Mel Brooks Monday: Silent Movie

You have to admire a filmmaker who immediately admits the fact that no one wants to watch his movie. At least, that appears to be the gag behind Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, which is, well…silent.

Brooks stars as washed up, alcoholic movie director Mel Funn, who cruises around Hollywood with an odd band of cohorts (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) while getting into various shenanigans. But Funn has been planning his comeback, the first silent movie in decades. When he takes it to a near-bankrupt studio chief (Sid Caesar), he gets a predictable response; laughter, followed by an “are you serious?” look. “Nobody wants a silent movie,” he says, adding that “slapstick is dead” (this of course results in the chief’s chair being dragged across the room…with him still in it). The chief reluctantly agrees to produce the silent film if Mel can convince the biggest stars in Hollywood to sign on. Meanwhile, menacing executives with the totally-not-obvious names of Engulf and Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey) want to watch the studio go down in flames so they can buy it out. Which means Mel’s movie must never see the light of day.

Leave it to Mel Brooks to wrap a gimmick (silent movie) around a thin story (even by his standards) and spin gold out of it. This movie is insanely funny, and much of that has to do with the fact that it is, indeed, silent (with the exception of one very memorable word). Brooks plays with a lot of silent movie tropes, including cue cards, which rarely match up with the exaggerated movements of the characters’ mouths.

Silent Movie gets big laughs despite its gimmicky premise.

Silent Movie gets big laughs despite its gimmicky premise.

With a silent film, Brooks has to get by on visual gags, since there can be no verbal jokes. So he goes for broke, creating some of the more elaborate slapstick of his career. Funn, Eggs and Bell are essentially the Three Stooges, and they act like it; they’re gloriously, almost impossibly dumb.  This would throw most people off if Brooks didn’t bring along two of the most gifted physical comedians in the business. Dom DeLuise gets jokes that are as good as or better than anything in The Twelve Chairs, and Feldman’s unique look and comedic rhythms prove he can carry a movie without talking.

Much of the movie’s running time is devoted to the gang’s attempts at recruiting major celebrities, and each one is more elaborate and hilarious than the last. The guest stars are also brilliant; none of them showed up just to phone in a cameo. My favorite sequences include breaking in to Burt Reynolds’ house and trying to sit down at a table with Liza Minnelli while dressed in a full suit of armor (one of the funniest sequences in all Brooks films).

The movie is admittedly pretty fluffy, perhaps a case of style over substance, but what style! I particularly like the movie’s brilliant use of sound effects; without any dialogue, the filmmakers were able to let their imaginations run wild. But I actually think there is some depth in the film’s subtext. By making a silent movie that nobody wanted to see, it seems like Brooks was expressing fears over his own decreasing artistic viability in an environment obsessed with commercial success. I don’t know if that’s true, but I see that subtle commentary slinking under the surface.

I imagine Brooks probably gets a kick out of the fact that his movie turned out to be oddly prescient. He made a silent film at a time when they were neither commercially or artistically viable. Yet, 35 years later, a silent film would bridge both commerce and art by winning an Oscar for Best Picture. So, really, while Silent Movie was 35 years too late, it also, in the grand scheme of history, was 35 years ahead of its time. That’s an observation deserving of the finest Mel Brooks riff.