Silent Movie

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Silent Movie
Silent movie movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster by John Alvin
Directed byMel Brooks
Produced byMichael Hertzberg
Written by
Starring
Music byJohn Morris
CinematographyPaul Lohmann
Edited by
  • Stanford C. Allen
  • Andrew Horvitch
  • John C. Howard
Production
company
Crossbow Productions
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • June 17, 1976 (1976-06-17)
Running time
87 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent
(Only word of dialogue spoken in French)
Budget$4 million[2]
Box office$36.1 million[3]

Silent Movie is an American satirical comedy film co-written and directed by and starring Mel Brooks, released by 20th Century Fox in the summer of 1976. The ensemble cast includes Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman, Bernadette Peters, and Sid Caesar, with cameos by Anne Bancroft, Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Marcel Marceau, and Paul Newman as themselves. The film is produced in the manner of an early 20th century silent film (but in color) with intertitles instead of spoken dialogue; the soundtrack consists almost entirely of accompanying music and sound effects. It is an affectionate parody of slapstick comedies, including those of Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, and Buster Keaton. The film satirizes the film industry, presenting the story of a movie producer trying to get studio support to make a silent film, in the present-day of the 1970s.

Plot[edit]

Mel Funn (Mel Brooks), a once-great Hollywood film director, is now recovering from a drinking problem and down on his luck. He and his sidekicks Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) pitch to Big Pictures Studio's Chief (Sid Caesar) the idea to make the first silent movie in forty years. The Chief rejects the idea at first, but Mel convinces him that if he can get Hollywood's biggest stars to be in the film, it could save the studio from a take-over by New York conglomerate Engulf & Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey).

Mell, Dom, and Marty proceed to recruit various stars for the film. They surprise Burt Reynolds in his shower and go in disguise to his mansion. They recruit James Caan filming on location, following slapstick fumbling in an unstable dressing room trailer. They find Liza Minnelli at the studio commissary, who eagerly agrees to be in the film. They recruit Anne Bancroft by disguising themselves as Flamenco dancers at a nightclub. While visiting the ailing Chief in the hospital, Mel phones Marcel Marceau, who responds with the only spoken word in the film, in French: "Non!" They see Paul Newman on the hospital grounds, and sign him to the film after a wild chase in electric wheelchairs.

In the course of their search for stars, the trio have a number of brief misadventures, including a mix-up between a seeing-eye dog and an untrained look-alike, several (mostly unsuccessful) efforts by Marty to seduce various women, and a soft-drink dispensing machine that launches cans like grenades.

Engulf and Devour learn of the project, and try to sabotage it by sending voluptuous nightclub sensation Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) to seduce Mel. He falls for her, but returns to drinking when he learns that she was part of a scheme. He buys a huge bottle of liquor and drinks himself into a stupor, surrounded by fellow "winos". But Vilma has genuinely fallen for Mel and refused Engulf & Devour's money, and helps Dom and Marty find him and restore him to sobriety.

The film is completed, but the only copy is stolen by Engulf & Devour just before its theatrical premiere. Vilma stalls the audience with her nightclub act while Mel, Marty, and Dom successfully steal the film back. They are cornered by Engulf and Devour's thuggish executives, but use the exploding-soft-drink machine they encountered earlier to attack and subdue them. In the course of hurrying to the theater, Marty gets wrapped up in the film, and has to be rushed to the projection booth to show it.

The film is a huge success with the audience, which erupts with over-the-top applause. The studio is saved, and Mel, Dom, Marty, Vilma, and Chief celebrate, as an on-screen caption identifies the film as a "true story".

Cast[edit]

Analysis[edit]

Mel Brooks enjoyed success with the release of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in 1974, both being parody films spoofing entire genres. He followed this success with Silent Movie, an affectionate parody of the slapstick films of the silent film era. The film feels like a throwback to this earlier era, despite using color and other up to date techniques.[4] As a film about filmmaking, Silent Movie also parodies "Hollywood deal-making".[4] Co-writer Ron Clark was previously the producer of The Tim Conway Comedy Hour (1970), while Rudy De Luca and Barry Levinson were writers for The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978). Unsurprisingly, the humor of Silent Movie would not be out of place in a sketch comedy.[4] Henry Jenkins points out that for Brooks the decision to make a silent comedy represents an allusion to an earlier era of his career. He used to be a writer for Your Show of Shows (1950–1954), a show which included pantomime segments and parodies of silent films. Television audiences of the 1950s were familiar with the silents through their broadcast on late night television.[5]

The film features an unflattering portrayal of the film industry. Big Picture Studios' front gate sign boasts of the multimillion-dollar scope of their films, never mentioning their quality. The film project is green-lit not on the merits of its script, but solely on the drawing power of the movie stars attached. Executives cannot tell good film footage apart from bad, while the 'Current Studio Chief' is one box office bomb away from losing his position. The studio itself is under threat of a takeover by a "soulless" conglomerate. The movie stars are portrayed as vain figures who flaunt their wealth. The film audience is portrayed as fickle and unpredictable.[4] The villainous conglomerate 'Engulf & Devour' is a parody of real-life conglomerate Gulf+Western Industries, which had acquired Paramount Pictures.[4] The film also parodies corporate executives as essentially interchangeable yes-men, following the whims of their boss.[4]

The logo of Big Picture Studios is a parody of the MGM lion. It depicts the Studio Chief (Sid Caesar) as a braying donkey.[4] Liza Minnelli features in a scene which makes no use of her dancing talents. Robert Alan Crick points out that the part could be easily played by any well-known actress of the 1970s, with no apparent difference.[4] The film was the first notable acting role for Brooks, who was previously limited to off-screen voiceovers and short cameos.[4]

Sound is a big factor in the film's humor, as when a scene that shows the New York City skyline begins with the song "San Francisco", only to have it come to a sudden stop as if the musicians realize they are playing the wrong music. They then go into "I'll Take Manhattan" instead. One joke makes use of the difference between the expressive gestures of silent cinema and those used in guessing games, such as charades. A secretary attempts to explain to the Studio Chief that Funn has a drinking problem, by pantomiming an uplifted bottle. Her boss misunderstands, figuring that Funn sucks his thumb.[5] Another scene with the Boss pays homage to slapstick. The boss proclaims slapstick to be dead. Then he flips his chair backwards, and goes sliding across the room. He slams his head, with the sound of a bell ringing. The humor of the scene derives from the combination of the image and the unlikely sound.[5] Many of the gags of the film actually depend on careful synchronizations of sound and image. For example, a sequence has Feldman tossed about between elevator doors. It is set to the sounds of a pinball machine.[5]

Other gags are delivered through intertitles. For example, in a meeting of 'Engulf & Devour', an underling whispers something in the ears of his boss. The intertitles report: "whisper...whisper...whisper". The boss fails to understand, forcing the man to shout. In response the intertitle is written in all caps: "YOUR FLY IS OPEN".[5]

Marcel Marceau reprises his "walking into the wind" routine while trying to lift a phone. He then shouts the only spoken word of the film: "non".[5]

Production notes[edit]

  • Brooks initially envisioned the film without even a musical soundtrack. But the idea made 20th Century Fox executives nervous, so Brooks added John Morris's score, "like a rug from beginning to end, just to be on the safe side."
  • Even though the film was shot without sound, Brooks was initially frustrated when he could not get the film crew to laugh, as they were afraid their laughter would spoil a take.
  • Brooks biographer James Robert Parish says that Brooks based the Eggs and Bell characters on his relationship with his three brothers.
  • This was Brooks's first starring role in a film; referring to himself as actor-director, Brooks said, "I'm not going to tell myself how much I like me or I'll ask for more money."
  • The pregnant woman in the first scene is Carol Arthur, Dom DeLuise's wife.

Reynolds later described how his cameo came about:

Mel is one of the first directors in town who said, "God, you're funny." Originally I was going to do another segment in the film, but at the time I had this house up on the hill. I had gotten a big "R" from Republic Studios and put it on the gate. The décor was Early Gauche. I had my initials everywhere - "BR" on the rugs, the ashtrays, everywhere. It was a joke; it made me laugh; it made people who came there laugh. It's the kind of joke I like to play on myself. At parties I used to put lights around the "R." Mel took that and ran with it for the part I played.[6]

Reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 80% based on 25 reviews, with an average rating of 6.97/10.[7] On Metacritic the film has a score of 75 out of 100, based on reviews from 7 critics.[8]

Roger Ebert gave the film a four-star review and called it "not only funny, but fun." He cited as positive elements the ability of Brooks to do anything for a laugh and the world of his films where everything is possible. He stated that Brooks took "a considerable stylistic risk" which he managed to pull off "triumphantly". He considered the film equal in comedic ability to Blazing Saddles (1974), superior to Young Frankenstein (1974), and inferior to The Producers (1968).[9][10] He also praised the film for offering an encyclopedia-worth of visual gags, both old and new.[10] Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that the film can be enjoyed as "a virtually uninterrupted series of smiles" but "doesn't contain a single moment that ever seriously threatens to split the sides."[11] Variety wrote, "Considering the pitfalls, the brisk 86-minute pic works surprisingly well."[12] Gene Siskel gave the film three stars out of four and wrote that it offered "a number of laughs" and unbilled cameos "refreshing as they are brief."[13] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Some of the bits and pieces work better than others, but so many work so clownishly, zanily, idiotically well that 'Silent Movie' is certain to have the year's noisiest audiences."[14] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the film "a misbegotten but tolerably amusing novelty item."[15]

It earned North American rentals of $21,240,000.[16]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Subject Result
Golden Globe Awards Best Picture - Comedy or Musical Silent Movie Nominated
Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical Mel Brooks Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Marty Feldman Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Bernadette Peters Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen Mel Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, Barry Levinson Nominated

Home media[edit]

The DVD contains audio tracks in English, Spanish, and French, even though the film's only spoken line, "Non" (French for "No"), sounds almost identical in all three languages. The DVD also includes English subtitles.

Sources[edit]

  • Crick, Robert Alan (2002), "Silent Movie (1976)", The Big Screen Comedies of Mel Brooks, McFarland & Company, ISBN 978-0786443260
  • Ebert, Roger (2007), "Silent Movie", Roger Ebert's Four Star Reviews--1967-2007, Andrews McMeel Publishing, ISBN 978-0740792175
  • Jenkins, Henry (2013), "Mel Brooks, Vulgar Modernism, and Comic Remediation", in Horton, Andrew; Rapf, Joanna E. (eds.), A Companion to Film Comedy, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 978-1118327852

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Silent Movie (A)". British Board of Film Classification. July 20, 1976. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  2. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p. 258
  3. ^ "Silent Movie, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Crick (2002), pp. 84–100
  5. ^ a b c d e f Jenkins (2013), pp. 165–168
  6. ^ 'The End' is just the beginning McBride, Joseph; Riley, Brooks. Film Comment; New York Vol. 14, Iss. 3, (May/Jun 1978): 16-21.
  7. ^ Silent Movie at Rotten Tomatoes
  8. ^ "Silent Movie". Metacritic.
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Silent Movie movie review & film summary (1976)". Chicago Sun-Times.
  10. ^ a b Ebert (2007), pp. 701–702
  11. ^ Canby, Vincent (July 1, 1976). "'Silent Movie' With Golden Subtitles". The New York Times. 22.
  12. ^ "Film Reviews: Silent Movie". Variety. June 23, 1976. 16.
  13. ^ Siskel, Gene (July 1, 1976). "'Silent' is a sound movie". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 6.
  14. ^ Champlin, Charles (June 27, 1976). "The Fine, Flaky Flow of Silent Brooks". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 1.
  15. ^ Arnold, Gary (June 30, 1976). "Mel Brooks' Silent Treatment". The Washington Post. B1.
  16. ^ Solomon p. 233

External links[edit]