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Silent Movie

The Mel Brooks Box Set Collection

1974 was a mountaintop year for Mel Brooks. Delivering two critical and commercial hits, he gave Hollywood Westerns (and America's casual racism) a ballsy, hilarious shish-kabobbing in Blazing Saddles, meanwhile releasing his most polished and popular comedy, Young Frankenstein. Here was a writer-director-comic at the top of his game, but could he make lightning strike in the same place three times? When his Silent Movie arrived in '76, the answer to that question was "Not quite," but as we watch this homage to Hollywood's heyday of pre-talkie slapstick, it's clear that a third big, brave, bawdy lightning bolt isn't on his mind this time around. Silent Movie is a gentler, lighter comedy. While Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein stride across the land with seven-league boots, Silent Movie glides on tip-toe like Bugs Bunny in ballet slippers. Unlike Brooks' coarse and ribald anti-Western, in Silent Movie seldom is heard a discouraging word (or any other kind, in fact). Nor is its moviemaking anywhere near as impressive as his riff on Universal's classic monster. But this cheerful, scattershot bit of silliness is funny enough and ingratiating enough to not quite overstay its 87 minutes.

For the first time, director Brooks takes a lead role in one of his own films. Here he is has-been movie director Mel Funn. Desperate for a hit, he convinces his producer (Sid Caesar, Brooks' former boss from their days in 1950s TV comedy) that a modern-day silent film could save Big Picture Studios from a hostile takeover by the dastardly conglomerate Engulf and Devour. The producer agrees — providing that Mel can sign top Hollywood stars for the cast. Once that setup is in place, the rest of the straight-line narrative simply follows Mel, with his associates Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, tooling around Hollywood in Mel's yellow roadster, conniving and coercing celebrities in comic vignettes, sight gags, banana-peel humor, and blackout sketches. So Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Paul Newman, and Brooks' wife Anne Bancroft get to send up their Hollywood images, pull funny faces, and have fun playing over-the-top for a day's shoot. Meanwhile, Engulf and Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey) try to thwart our indomitable heroes. Among their weapons is Bernadette Peters as a sexy siren, essentially Madeline Kahn's role from Blazing Saddles with a similar payoff.

The concept, of course, is that the whole thing unfolds as an old-fashioned silent film, with spare dialogue provided through title cards. When Mel clearly mouths "You son of a bitch!" to Feldman, the title card reads "You bad boy!" Keeping the soundtrack lively are the music plus sound effects from the slide-whistle and crash-bang-crunch library. The sole spoken word, uttered by mime Marcel Marceau, isn't much of a joke, really, although it's the moment everyone was talking about in '76. What makes the scene work is its rimshot take on Marceau's overdone walking-against-the-wind routine.

Silent Movie's tone and rhythms have more in common with the Brooks-Lite appeal of Gene Wilder's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother ('75) than with Brooks' genre-spoof epics from '74. So this one's bound to confound a viewer looking for higher ambitions and grand-scale fooling-around. The silent-slapstick approach rarely rises above a gimmick. Brooks milks it for some amusing bits, but doesn't mine the potential by burlesquing familiar scenes from real silent movies, such as Chaplin eating his shoes in The Gold Rush or Lon Chaney's unmasking in Phantom of the Opera. Still, everyone appears to be having a good, relaxed time, old friends and acquaintances not straining to work very hard while having some Three Stooges laughs with Brooks and company. Anne Bancroft in particular, during a raucous flamenco dancing scene, cuts loose and shows us just why she and Brooks were such a perfect real-life couple for so many years. DeLuise doesn't do much more than his familiar hungry-fat-man shtick, but nonetheless it's always nice to see him. Meanwhile, walleyed Feldman is such a natural for the material that it's a shame he didn't get to work with Mack Sennett.

Filling out the friends-and-neighbors casting, cameo appearances include Charlie Callas, Fritz Feld, Harry Ritz, Henny Youngman in a fine fly-in-my-soup gag, and future director-producer Barry Levinson, who also shares the screenplay credit.

*          *          *

Part of Fox's "Mel Brooks Box Set Collection," Silent Movie's DVD delivers a first-rate anamorphic transfer (1.85:1 OAR). It's obvious that Silent Movie's reels haven't seen the action of its higher-profile brethren, so we get a well-preserved print. It's free of wear while the definition and color are sharp and strong. The audio also gives us no reason to complain in DD 2.0 stereo. Note that we get three language tracks — "English," "French," and "Spanish" — all identical. It's the subtlest joke in the room.

The only extras are Silent Movie's theatrical trailers in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The only difference between them is their voice-overs and the peculiar title "La Ultima locura de Mel Brooks," or "The Final Madness of Mel Brooks." And naturally we get trailers for other movies in the set, To Be or Not to Be, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

The only downside is Fox's nails-through-the-nostrils anti-piracy ad that starts the whole thing, a bad idea that wore out its welcome about 100 discs ago. Keep-case (slimline case in the boxed set).

—Mark Bourne

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