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This homage to the childhood days of the motion pictures starts in 1910, when the young attorney Leo Harrigan by chance meets a motion picture producer. Immediately he's invited to become a writer for him - the start of a sensational career. Soon he's promoted to a director and shoots one silent movie after the other in the tiny desert village Cacamonga with a small crew of actors. But the competition is hard: the patent agency sends out Buck Greenway to sabotage them. When they visit L.A., his crew is surprised by a new species: fans! Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
I have very mixed feelings about 'Nickelodeon', a movie by a director (Peter Bogdanovich) whom I find deeply self-indulgent. On the favourable side, 'Nickelodeon' is about the early days of film-making: a subject which passionately interests me ... and Bogdanovich makes clear that he shares that passion. Even more remarkably, 'Nickelodeon' makes considerable effort to get the historical facts straight. Much of the material here is adapted from personal experiences in the early film careers of Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh, two directors unfortunately forgotten and whose work is often unfairly neglected. So, what went wrong?
To be getting on with, Bogdanovich might have had a better film if he'd done a straightforward bio of either Dwan or Walsh (especially Walsh, whose life was fascinating). Instead, the real incidents from their lives are incorporated into the much less plausible slapstick shenanigans of some blatantly fictional characters. Throughout 'Nickelodeon', I had the nagging feeling that this was a roman-a-clef, with each fictional character based on an actual person from the early days of cinema. For instance, Tatum O'Neal (age 13 here) plays a girl who earns a living writing movie scenarios. I suspect that this character was inspired by Anita Loos, who actually did earn money writing movie scenarios while still a teenager. (Sadly, the late Ms Loos told some very vicious lies about other show-business figures -- including Paul Bern and Alexander Woollcott -- so I'm reluctant to believe anything she said about her own life.) All through 'Nickelodeon', I kept trying to guess which character was based on which real-life film figure ... and the problem is, there's not enough reality here to go round.
We do get, commendably, a very accurate depiction of the Patent Wars. Thomas Edison held exclusive patents on several crucial components of the motion-picture camera: he hired men to shut down all film productions that used his technology without paying him royalties, and some of Edison's hirelings actually went so far as to fire handguns into the mechanisms of unsanctioned movie cameras. ('Nickelodeon' gets this right.) Most of the period detail is accurate throughout this film.
Regrettably, the character played by Burt Reynolds is given too much slapstick material: a decision which annoyed me even more because Reynolds's character is clearly based more than slightly on the young Raoul Walsh, a film pioneer who didn't deserve to have his life and career reduced to pratfalls. Reynolds is also lumbered with an unwieldy script device which I call the Convenient Excerpt. We see him reading aloud Owen Wister's novel 'The Virginian', which was a best-seller at the time when this film takes place. Fair enough ... except, to my annoyance, the only time when we actually see and hear Reynolds doing this -- presumably working his way through the entire novel -- he conveniently happens to be reading the one and only passage in 'The Virginian' which would be recognised by people who haven't actually read the novel. (I refer to the "When you call me that, smile!" quote ... which was reworded for the film, so please don't 'correct' my version.)
Brian Keith has a good supporting role in 'Nickelodeon', except that he delivers all of his dialogue with some peculiar sort of speech defect. Here, too, I got the impression that the fictional character on screen was based on a real person: in Keith's case, the early film producer Colonel Selig. Less effective here is John Ritter, who shows no sense of period and seems to be living about six decades later than the other characters.
As the love interest, Jane Hitchcock (who?) brings absolutely nothing to her role except a distracting surname and the same facial bone structure as Cybill Shepherd. The latter trait leads me to conjecture as to why Bogdanovich cast her.
I watched 'Nickelodeon' with a semi-consistent sense of enjoyment, but with a more prominent (and more consistent) sensation of "This could have been so much BETTER, if only...". Insert sigh of regret here. 'Nickelodeon' was a huge flop in its day, and I suppose that it deserved to be. At least it spawned one clever in-joke. Two years after starring in this flop, Burt Reynolds starred in the solid actioner "Hooper", in which Robert Klein played a character based on Peter Bogdanovich. When Klein starts spouting that movies are 'pieces of time' (a Bogdanovich quote), Reynolds hauls off and belts him. I'll rate 'Nickelodeon' 6 out of 10: it probably deserves less, but this poor movie is based on a subject very dear to me.
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