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.
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!
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.