime. Again, the movie breaks character in order to do a spoken word joke, but it’s a good one.
The movie is oddly likable, even though you cringe as much as you laugh. A minute or so of three men in suits of armour trying and failing to join Liza Minnelli at a refectory table is enough to redeem any number of failed jokes involving carousel horses shitting wooden blocks.