1911. Chicago lawyer Leo Harrigan and Florida proverbial snake-oil salesman Tom "Buck" Greenway, neither particularly committed and thus good at their respective jobs, accidentally get involved in the moving picture making business - one, two, three and four reelers shown at nickelodeons - Leo initially as a scenarist turned scenarist/director/editor and Buck as an action actor, despite neither initially knowing anything about their jobs and Buck in addition not knowing how to ride a horse and being afraid of heights, both things which he is asked to deal with in front of the camera. They both get into the business working for independent producer H.H. Cobb at a time when the big moving picture companies formed the Patents Company, using heavy handed tactics to prevent small companies, like Cobb's Kinegraph, from being able to make pictures by denying use of cameras under supposed patent. Via different routes, Leo and Buck initially meet at one of Cobb's secret sets located in the ...Written by
Before Rhett kissed Scarlett. Before Laurel met Hardy. Before Butch Cassidy met the Sundance Kid. Before any movie ever made you laugh or cry or fall in love. There was a handful of adventurers who made flickering pictures you could see for a nickel. See more »
Oddly this is a film that I have always liked and still make a point to watch when it is televised. I say "oddly" because I find Peter Bogdanovich and Ryan O'Neal excellent examples of two people pretty much clueless about their chosen professions. Bogdanovich was a journalist/critic/film theorist turned director (who had the bad taste to be involved with Cybill Shepperd) and O'Neal was a Hollywood personality who occasionally acted (who had the good taste to marry Leigh Taylor-Young).
Jane Hitchcock is the most interesting thing about "Nickelodeon". Hitchcock was a magazine model who Bogdanovich hoped to groom into a star. Bogdanovich historically has had a weakness for beautiful women of marginal talent (Shepherd and Dorothy Stratten's sister come to mind). Unlike the others, Hitchcock was quickly turned off by both Bogdanovich and the movie game-she already had a lucrative modeling career and didn't have to put up with the Hollywood starlet system. Whether Hitchcock would have made it big in movies is hard to tell, but in "Nickelodeon's" "Kathleen Cooke" she found a character she could play with wide-eyed innocence and complete sincerity. While it doesn't hurt that Hitchcock is drop dead gorgeous, her Kathleen Cooke character is more than gorgeous, she is absolutely captivating. Which makes her completely believable as the object of the movie's love triangle and elevates her to the top of my list of the all-time most irresistible screen heroines (even ahead of Fay Wray's "Ann Darrow" and Clara's Bow's "Mary Preston").
But "Kathleen Cooke" is not the only good thing about "Nickelodeon". It has one of cinema's all time funniest sequences. O'Neal arrives by train at a remote shooting location out west. He steps off the train at a watering stop and looks out over the desert to the movie set 500 yards away. The sun is high overhead baking the desert landscape and O'Neal is not enthusiastic about the prospect of walking that far in such heat. A tiny dog with the movie company spots him from that distance and begins running toward him. The dog is making a bee-line for him, as it gets closer we wait for the happy reunion, but when it arrives it immediately bites his leg. The dog hates him so much that it was willing to run that far in the hot sun just for the opportunity to attack him.
It also is an excellent and generally accurate history lesson about the early days of movies and the serendipity that determined who became involved with the new industry. Serendipity is the theme of the film and the source of most of its comedy, as the expanding talent needs of the new movie industry were often met by whoever they happened to encounter at a particular moment and not through any systematic process. Thus Burt Reynolds (in his best comic performance) becomes a stunt man only because at that moment they need a stunt man and he needs a job. A running gag is his boastful declaration with each new job that the job title (whatever it might be) is his middle name. Also a great take on how milestones like "Birth of a Nation" periodically set the bar higher throughout film history and inspired those within the industry to stretch themselves to do better work.
Ryan O'Neal is fairly low-key and therefore tolerable. In addition to Hitchcock and Reynolds, Bogdanovich gets excellent performances from Tatum O'Neal (great negotiating sequences), John Ritter, Stella Stevens and Brian Keith.
The main problem with "Nickelodeon" is that the depth and breathe of early film history is too complicated for a small comedic treatment. As a film historian Bogdanovich was dealing with a subject near and dear to his heart. He appears to have borrowed heavily from Fellini's "Variety Lights" and "White Sheik" to construct his company of players but could not integrate the intimate and light-hearted flavor of those films with the huge historical subject he was documenting. "Nickelodeon" is still entertaining and informative but the whole is less that the sum of its parts.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
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