Chances are, a silent movie-about-the-movies is about to take the Best Picture prize at this year’s Academy Awards. At least, all the usual signs are now pointing to The Artist making a big splash come Oscar night. Some people might think the idea of making a silent picture in the modern era (in black-and-white, too) is quite the wild and risky idea…but that would only be because they have forgotten (or might be too young to know) that, back in 1976, big-screen comedy maestro Mel Brooks took exactly that crazy chance with a little film called—what else?—Silent Movie.
Four decades earlier, Charlie Chaplin had been the holdout on silent pictures, insisting that any film involving his renowned “Little Tramp” character would be ruined by the inclusion of talking; so, 1936’s Modern Times, despite being released with a synchronized soundtrack (including some singing, if not talking), was produced free of dialogue. The rest of Hollywood had already decided “the talkies” were here to stay, so the notion of producing and distributing a big-budget silent film was, of course, patently absurd and doomed to failure.
History has since vindicated Chaplin, to say the least.
With 40 years having passed since the last silent feature, the funny premise of the Brooks film was thus born. Brooks himself took the starring role of movie producer Mel Funn, a man quixotically certain that his silent movie will bring in big bucks, if only he and sidekicks Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) can attract what today would be commonly shorthanded as a cast of “A-listers.”
Mel Funn? Marty Eggs? Dom Bell? Yep. Silent Movie is full of those goofy names, like that of nefarious corporation Engulf and Devour (Da-DUMP. Tsssshhh!), the company that targets Big Picture Studios for takeover unless their next film is a hit. Then, as now, getting the greenlight for a film becomes all about casting big-name stars, so producer Funn’s insistence that he can cajole the likes of Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, and even Paul Newman into joining the cast is what finally convinces his studio chief (played by Sid Caesar) to agree to bankroll the picture.
And wouldn’t you know it: All of those stars actually appear in the film, as themselves. Were their meetings with Brooks as funny as their meetings with Funn? Perhaps not, but you can have little doubt that the notion of making a modern-day silent comedy may have been greeted with some skepticism, despite the pitch being made by the man who had just scored brilliantly with his hilarious-but-moving, black-and-white satire of the Universal Frankenstein films.
Backing up the antics of Funn, Eggs, and Bell—whose appearance, chemistry, and misadventures easily bring to mind a pantomime fusion of The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers—is a brilliant and catchy musical score by John Morris, who had already done equally brilliant work scoring The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. The composer reveals one key to his approach in Lawrence Weschler’s 1978 liner notes for the Elektra/Asylum Records album Mel Brooks’ Greatest Hits Featuring the Fabulous Film Scores of John Morris; his strategy for the Silent Movie score seems like such an easy call in retrospect, until you realize that nothing like it had been attempted, or even thought about, for decades:
“Silent Movie was especially challenging,” recalls Morris, “because there was no dialogue in the film, the music became the rhythm of the picture. There was no verbal rhythm to play against or into. The music had to be handled extremely carefully. I guess my only rule with that picture was that I didn’t want to hear a single note of that inevitable silent movie piano in the score: I wasn’t going to fall into that trap. So it’s all big orchestra in playful combinations.”
Has time been kind to Mel’s silent movie? The answer is a little more complicated than it would be if we were talking about, say, Young Frankenstein; viewers new to the picture can still respond to the wall-to-wall slapstick and the raunch (do they still call it “potty humor,” or is that now officially the old fogey term for poop-related yuks?), but the ways in which actors like Reynolds, Newman, and Bancroft poke fun at their (then) big-time stardom may well play in a more diluted fashion to those who weren’t around to experience them during the prime of their celebrity. Love interest Bernadette Peters’ burlesque number (Ba-ba-LOO!) is just as sexy and funny as ever.
And then there’s the matter of the gay-related humor. Twice in the film, Funn, Eggs, and Bell find themselves piled on top of one another or smashed into otherwise compromising positions, only to be excoriated by passers-by who shout disapprovingly at them. The title card punchline—
—drives home the “riotous” notion that these three men are being mistaken for homosexuals, something “obviously” vulgar and worthy of public contempt.
That’s taking things too seriously? Oh, I don’t know about that.
If it’s worth pointing out this politically-incorrect sore spot in the film’s construction, it’s also worth pointing out just how charming the film still is, and how hilariously relevant its story remains. There are many, many unforgettable laughs in the film, and somehow, it seems very appropriate to let some simple frame captures speak for them:
You may already know (or have read about) the fact that yes, there is a single word spoken during the course of Silent Movie. I wouldn’t dream of giving away that gag, or even hinting at it—so I haven’t, not even in the still frames above. It would be so unfair to spoil that laugh for someone who hasn’t yet seen the film. Let’s just say that it’s a joke that arrives not only steeped in satisfying irony, but also in great affection for everyone involved in the moviemaking business, who remain dreamers willing to live that moment over and over again and yet continue to risk everything for “just a little laugh, a little tear.”