Vintage Cable Box: “Silent Movie”, 1976

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“Non!”

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“Silent Movie”, 1976 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

In 1976, Mel Brooks was the King of Comedy.  A year-and-a-half previous, he had directed two of the greatest movies (let alone comedies) ever made in “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”.  The creative world was his.  He could’ve followed up those two incredible gems with any project that piqued his interest, and he instead chose to take a giant step backward in the evolution of film with a silent movie (appropriately titled “Silent Movie”).  I always wondered if executives at Fox were worried about this peculiar choice.  If the lack of dialogue wasn’t enough to worry the studio, the subject matter (that of lambasting the studio process and the run of billion-dollar conglomerates insinuating themselves into the creative visual arts) would be sure to give them pause.  Brooks’ power was such that he could do whatever he wanted at the time.

Brooks (in his first starring role) plays washed-up director Mel  Funn, who (along with his buddies Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), convinces Big Pictures studio chief Sid Caesar to finance his latest work: a silent movie.  Caesar, weary from threats the studio will be taken over by evil corporation, Engulf and Devour (obviously a play on Gulf & Western and their acquisition of Paramount in 1966) agrees on the proviso Funn can sign big Hollywood names to the production.  Funn, Eggs, and Bell immediately set out finding stars for their movie.  The three attack Burt Reynolds in his shower.  They have lunch with James Caan in his wobbly trailer.  They dress in suits of armor to woo Liza Minneli.  They race in electric wheelchairs with Paul Newman.  They dance with and court Anne Bancroft.  Somewhat miraculously, these actors agree to star in Funn’s silent movie, all except for Marcel Marceau, who famously delivers the only line of audible dialogue (see above quote).

Enter Engulf and Devour.  They have an evil plan.  Knowing Funn’s past, they engage sexy vixen Vilma Kaplan (the very hot Bernadette Peters, with her explosive pelvic thrust) to seduce Funn, and then discard him so he’ll take up drinking again.  Eggs and Bell catch on to the scheme and warn Funn, who is so disillusioned and distraught (believe me, I can relate), he crawls into an enormous bottle and is declared “king of the winos”.  Unbeknownst to him (and Engulf and Devour), Vilma has fallen head-over-heels for our pal Mel.  Lucky bastard!  Vilma, Eggs, and Bell pour a hundred cups of coffee into him, sober him up, and start making the movie.  Engulf and Devour executives steal the print of the finished movie before it’s official premiere, so it’s up to the gang to get the movie back, screen it, and save Big Pictures Studios before the conglomerate can complete their take-over.

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Hi Burt!

This is such a damned fun (and funny movie), it’s unusual to watch without narrative-building dialogue quite honestly getting in the way of the sheer physical humor that propels what we see on the screen.  This is a story that doesn’t scream out for dialogue; doesn’t require dialogue.  The three leads (Feldman, in particular, channeling Harpo Marx) are perfectly suited to the exaggerated mannerisms and pantomime necessary to the humor.  “Silent Movie” is a delicious experiment that would not be repeated in quite this way ever again.  Recently, in viewing and commenting on 2013’s “Deadly Prey” sequel, “The Deadliest Prey” (directed by David A. Prior), I bemoaned the terrible dialogue that kills the movie for me, mainly because, in my view, if you don’t have decent actors, it’s going to make the production even worse.  When you remove dialogue, you remove a potential flaw, and if you can’t write good dialogue, don’t bother trying.

I had meant to write this review for quite some time, but I found myself almost consistently distracted by the beauty and talent of Bernadette Peters.  She is seriously sexy in this movie (and in most everything she does).  To my wife’s ire, I required a drool bucket when we sat down to watch the movie.  She also had to pick my jaw up off the floor after watching Vilma’s interpretation of Lecouna’s “Babalu”.  Men!  Anyway, this is the last installment of my tribute to Mel Brooks, who turned 90 yesterday.  God bless him.  In my life as a writer (and sometime filmmaker), I always go back to Mel; a testament to the timelessness of his material.  My wife and I often quote his gags, one-for-one.  Most recently, I rewrote a scene in my own movie, “Total Male Fantasy No. 10”, in which I instructed my lead to replicate a particular bit from one of Mel’s movies.  It’s odd.  You would think I revere a Welles, or a Kubrick, or a Hitchcock, but no – it always comes back to Mel Brooks.  Please make another film, Mel!

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A picture of Bernadette because … damn!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “To Be Or Not To Be”, 1983

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“Listen, if I don’t come back, then I forgive you for anything that happened between you and Lt. Sobinski.  But if I do come back, you’re in a lot of trouble!”

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“To Be Or Not To Be”, 1983 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

The story goes that Mel Brooks sought out the widow of Ernst Lubitsch to get her blessing with regard to a remake he wanted to produce for 1941’s Jack Benny classic, “To Be Or Not To Be”.  Lubitsch’s widow approved, and Brooks chose Alan Johnson (celebrated choreographer of many films including “The Producers” from 1968 and director of the notorious Brooksfilms flop, “Solarbabies”) to direct the film.  I can only assume Brooks decided not to direct because he wanted to focus on producing a faithful remake of a film with potentially controversial subject matter, and stay true to the dramatic material. In fact, this movie (and “The Twelve Chairs”) is as close to drama as Brooks would ever permit.

Brooks (with wife Anne Bancroft) play Frederick and Anna Bronski, reknowned actors (world famous in Poland!) and owners/operators of the Bronski Theater in Warsaw.  Despite warnings of imminent German incursion, Bronski reasons the show must go on; including a politically satirical musical number featuring a buffoonish Hitler (played by Bronski).  The Ministry of Information threatens to shut down his theater if he doesn’t remove the offending material.  Frustrated, he relents.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Bronski conducts a romantic affair with a brash, young Polish Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Matheson) during Bronski’s center-piece, Highlights From Hamlet, in which he destroys Shakespeare with his hammy performances.

Soon after, the German war machine rolls into Poland.  Sobinski tells Anna he must leave immediately and connect with the Royal Air Force in England.  The Germans shut down Bronki’s theater, confiscate their possessions (including their home), implement gas rationing, and start rounding up dissidents and enemy agents.  The Bronskis reluctantly start hiding Jews in their basement.  Anna’s homosexual dresser, Sasha, opens his modest apartment to the Bronskis.  The brave Sobinski discovers that a respected member of the underground, Professor Selitski (José Ferrer), is a double-agent for the Germans.  Selitski acquires a list of Polish Underground members.  Sobinski is ordered by the British to paratroop back into Poland and kill Selitski.

Anna, in spite of her obvious infidelity, persuades her husband and his troupe of actors to help Sobinski.  First, Bronski must impersonate Colonel Erhardt in order to obtain the list from Selitski.  After Selitski is dispatched and the list is destroyed, Brooks masquerades as Selitski for the benefit of Colonel Erhardt (hilarious scene-stealing Charles Durning) and his bumbling assistant, Schultz (Christopher Lloyd).  Sobinski devises a plan to steal an aircraft and fly the Bronskis, the theater troupe, and all of the Jews (cleverly disguised as clowns) in hiding out of Warsaw to safety in England.

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This is such a fun film I have to admit I enjoyed it much more than the Jack Benny original that inspired it.  Film lovers in my age bracket respond more to Brooks than Benny.  Jack Benny, while a hilarious entertainer, was not in constant rotation on cable television in those days.  Even today (like Ernie Kovacs), it’s difficult to find a good portion of his surviving material.  When I was a kid, Mel Brooks was the king of comedy, and when “To Be Or Not To Be” debuted on cable, The Movie Channel ran a retrospective of his films.

What impresses me the most about “To Be Or Not To Be” (above the remake’s requisite respect for the original) is the very thin line the film negotiates between hilarity and pathos.  As an actor, this is Brooks’ strongest performance of all his movies.  In fact, all of the performances (particularly Bancroft) are on equal par.  These are a group of committed and energetic actors giving their all, and putting on a wonderful show.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.