I feel that when it comes to sound and picture, sound generally trumps all. For example, let’s takes a worn, grainy picture and pair it with a re-mastered soundtrack. This would likely be an endearing experience, a throwback to the nostalgic times of drive-in movies and nickel matinees. Now let’s presume we found the very same picture next to it with a re-mastered picture and a broken soundtrack. This would be a very different viewing experience, one I would find wholly infuriating and unmemorable. Great sound, even when paired with mediocre images, is tremendously evocative and imperative to selling a film to the audience. It is fortunate, therefore, that the sound used in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie perfectly situates the slapstick comedy inherent within. It’s too bad that the jokes run thin by the time the closing credits roll.

The idea behind the film is flagrantly Mel Brooks: Riding on the success of his two smash hits, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, he decides to make a literal silent movie about making a silent movie. The plot essentially is this: Mel Brooks stars as a shell of himself named Mel Funn, a washed up director who is losing his career to the drink. He decides to revitalize his career by pitching his new script to the Studio Chief at Big Picture Studios (Sid Caesar): The first silent movie in 40 years.

The Studio Chief isn’t pleased with the idea, but signs off on it when Mel promises big-name stars. He warns though that if this movie is not a hit the worldwide conglomerate “Engulf and Devour” will buy out the studio. That’s it for the plot. It’s merely a set up for the countless sight gags that follow.

The comedy is really hit or miss in this one. Some of the jokes knock it out of the park (title cards that change what’s clearly said on screen) but some fall utterly flat (the overlong wheelchair chase). There are also many delightful dance numbers, which show early promise for what later is to become Brooks’s seminal Broadway hit, The Producers. Mel Brooks always goes for spectacle, and he doesn’t falter here. It’s just unfortunate that I never felt fully engaged in the antics.

Brooks is accompanied by a strong cast: Marty Feldman, with his remarkably convex eyes, and Dom DeLuise play his sidekicks with quirky bravura. Cameos by Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Anne Bancroft (Brooks’s wife at the time), James Caan, and Marcel Marceau all add to the joy that is to be found in Silent Movie. Even Harold Gould is great as Engulf, the rabidly furious competitor of Big Picture Studios. So why then, with all this talent and creativity, is the film still lacking?

I have come up with two reasons: One is the lack of topicality. Because the sound in the film is merely orchestration used to augment the action on screen, most of the comedy arises from slapstick. It’s definitely funny stuff, but where is the social commentary we got from Blazing Saddles two years prior? My second reason, simply, is that this is a silent film. It’s incredibly endearing to witness Mel Brooks’s affection for silent movies, and he gives it his all in his Silent Movie, but we’re a society accustomed to more modern methods of filmmaking. This is likely my most subjective review, so while it did not completely work for me, I implore that you check the film out for its audacious take on the silent film medium.

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

Post a Comment