Watching Ebert: Silent Movie (Brooks, 1976)

This is the next in a series of reviews of films Roger Ebert has given four stars to between the years of 1967 and 2007, inspired by his book, Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews.

It takes about ten minutes to get fully adjusted to the style of Mel Brook’s Silent Movie. It’s hard to imagine, especially in the year 2009, a film in color with living actors we recognize being filled to the brim with nothing but sight gags, sound effects, and dialogue cards. It’s completely free of plot, instead giving Brooks the excuse to go on wild tangents and spend his time lingering on any visual gag that inspires him. Brooks has a real gift with vaudevillian punchlines, so hearing the audible zingers is occasionally missed, but the film is still absorbing, carefree, and full of laughs.

Mel Brooks is Mel Funn, a director who at one time was a hotshot, but one severe stint of alcoholism later, he is a has-been, known more for his drinking than his directing. However, he concocts a brilliant idea for a film– a silent movie! He, along with his faithful companions Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), head to Big Picture Studios, to present the film idea that will hopefully turn his career around. Bad news: the Chief (Sid Caesar) informs the men that unless they make a profit, the studios will be bought out by Engulf and Devour, an evil corporate conglomerate. Since the first silent movie in forty years doesn’t seem a likely candidate, Mel is doomed to be turned on, until a light bulb goes off over his head– literally– and he tells the Chief the biggest stars in Hollywood will be in it. The Chief agrees that if Mel gets stars on board, he can make the movie. Mel, Marty, and Dom pursue Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Anne Bancroft, and Paul Newman to be in their film, all while Engulf and Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey) try to stop them.

The plot is basically an excuse to stage big set piece gags around stars of the moment. Burt Reynolds won’t let them in his door, so they disguise themselves with a giant coat as one large man. James Caan lets them into his trailer, but it’s precariously balanced, so every small move they make threatens to topple the trailer over. They disguise themselves as knights to sneak into the studio lunch room where Liza Minnelli is dining, and of course they have trouble operating the heavy armor. The best sequence involves Paul Newman and a crosstown wheelchair race, and the now-classic moment in this film, when the one celebrity cameo who speaks is the most unlikely source.

Brooks is a hysterical writer, and his direction is very loyal to the silent movie style, but I must admit to thinking he is more effectively used in films when his mad characters are served in smaller doses. However, this film has two indispensable performances that make this film close to a must-see for anyone who loves comedy. The first is Marty Feldman, the comedic genius with the wonky eye who died too young, as he relishes the part of the creepy sidekick that he hit a home run with in Brooks’ previous outing, Young Frankenstein. Also, he had the ability to make some extremely broad gags work– few actors could have made the sequence where he desperately tries to catch one of six elevators and bounces between them like a pinball work, but Feldman somehow gets a laugh. The second is Sid Caesar as the Chief, because Sid Caesar is plain and simply one of the best physical actors ever to have graced this earth. His mere expression is funny, and this was one of his last major comedy roles. Caesar is the type of gifted comedian who was born for silent cinema, and Brooks exploits his every face, his every look, his every gesture.

This film ranked below The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein for me, but it is more consistently funny than some of his next outings, such as High Anxiety and History of the World Part 1. Certain modern audiences may be bored by this witty slapstick, since now the art of physical comedy has been reduced to violence and/or kicks to the groin. Even the comedy voices of today that appeal to the younger generations are only able to talk about what they know– few people can branch out and inject their own style successfully into so many different genres. What filmmaker working today could make a successfully funny Western, monster flick, and silent movie? Intelligent audiences will appreciate an outing such as Silent Movie, and thoroughly embrace its should-be-classic moments. Hopeful note: After watching Blazing Saddles last night with two high school teens, raised on Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and Judd Apatow, one turned to the other and said, “Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?” Perhaps irony and cynicism haven’t killed the joys of a Mel Brooks movie after all.


Ebert says: “Mel Brooks will do anything for a laugh. Anything. He has no shame. He’s an anarchist; his movies inhabit a universe in which everything is possible and the outrageous is probable, and Silent Movie, where Brooks has taken a considerably stylistic risk and pulled it off triumphantly, made me laugh a lot.”

Read the rest here.

~ by russellhainline on July 28, 2009.

One Response to “Watching Ebert: Silent Movie (Brooks, 1976)”

  1. Her late teens were the beginning of her sex symbol image with films like A Location in the Sun in 1951 with
    Montgomery Clift when their kisses were sensational to state the least.

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