The Sunday Intertitle: Brown is the New Black

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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15 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Brown is the New Black”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    Loved the corner of the check, with its notation “for seducing Mel Funn.” Is this the usual way to pay off vamps?

    Somehow the notion of a silent musical number for Bernadette Peters seems self-defeating, though the banana helps — He Said, Not For The First Time. Or is that just my lack of knowledge of musical numbers in silent films?

  2. I like that Mel at least set this in present times and shot in widescreen colour, unlike THE ARTIST’s 1920s 4:3 B&W pastiche – as if that’s the only way silent cinema can exist. Any other notable colour silents?

  3. Haven’t seen it since its initial release, and have had no—absolutely NO—desire to revisit it. There’s a laziness about this film that invites balls-out scorn, and indeed, HIGH ANXIETY and ROBIN HOOD: MIT only up that ante (“Hold your tongues!” fer gawdsake). I don’t feel I’ve gotten one honest laugh from Mr. Brooks since YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and that one pretty clearly signaled the beginning of the end vis-a-vis facile parodies and no real inspiration unless it’s literally trippped over. I like Mel Brooks, but he’s been coasting long enough for three lifetimes. Witness the film of the play of the film THE PRODUCERS, which is unwatchable.

  4. “Silent Movie” is minor Mel, but it’s so much better than “The Artist” I can’t begin to discuss it.

  5. I have so far not witnessed The Producers’ re-remake.

    Last time I saw High Anxiety, I was struck by how funny I found it, and I’d considered it far inferior to YF. YF is a proper film, whereas HA only resembles a Hitchcock TV movie. YF seems to have been the last time Mel allowed himself a good cinematographer.

    When Mel offers Marceau a role in the first silent movie for 40 years, he’s forgetting William Castle’s Shanks — which starred Marceau.

    I’ve been meaning to see Rolf de Heer’s Dr. Plonk, shot on vintage equipment. And the reportedly wordless Shaun the Sheep.

  6. chris schneider Says:

    The PRODUCERS remix is pretty thoroughly horrible, apart from Nathan Lane. I would no more blame Brooks for it, though, than I would blame THE WOMEN director George Cukor for the ’50s OPPOSITE SEX.

  7. The film’s cringe-guffaw dichotomy fits into the tradition of Jewish humor. I grew up on it and love it without reservation.

  8. Brooks always hated Zero Mostel’s performance in The Producers, apparently — he was in a rage about it all through post-production, resulting in the editor fleeing with PTSD — and the musical was mainly a way to revisit it with a softer, more lovable Max Bialystock.

    I like Nathan Lane a lot, but clearly Brooks was missing out on what a great performance Mostel gave him. And the chemistry with Wilder! Amazing!

  9. The Producers musical was great fun onstage, but the movie had trouble translating it.

    Favorite intertitle in Silent Movie: Peters’s unnecessary “Ba-Ba-Loo!”, which turns up twice. What dates the film now is its parade of the Biggest Stars in Hollywood (with the exception of Paul Newman).

    There’s a great intertitle joke in Chaplin’s “The Immigrant.” Charlie and Edna are in the cafe. A flamboyant man notices them. He comes to their table and gesticulates extravagantly as he expounds on something. We finally get the intertitle: “I am an artist.”

  10. I love-love-love HIGH ANXIETY and HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I unreservedly. But, let’s face it, everything he’s made since ist kaput.

  11. Loved History of the World Pt 1 when I saw it at the school film society. It hasn’t stood up too well for me, but Oh! To be a fly on the wall when Mel directed Welles. And Milligan!

    Time I gave The Twelve Chairs another try, perhaps.

  12. Mel seems like such a sweet guy that I feel guilty when he doesn’t make me laugh. I want to call him up and apologize for looking at my watch. Although that probably wouldn’t make either of us feel better.

  13. I’m trying to remember where I heard it but Mel was interviewed recently, and mentioned working with Welles. He hired him for 4 days, but Welles was so good, he was finished in hours. Mel laughingly rued the fact he still had to pay Welles for the other 3 days. I wonder if any of that money went on Welles’ films

    Brooks, the director was never as good after History of the World Part 1. But then his films always had a scrappy charm & in the 80s & 90s Hollywood mainstream films couldn’t get away with being scrappy. And polished Mel doesn’t work.

    However since 1981, as a performer & especially as a producer Mel has been pretty wonderful (We’ll forget Solarbabies-the film where Mel broke the two cardinal rules of producing)

  14. Brooksfilms made some terrific stuff, and were always defiantly uncommercial, trading off the huge profits of the Brooks comedies. That kind of business plan is unacceptable tofay, it seems, so those films probably just wouldn’t get made.

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