Friday, May 07, 2010

Parody or Homage?: Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie"

Hot off the success of his two critical and box-office smashes, BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Mel Brooks next turned his satirical sights on the golden age of comedy, creating a silent movie for the present day, titled-appropriately enough-SILENT MOVIE. Filming in color and widescreen, but with only a musical soundtrack and a few selected sound effects, Brooks sought out to make the first silent comedy in 40 years, loaded with cameos and filled with the kind of sight gags and physical humor that had worked for Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Problem is, that type of humor doesn’t really work for Brooks and company.

As audacious as the idea sounds, it’s important to keep in mind that Brooks was the reigning box office comic of the time, and especially after going against conventional wisdom and shooting his previous smash hit, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, in black and white, he pretty much had free reign. SILENT MOVIE, however, is a textbook example of what can go wrong when a comic artist, working with material ill-suited to them, is let loose with no one to tell them “no”. That’s not to say the film is a complete failure; in fact, there are a couple of memorable moments, but not nearly enough to sustain itself for feature-length. Whereas Brooks’ previous two films had been parodies, SILENT MOVIE, however, is set up as both a parody as well as a kind of homage to the great silent clowns. This creates a kind of tension, where Brooks seems to want to send-up the style by over-playing everything in the form of parody, but at other times, seems to want to move toward doing contemporary gags in a “straight” silent format.

The basic problem, so obvious it hardly needs mentioning, comes down to a clash of comedy styles: Brooks, trained in the Borscht Belt humor of the Catskill resorts where he got his start, and the verbal humor of the Sid Caesar programs for which he wrote sketches during the 1950s, is all wrong for this kind of material. It’s rather remarkable that such a brilliant comedian didn’t recognize this as a basic problem; or rather, if he did, that he didn’t abandon the project outright. The silent clowns, and their modern day counterparts like Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis, were schooled in a very different form of humor, in which physical comedy routines were crafted and timed with the same skill and precision that comics like Caesar devoted to the verbal joke. Brooks seems to think that visual and physical comedy instead involves a total lack of subtlety, mixed with forced and obvious sight gags, and-worst of all-inserting way too many verbal jokes into the film in the form of intertitles! His contemporary, Woody Allen, seems to share the same misconception about the art of silent comedy, once calling it the “checkers” in comparison to the “chess” of talking comedy.

Brooks took the leading role this time around, a move that others have noted marked a step down in his work. Perhaps because he was unable to stay behind the camera (and Brooks is certainly one of the sharpest and most stylish comedy directors of the past forty years), the film has a fairly flat look to it and seems awkwardly staged much of the time, with the co-starring performances of Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise too often hurt by takes running too long, and action stretched out to unnecessary lengths (the scene in which the three of them, dressed in suits of armor, attempt to meet with Liza Minnelli in a studio commissary, is almost painful to watch). The problems with the editing are a real surprise, given that Brooks has unquestionably the finest editorial eye of any comic filmmaker working since the post-war era.

If the film works as a satire at all, it’s not as a satire of silent comedy (which, in itself, seems a very puzzling concept to attempt at all). Rather, the film does work to some extent as a satire of contemporary (1976) Hollywood. The opening title reads: “Hollywood: The Movie Capital of Greater Los Angeles”, which is even more bitingly funny today than it was in 1976. The problem is Brooks doesn’t take it far enough. Perhaps afraid of being accused of biting the hand that fed him, Brooks’ satire of the corporate conglomerate Gulf and Western (here called “Engulf and Devour”) is muted by the fact that the characters are played in such an over-the-top fashion (one bit has Harold Gould, in a state of fury, literally frothing at the mouth and barking like a dog!) Whereas Jerry Lewis had the nerve to really rip Hollywood to shreds in films like THE PATSY and THE ERRAND BOY, here, Brooks seems too enamored of Tinseltown in order to really do it any serious damage. He pays loving homage to the town when he really should be taking a sledgehammer to it. What’s perhaps most ironic about SILENT MOVIE is the fact that it feels dated, not because it’s silent, but because its so clearly a product of its time. It almost seems to have more in common with such period films as BUGSY MALONE or even WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD. The lineup of cameos adds to this feeling.

The plot has Brooks, aided by Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, setting out to sign every major star in Hollywood to appear in their silent movie, making it a hit and thus saving the studio, Miracle Pictures (“If it’s a good one, it’s a miracle…”) from being taken over by the corporate entity of Engulf and Devour. The “guest stars” do a good job kidding their own star images; particularly memorable is Burt Reynolds as the very picture of the vain, macho leading man, even stopping to admire himself in the mirror on his way downstairs in the morning. Reynolds, a delightful light comic, has some of the film’s best scenes, despite the intense over-playing of Brooks, Feldman and DeLuise. James Caan has a fun scene with the guys in which they attempt to sign him while in his rickety trailer, which threatens to tip over at the slightest provocation. Anne Bancroft shares a hilarious and energetic tango with Brooks. Only Minnelli seems wasted, as she has little to do other than watch as Brooks and the gang stumble about in suits of armor. One of the most fun is Paul Newman, resting up in a hospital after a racecar accident, and attempting to elude Brooks and company on a motorized wheelchair chase to and fro across the hospital grounds. These moments, far from seeming gratuitous, actually prove to be some of the film’s most fun moments, because it’s always a delight to see stars poking fun at themselves, and they all seem to be having a genuinely good time in the process. Special mention needs to be made of the film’s most surprising cameo-the brilliant and poignant Marcel Marceau, who does a pantomime of struggling to walk across a windy room in order to answer the phone. (I won’t spoil the topper to this sequence, because it’s so totally unexpected and unprecedented in the art of mime, that it really deserves to be seen in order to fully appreciate the surprise).

A major flaw in the comedy itself is that Brooks and his writers seemed to mistake silent comedy for cartoon comedy. Whereas the best silent comedy involved a subtle working with characters and situations, Brooks seems intent on creating a kind of live-action Looney Tune, with absurd cartoon humor running throughout (especially the bizarre and ludicrous steamroller gag outside of Burt Reynolds’ house). The image of the trio stacked on each others’ shoulders to create a “tall man” effect is nowhere near as funny as it could be. Apparently, Brooks shot a scene with Buster Keaton’s wife, Eleanor, in which they re-created the telephone booth bit that she and Buster had performed years earlier, but this scene was left on the cutting room floor, supposedly because a shadow cast by the camera equipment rendered it unusable. One gag that comes close to being brilliant occurs in the scene where Brooks and company visit studio chief Sid Caesar in the hospital following a heart attack, and Feldman and DeLuise turn the heart monitor into a game of Pong, which has a visible and quite dramatic effects on Caesar. It’s a good moment, crossing into the surreal, and taking advantage of a new medium (the video game) within the silent film medium

Then there are the unfunny gay jokes that Brooks is so relentlessly fond of. While it’s certainly misguided to look for sensitivity in comedy of any kind, there’s a big difference between the delightfully and sharply-written characterizations of Roger DeBris and Carmen Giya in THE PRODUCERS, and the running gag in SILENT MOVIE, in which the three male leads repeatedly find themselves piled on top of each other as two passing women shout at them, “Fags!” This type of humor is better suited to less clever comics, and it’s disappointing that Brooks falls back on this kind of thing again and again in his work when he can’t think of anything more original. The scene in James Caan’s trailer feels inspired by the brilliant cabin scene in Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH, in which the cabin, teetering on a precipice, appears ready to plunge itself and its occupants to their doom at the slightest motion. The difference, of course, is that Brooks’ scene lacks the suspense and “thrill” comedy of Chaplin’s (to say nothing of Chaplin’s brilliant comic panic). In Brooks’ scene, there is no real impending danger, other than the trailer falling two feet on one side. It does finally tip over, but Brooks is unable to find a suitable topper to end the sequence on, so instead, as all the guys tumble on top of on another, the two passers-by once again shout homophobic slurs at them. As much as some silent comedy strikes us as insensitive today, it was never mean-spirited like this. (Another cheap joke, albeit an amusing one, occurs when Harold Gould unveils a picture of Bernadette Peters-who is being sent to seduce Brooks-to his all-male board of directors, and asking their collective opinion, they respond without uttering a word, as the table rises off the ground several inches!) Other gags, including such adolescent humor of reading through intertitles of DeLuise’s need to use the bathroom, to Marty Feldman getting whacked in the crotch by a blind man’s cane, Harold Gould speaking before the board of directors with his fly unzipped, and DeLuise getting a can of Coke shot into his groin by an out-of-control vending machine, are so juvenile as to barely require further comment.

The film ends with the kind of all-out chase-and-action sequence that Harold Lloyd would have handled brilliantly. The device of using the malfunctioning Coke machine, while hardly too clever nor terribly funny, makes for some good moments as the bad guys are bombarded with exploding soda cans! The film ends with the triumphant premiere of the silent film (wishful thinking on Brooks’ part, perhaps!) The cast lines up, marching in time, to Morris’ “Silent Movie March” (which sounds remarkably similar to the theme Morris composed for the TV series, “Coach”, with Craig T. Nelson).

This is a good time to mention that, for a silent film, SILENT MOVIE is surprisingly reliant on music. John Morris composed 87 minutes of wall-to-wall notes, interspersed with sections of silence and moments carried more by sound effects (such as in the hospital sequence). Even though Brooks essentially drives home the point that SILENT MOVIE is the first silent film since Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES, it misses the point that silent comedy did, in fact, live on into the sound era. Its most notable practitioners were, of course, Laurel and Hardy, who’d actually started in the medium itself and continued to work in that tradition throughout the rest of their careers. Jacques Tati found perhaps the most ideal blend between balancing the use of sound with a visual style of comedy, creating a body of comic work that is unequaled in world cinema. More recently, Rowan Atkinson had a great deal of success with his TV program, “Mr. Bean”, which is perhaps the closest comedy of recent years to the mischievous fun of the world of silent comedy. But in SILENT MOVIE, the score-which really is integral to the overall film-feels uninspired and flat at times. Visually, it’s one of Brooks’ dullest films, too, despite the occasionally bright color patterns. He worked here with cinematographer Paul Lohmann, who’d shot NASHVILLE the year before for Robert Altman and would work with Brooks again the following year on HIGH ANXIETY. In his work with Brooks, Lohmann’s compositions feel somewhat unbalanced, but this may be due to a general feeling of scenes seeming under-rehearsed and even poorly timed (a detriment in this kind of comedy). One has to wonder how much ad-libbing was involved. The screenplay is credited to Brooks, Rudy DeLuca, Ron Clark and Barry Levinson (from a story by Clark)-none of them comedy writers terribly noted for their sense of visual comedy.

Taken as a whole, SILENT MOVIE is an interesting experiment, but it fails to live up to its potential, which in itself is a problematic statement, as this style of comedy is clearly ill-suited to Brooks’ strengths as a comic artist that it’s difficult to say just what “potential” the project ever had. This is no slight against Brooks, as the same point would apply if Chaplin were to have tried his hand at doing a film consisting of purely verbal comedy. As a cinematic experiment, it’s a kind of metaphor for the idea that “you can’t go home again”. Major work had been done in the field of visual comedy in the work of Laurel and Hardy, Jacques Tati, and Jerry Lewis in the forty-five years since the transition to sound. Here, Brooks creates a copy of a form, then, rather than bringing anything new to it (other than perhaps certain jokes which would have never gotten past the censors in the silent era!)

Still, the film has the best fly-in-the-soup gag ever committed to film.

1 comment:

HBE 2005 said...

Thanks Matt, I enjoyed your take on 'Silent Movie'. It has some resonating ideas as I am working on an analysis of the Carl Reiner- Steve Martin homage pic 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'.