Monday, March 31, 2014

Silent Movie

The production company responsible for my dairy ad campaign had to fly an otologist down from the Mayo Clinic to deal with the aftermath of Mr. Boom's contribution to our Kansas filming. Most of the crew and the back-up dancers have been bleeding intermittently from their ear canals and a few are profoundly deaf. I've been assured this is all temporary and things will be back to normal in a week or so. I'm thankful that I had the presence of mind to protect myself before striding out onto location. Poor Miguel, my driver and masseur, has been severely affected. I ask him for a margarita and I get anything from a martini to a manhattan. We're busy heading back to Los Angeles after a brief stop at the Grand Canyon.

I was photographed this morning on the Canyon's South Rim, at sunrise, holding a block of Tillamook Cheddar in one hand and Monterey Jack in the other. I had to intone "Cheese - It's not just for breakfast anymore" in sixteen different languages for planned European distribution. French, German and Italian weren't a problem as I am a cosmopolitan girl but I had some difficulties with Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Provencal, Slovak and Swedish. Things went smoothly other than Miguel nearly backing the motor home into the canyon as he was unable to hear the crew yelling 'stop' at him in multiple dialects.

Returning to the motor home, I settled in with the portable satellite dish to see what might be available for viewing while driving through Flagstaff and Kingman. Reception in the hills wasn't too great but I was able to tune in Mel Brooks' 1976 film, Silent Movie as we hit Needles. I thought this was appropriate given the somewhat silent world so many of my coworkers are temporarily enjoying. This film was one of Brooks' assaults on movie genres from the mid-70s, coming, in his filmography, between his deconstruction of the classic horror film (Young Frankenstein) and his take on suspense films and Hitchcock (High Anxiety). His target this time was the classic physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the other great silent clowns.

Brooks stars as movie director Mel Funn who, together with his two compatriots (Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise) is trying to get his career back on track. His brilliant idea is to make a modern silent movie. He arranges a deal with the studio chief of Big Picture studios (Sid Caesar). If he can get big stars to commit to his project, he can get it made. This leads to a series of vignettes in which the unholy trio, tooling around LA in an ancient yellow convertible, try to lasso such stars as Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Anne Bancroft and Paul Newman into appearing in their film. In the meantime, Big Picture is trying to hold off a corporate takeover by Engulf and Devour (headed by Harold Gould and Ron Carey) who try to sabotage the film as, if its a hit, Big Picture will be able to stave off their bid. Their secret weapon is the vamp Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) who makes it her job to seduce Mel away from his film responsibilities.

The film truly is a modern silent film. The dialogue is all mouthed and spelled out with the appropriate title cards. The performance style is over-the-top in the way of the 1920s to make character and plot clear. There is only one spoken word in the film (and as it's one of the better gags, I won't reveal what it is or who says it). Much of the information is communicated musically. John Morris provides a zippy Americana score with a Sousaesque feel and lots of quotations from familiar tunes for joke or plot purposes. The fact that the film works at all says something about Brooks' talents when he's on target. The audience is never confused, and he seems to have found the right satirical idiom for using the no dialogue convention. There are a few sight gags and sequences that are worthy of the great silent comedians but a lot of the film seems lazy. For instance, what starts out as an inspired bit with a Coke machine with a mind of its own, quickly degenerates into a stupid parody of every WW-II era hand grenade sequence. A gifted comic actor like Harold Gould will have a brilliant moment foaming at the mouth in rage, but Brooks will carry the gag on just a little too long so it goes from being funny to being tiresome.

The stars who appear, lampooning their own images, seem to be having a great time. It's also fun to see them at the peak of their fame and physical looks. Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Mel Brooks), is obviously having the time of her life in a nightclub scene which destroys every 20s-30s 'El Morocco' scene ever made. Her tango which involves a feather boa, the three heroes in Flamenco outfits, and assorted intraocular muscle tricks from her and Feldman is a delight. Burt Reynolds also has a couple of great moments of self deluded bachelor glamour and Paul Newman has fun with a comic wheelchair chase. The performers who are not playing themselves are all playing comic archetypes. Sid Caesar and a young Bernadette Peters come off the best. Brooks, who has always struck me as being in love with his own comic style, even when he's not funny, made the mistake of putting himself in the lead. He's always better in a small supporting part. As he has to be showcased, Feldman and DeLuise have to tone down to his level and this throws some moments off balance.

This isn't the worst of the Mel Brooks films (I would give that honor to Robin Hood: Men in Tights), but it's not in the same league as his classics of the genre like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. I wouldn't search it out but if you happen to catch it while being driven through Needles, California, it's a pleasant waste of an hour or two.

Steam rollered people. News vendor attacks. Trailer with busted spring. Suits of armor. Pong game. Gratuitous erection joke. Bernadette Peters in banana. Orthopedic patients dunked in swimming pool. Gratuitous horse poop joke. Marching preview audience.

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