I can’t have a Top 60 without something from Melvin Kaminsky – or the great Mel Brooks in other words. In fact Silent Movie (1976) is one of no less than 5 of his films that I have chosen and all were made consecutively. Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein (both 1974), Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977) and lastly History of the World Part I (1981). Now that is because I am a Mel Brooks man rather than say a Woody Allen one- fun is nearly always more important to me than the intellect.
But like all of Mel Brooks’ films, there is a serious side to Silent Movie. He was ‘hot’ after the successes of Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein – they had earned for Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox in excess of $200m, that was a huge figure when you consider that the combined budgets of the two parodies was just $5m. However, Brooks has always been interested in the health of Hollywood and the movie industry, and in Silent Movie he was able to pastiche not just the era of silent films but also the tendency for large faceless conglomerates to take over American Film Studios and to pack it with ‘yes men’.
So, Silent Movie starts with Mel Funn (Brooks himself of course) who is a great film director recovering from his drinking problem, who with his sidekicks Dom Bell and Marty Eggs ( played by Brooks’ stalwarts Dom de Luise and Marty Feldman) pitch a script for his new film- which is for the first silent picture in 40 years. Now the joke is that Silent Movie is itself silent with just music, subtitles and only one word of dialogue actually spoken throughout –and that is from Marcel Marceau the mime artist who says “Non” (they want him in their planned silent movie).
The film studio rejects Brooks’ idea as it is due to be sold to ‘Engulf & Devour’ a thinly disguised play on the real life Gulf & Western Industries who brought Paramount Pictures but Mel Funn convinces the studio chief (Sid Caesar) to finance it if he can get Hollywood’s biggest stars to appear in it.
So, our intrepid threesome goes out to bag the biggest stars at that time and that is where the real fun begins. They get Burt Reynolds (who gets surprised in the shower), James Caan, Lizi Minnelli, Paul Newman and also a certain Anne Bancroft (Mrs Mel Brooks).
There are a few more twists and turns on the way but it is a riotous 86 minutes of joy. It is very funny as well as a fine commentary to what was happening to Hollywood at that time, and is still going on. But it is a fun film in the sense that everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and the world seems a happier place when watching it. Brooks knows his film history and harks back to the days of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd with some great slapstick routines. As you would expect from Mel Brooks, the comedy is broad and sometimes crude but still very funny with it.
It is also a very gutsy film because Mel Brooks had previously made Young Frankenstein in black and white and now a silent movie which was unheard of until the relatively recently The Artist (2011), but it paid off and although it rarely gets shown these days it is an absolute treat.