"Slapstick is dead!" shouts Sid Caesar, the anxious producer, before sliding across the floor and hit the wall. You would think that indeed, slapstick is dead, that this kind of dated humor wouldn't work with today's audience, but that it worked during the post-Watergate pessimistic 70's, is the best guarantee of timelessness... and Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" is not only one of the most underrated comedies but his best film in my opinion.
It's interesting to note that the movie came out in 1976, the infamous year where the success of the cheerful "Rocky" over the more realistic "Taxi Driver", the cynical "Network" or the political thriller "All the President's Men" proved that the audience needed something new, but since the 70's revolutionized cinema, the newness could only be inspired from the past, the Golden Age. "Rocky" as the triumph of the underdog over the adversity was a celebration of the faith in human spirit à la Frank Capra, and in the same vein, "Silent Movie" is a return to the roots of comedy, the heritage of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and silent era's comedic treasures. Even the fans of Mel Brooks will notice the absence of explicitly raunchy humor and delightful vulgarity used to be his trademark. "Silent Movie" never exceeds a certain level of naughtiness, and the general tone carries the sweetness of a deliberate innocence drawing a big smile in our face.
"Silent Movie" is indeed a charming Family film that I had the pleasure to discover at the age of eight, I couldn't finish it but the least I saw was enough to keep intact in my memories. I remembered I laughed a lot, and even when i didn't get the jokes, I was smiling. I remembered the hysterical part in a shower, the funny sound effects, and more than anything, that skinny little guy with a race driver outfit who shared a vague resemblance with Jackie Wright, the little bald guy from "The Benny Hill Show", and it was not until I finally watched the film entirely that I put the name 'Marty Feldman' in his face. What a performance, he carries 50% of the fun, if only for him, the movie is a must-see, and never has the word 'see' be so relevant. "Silent Movie" is a visual delight in every meaning of the word. I even wonder why it hasn't been nominated for Best Art-Direction or Best Costume Design, the film's use of color creates a wonderful atmosphere making us wish that Keaton or Chaplin could have benefited from the use of Technicolor, at least once.
I mentioned the slapstick pioneers, but the movie still has a modern feel beyond the homage to a classic genre. It's a masterpiece of adaptation in the way it keeps its relevance for a modern audience in three distinct ways. First, the gags, to name a few, there's one scene implying that a group of gentlemen are having a sensitive reaction toward a sexy picture, I won't spoil it to you, but the way, it's suggested is extremely well done, and shows how tactfully Mel Brooks handles a cruder form of humor, to paraphrase one of the character, Sex would have indeed killed "Funn". The second aspect is the way Brooks stills uses the cardboards to feature verbal jokes, cheating with the virtuosity of an iconoclast, after all, being silent doesn't prevent a movie from having a good script. And ultimately, there's the self-referential element : Mel Brooks plays the role of Mel Funn, a director who wants to make a silent movie, and with his two acolytes, Dom Bell and Marty Eggs, played by the namesakes De Luise and Feldman, they will propose to real-life stars to participate to the film. This is the genius plot device that provided the film's most memorable moments and some extra publicity.
Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Anne Bancroft, Marcel Marceau, Paul Newman ... all these guest stars parody themselves in irresistible cameos that give the film an episodic feel without denaturing the narrative. "Silent Movie" is less a series of funny sketches than a self-reflexive depiction of the film. It's not just a tribute to silent movies but also to movie making, to the industry of cinema and the issues it faces : what "Sunset Blvd." did with a film-noir tone, Mel Brooks did with comedy and spoof humor. And the funniest reference to the industry is the big corporations that try to buy out smaller studios, the villainous team represented by Engulf & Devour is a clear reference to Gulf & Paramount. Ron Carey and the classy Harold Gould, provide the movie's best moments after Marty Eggs, and till now, I can't resist to the music played during their part, a sound that would have made Chaplin proud.
Music, sound play a significant part to the film's success, even for the jokes, the sound effects perfectly match the scenes, but we're so distracted by the laughs that we forget the technical achievement the film represents. Silent films require a masterful direction relying on so many specific mechanisms : the timing, the speed, the editing. Some scenes wouldn't be as hilarious without the fast motion; others would be pretty dull without the sound. In fact, not all the jokes will have the same impact, some will eventually fall flat, but Mel Brooks doesn't censor himself and uses the film as the occasion to experiment old recipes with modern ingredients, and the result is absolutely delicious as we can all cheer for an uplifting family comedy, and the wonderful time we spent.
And one particular moment is another proof of Brooks' comedic genius, there's absolutely no word to describe this scene, or actually maybe one which happens to be the only one spoken in the film. Only for that scene, the film is a must
who am I kidding? For every scene, this film is an absolute must see.
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