#6 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.
I see this described as a parody of silent comedies, and it’s not. It’s…just a silent comedy. I’m not sure how you parody comedies, but I don’t think it ends up being just another example of the genre. Without getting into the sheer levels of chaotic anarchy of Blazing Saddles or the emotional pathos of The Producers, Mel Brooks made a consistently funny comedy, probably the straightest comedy of his career up to this point. It never reaches the heights of his previous work, but it is definitely and consistently entertaining.
The has been and former alcoholic Hollywood director Mel Funn (Brooks) has decided that he’s going to make his comeback with his two friends, Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), in tow. Together, they head to Big Pictures Studios to meet with the Studio Chief (Sid Caesar) to pitch Funn’s idea of a silent movie to help save the studio. Beset by a threat from the evil conglomerate Engulf & Devour to purchase the studio, the Chief agrees to Funn’s idea but only if he can get all of Hollywood’s biggest stars to sign on.
And that’s pretty much it. Funn, Eggs, and Bell go from one Hollywood star to the next in a series of gag filled set pieces to sign them on while the head executives Engulf (Harold Gould) and Devour (Ron Carey) try to foil the plans. And this is really what I mean when it’s not a parody, it’s simply an example of the silent comedy genre. Go back to some of the best examples, like Chaplin’s City Lights, and that’s pretty much what you have. A thin reed of a plot on which to hang a series of gag filled set pieces. Take the boxing match, for example, in City Lights. It’s there because the Tramp needs to make some money, so he accidentally gets roped into a boxing match in which perfectly choreographed comedy is executed. It could have been anything else. It could have been the Trump opening a lemonade stand or the Trump getting roped into a high-level executive meeting, as long as there was a way for Chaplin to find comedy in that context. We get the exact same thing here.
The first star is Burt Reynolds. The three show up at his house, sneak into his shower, and then end up piled on top of each other in a three person high coat in order to try to get into the house after having been kicked out. It’s all an excuse for a gag about Mel staying at the top of the coat, everyone tumbling down the hill to the road where Reynolds ends up at the bottom of the trench coat and a compactor running over everything in between. The second star is James Caan, and it’s all about trying to keep balance in a wobbly trailer in between scenes of Caan’s movie he’s making then. The third is Liza Minnelli with the three men dressed in medieval armor and falling all over the place. The fourth is Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft, where the three sweep her off her feet at a club and she gets the opportunity to demonstrate her own physical comedy chops by crossing her eyes independently.
My favorite is the last, Paul Newman. Newman has a broken leg, in a wheelchair, in complete racing getup, and is next to his crashed racing car…at the hospital. When the three approach him in wheelchairs themselves, it breaks out into a mad chase through the hospital ending with Newman doing a daring jump off of a roof and then bringing up the idea of him being in the movie himself. It’s madcap and wonderful with Newman just being charming.
Facing defeat, Engulf and Devour conspire to break Funn with sex, hiring the dancer Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) to break him so he can’t make the movie. Eggs and Bell figure her out right as she decides that she loves Funn, creating a situation where Funn goes off the deep end but Vilma can help get him back to where he needs to be.
From beginning to end, it really is just a series of gags, and it’s consistently amusing for what it is. I have a smile on my face from beginning to end consistently. It just never rises to the heights of hilarity or ends with any kind of catharsis. It’s fun, through and through, and there’s not too much more you can ask from a comedy.