All the signs are there for a Seventies Starry Silent Spectacular…
In the 1970s, a one-time director plans his comeback, hoping to make a silent movie with some Hollywood stars.
Silent Movie (1976) – Trailer, Media Graveyard
Mel Brooks has been a director, actor and screenwriter in an infinite number of combinations for his movies. He has paid comic tribute with homages to many films and genres be it the Star Wars phenomenon in Spaceballs (1987) or director Alfred Hitchcock in High Anxiety (1977). Blazing Saddles (1974) recalled those Western movies and he reminded us of horror films in Young Frankenstein (1974) in fun ways.
In the aptly named Silent Movie (1976) it was the turn for him to parody those silent films. These films are recalled in all their glory, in his satire on 1970’s Hollywood filmmaking. This is in an original and refreshing way, and are remembered in a silent movie with a storyline in the 1970s. Silent Movie was made forty years after the last recorded silent film.
The film relies on visual non-verbal communication with mime, comic gags and intertitle cards to convey the plot and action. The only verbal communication used is through sound effects and appropriate music, and only one word is spoken in the entire movie. However, it pays direct homage to those silent movies great actors including Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
It is a starry affair with many seventies film acting favourites starring as themselves, and who are seen but not heard in this film. These names including Mel Brook’s wife Anne Bancroft in a seemingly The Graduate (1967) inspired moment and the famous mime artist Marcel Marceau. Many more of these cameos in this film appear with a few wee fun and affectionate in-jokes. I agree with film critic Roger Ebert who eloquently adds;
“but the thing about Brooks’s inside jokes is that their outsides are funny, too.”
The film tells of Mel Funn (Mel Brooks), a reformed alcoholic and one-time Hollywood director. He visits the Big Picture studio with his two buddies, Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman). He animatedly tells the Studio Chief (Sid Caesar) about his thoughts that his comeback movie will be a silent one. He shows him the script and tells him that this will be the first silent film in forty years!!!! But… he fails to convince him.
It seems Funn’s one-time drinking problem is an open secret, with the Studio Chief and his secretary both concerned about this. Eggs and Bell are also worried that Funn will go back on the bottle if things don’t work out for him. Then just as Funn is leaving the office, the Studio Chief gets a telegram. The telegram tells him that the New York based film company, Engulf and Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey) hope to take over his studio if his next film doesn’t make a profit.
Funn then persuades the Studio Chief to let him do his film after he tells him that he’ll get some Hollywood headliners to star in the film. Funn and his pals then set off in their wee yellow sportscar, to find the cast. Then for the viewer, it’s a case of spot the star… this is as they visit some big names for their film. Meanwhile, the studio heads, Engulf and Devour are on their way to Hollywood.
On arriving in Hollywood, Engulf and Devour’s board discover that a certain celebrated star has joined their movie. Meanwhile, the Studio Chief is hospitalised and he’s hovering between life and death. The Engulf and Devour pay the showgirl, Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) to spy on Funn. Their plan is to use Vilma as a honeytrap. Funn discovers the truth about Vilma, the day before production and he hits the bottle, big time…
At the time, this seventies silent movie was a success. Ebert enthusiastically stated;
“Silent Movie, where Brooks has taken a considerably stylistic risk and pulled it off triumphantly, made me laugh a lot. “
Silent Movie was Brook’s first major role as a film actor and included in his co-star list was his wife Anne Bancroft who supports her husband terrifically. The plot although silent was effectively conveyed through non-verbal means of communicating. In addition, the film paid a wonderful homage to the silent movies and their stars. It balanced scenes with those starry cameos with gags with slapstick adventures involving the three men and random characters they meet along the way. A few gags are also added to the musical score and intertitle cards.
The musical score accompanying the film was appropriate and added throughout the movie. This music was timed beautifully to the action, sound effects and gags. For example, suitably jaunty and morose music was seen in relation to Funn’s character’s mood and feelings. Sexy music accompanied Vilma Kaplan in the nightclub scene where Funn falls for her.
Interestingly, Mel Brooks had initially envisioned this film without music. This thought had reportedly made the studio executives nervous. So Brooks added music composed by John Morris, a regular Wilder collaborator (this is referred to HERE):
“like a rug from beginning to end, just to be on the safe side.”
There was also effective sound and visual effects which reminded me of animated cartoons, that I watched during the seventies. These included a lightbulb switched on above Funn’s head when he had an idea and Sid Ceasar’s eyes were seen furiously blinking and accompanied by cash register sound effects at the thought of a financial profit. Both sound and visual effects are also used together as two of the men use a heart monitor in the hospital to play Pong.
On this trio’s quest to find the cast for the movie, there are many amusing running gags with added slapstick moments. Eggs unsuccessfully attempts at chatting up a number of women throughout the film and DeLuise needs regular toilet, drink and food breaks. These two characters were reportedly based on Mel Brooks off-screen brothers.
There are homages to those earlier silent films with the titles of articles on the front page of newspapers seen to tell their story. There are tributes to the silent movies of Chaplin, Keaton and others. These are seen in some wonderfully set up comic moments with fun payoff scenes.
If you don’t want to know more about these cameos, I’ll only mention three, but look away now if you wish. The starry names include Burt Reynolds who is first approached as the guys join him in his shower, where Reynolds is adoring himself in the mirror. After discovering the three men helping to wash him, this approach is not surprisingly unsuccessful. Reynolds then ridicules his pin-up good looks after we learn that his home is full of mirrors so he can gaze at himself, as they try again.
A glamorous Anne Bancroft appears at a nightclub to applause from those present. She is surrounded by significantly younger men. Eggs, Funn and Bell are now in disguise as flamenco dancers and each uses the power of dance to woo her into their film. All three men dance with her in different ways in this fun scene. Bancroft is a wonderful comic actress and as she rolls her eyes at the camera, the twinkle in her eyes tells you can tell she was having fun in her role.
Paul Newman is spotted from a hospital window as the men visit the Studio Chief in the hospital. Newman is using an electric wheelchair and has his leg in plaster after an accident in his sports car. Brooks pursues him relentlessly using an electric chair in a fun race on the hospital grounds.
But I’ll let you learn for yourselves if they sign that dotted line. And finally, I said earlier in this post, there is only one word spoken in this film. If you want to know what it is, and who said it… Well (dithers a bit, looks for advice then replies) the answer is an emphatic “Non!”… and that’s my first and last word on this subject.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂🙂🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
The Silent Movie Day Blogathon 2021 No 28
This review was added to Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood‘s Silent Movie Day Blogathon. Other films and TV with this cast include Dom DeLuise stars in The Cannonball Run. Marty Feldman stars in Yellowbeard. Bernadette Peters stars in Pennies from Heaven and Annie. Sid Caesar in Airport 75 and Grease. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate and in Garbo Talks. Burt Reynolds is tributed HERE in his films and TV. This includes more of his role in Silent Movie. He was also in The Cannonball Run. Paul Newman stars in The Towering Inferno.