Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947
I have never been an admirer of Mel Brooks, although I enjoyed Young Frankenstein when it came out a little over a year ago. To be sure, his oeuvre has included some hilarious moments—the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence in The Producers, for example—but these were practically buried beneath an indiscriminate flurry of flat jokes. As Pauline Kael has aptly noted, his films embody the spirit of gagwriting, not screenwriting. They do not work as cinematic comedies because they are essentially extended strings of raucous and vulgar one-liners, better suited to the nightclub floor than to the moviehouse….
Still, since my quarrel is with his style of verbal bombardment, I was prepared to be open-minded about Silent Movie, Brooks' attempt to write and direct a comedy without dialogue. Unfortunately, the production fails on much the same grounds as his talking pictures.
Silent Movie simply isn't very funny….
It is never clear why this comedy about the making of [a silent] movie should itself be silent. Brooks seems to think the humor of this conceit is self-evident, and that it provides a sufficient mainspring for everything he is going to show us. But nothing follows from this empty joke—except a catalogue of the various blunders that can be committed in the name of comedy, silent or otherwise. We are left confused and puzzled throughout about his intentions.
Like all of Brooks' works (with the possible exception of Young Frankenstein), this one is guilty of obviousness. That is not to say that the humor is excessively broad—though it happens to be—but rather that it is at the level of a dull five-year old….
[A] blatant gag can only succeed when contrasted to more subtle humor. But Brooks provides no shadings; he never misses a chance to stick his finger in your eye—twice in a row, if possible. Funn, Egg and Bell drive past a Szechwan restaurant, and through a picture window they see steam rising from the mouths of customers. We are then immediately shown the same scene through a second window, so the joke is hammered home with elephantine skill. (p. 23)
The relentless pounding of Silent Movie is further heightened by the mechanical setups Brooks ineptly employs. Funn, Egg and Bell try to recruit several Hollywood stars (who play themselves in cameo roles) for their film. (pp. 23-4)
When the three go after Liza Minnelli, they corner her at lunch in the studio commissary. Since they have taken the time to dress in heavy suits of armor, we are, again not surprisingly, exposed to awkward attempts at sitting down, considerable clanking about, broken dishes, and smashed tables and chairs. Yet there is no apparent reason for the sequence: We never learn why they put on the armor in the first place.
Justifying such unnatural contrivances by appealing to a sense of the ridiculous simply won't do. Humor can indeed be founded on a non sequitur; it can be illogical and even artificial. But it cannot be utterly arbitrary. Moreover, when it is as mechanically contrived as it is in this instance, it is completely predictable. The setups here are so patently engineered, they telegraph rather than lead into the sequences that follow.
What all this suggests is a complete inability to appreciate the cinematic constraints on comedy. For a funnyman, Brooks has a lamentably poor sense of timing, a handicap that hampers his verbal comedy, and is almost fatal to the visual gags. In The Producers , for instance, the "Springtime for Hitler" episode combined outrageous sight gags with a hilarious musical number. It succeeded in spite of,...
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not because of the editing, which almost destroyed the sequence by awkwardly cutting back and forth between the stage and the audience.
In Silent Movie there is even greater need for careful editing. In one potentially funny sequence involving a car chase, Funn, Egg and Bell are rushing to the theater with the unfinished film, while Vilma is trying to distract the impatient audience waiting for the movie premiere. Intercutting in the best Keystone Cops tradition would have been effective. Instead, Vilma's ever more explicit displays convey no sense of her increasing desperation; the car chase is literally stalled at several points and fails to build any feeling of comic frustration and urgency.
It would be easy to blame the editors of Silent Movie for this, however I suspect the fault lies with Brooks; totally insensitive to the rhythm of movie comedy, he botched what should have been an effective sequence….
Brooks' anarchic, machine-gun spray of gags reduces everything to its lowest common denominator and then ridicules it. This is the reason toilet humor figures so prominently in his comic scheme—we are all equally vulnerable on the seat. But that is precisely why we choose to preserve some privacy, some dignity; if we are all in the same position, no one can mock others without demeaning himself.
This apparently has not occurred to Brooks. And I suspect audiences do not recognize his misanthropy for what it is because he is so unremittingly cheerful….
Comedy, of course, is not something that occurs only in a socially or politically neutral context. More often, in fact, it is aimed at deflating empty pretension, attacking class differences, exposing hypocrisy—in other words, it is culturally motivated. Brooks' purpose is to communicate sheer anarchy. Thus only audiences equally anarchic could find his films funny: His comic nihilism feeds the nihilism of his audiences. That is what troubles me about hearing other-wise sensitive people laugh at his Silent Movie. (p. 24)
Robert Asahina, "Suffering in Silence," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), August 2, 1976, pp. 23-4.