Silent movies thru a ’60s filter: The Comic

I’ve wanted for decades to revisit Carl Reiner’s dramatic comedy, The Comic. When I first saw it in 1969, I knew almost nothing about silent films. More than 50 years later, they’re a life-long hobby.

I first saw The Comic when I was in my sophomore year in high school. Around that time, Harold Lloyd – with organist Gaylord Carter in tow – came to my high school with a 16mm print of The Kid Brother. I consider that screening the beginning of my love of silent films. I think I saw The Comic before Kid Brother, but I’m not sure.

Reiner and Aaron Ruben clearly studied the history of the great silent comedians before writing the screenplay. Dick Van Dyke, who never hid his love of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and especially Stan Laurel, plays the fictitious comedian Billy Bright. Van Dyke, a great physical comedian in his own right, is brilliant in the black-and-white, silent movies within the film. But in the serious scenes he’s acceptable but not exceptional.

Until the last minute, the film was to be called Billy Bright.

Billy is a composite of various comedians, but he’s more Buster Keaton than any of the others. Like the Great Stone Face, he couldn’t stick to his marriage vows, and lost visitation rights in the divorce. He starts drinking heavily. He has a very short and horrible second marriage. And like Keaton, he spends his later years doing TV commercials.

But Bright’s story isn’t all Keaton. Like Harold Lloyd, he has a gay son. And like Stan Laurel, he ends up alone in a small apartment. Mickey Rooney plays his cross-eyed sidekick – shades of Ben Turpin. Billy makes a feature film where he falls in love with a blind woman – an echo of Harry Langdon’s The Strong Man
and Chaplin’s City Lights.

To a large degree, Van Dyke playing Bright is Van Dyke playing the pre-Laurel and Hardy Stan Laurel. But, I’m glad to say, it’s not an exact imitation. Bright also has the vulnerability of Chaplin and Langdon.

Screenwriters Reiner and Ruben even borrowed from another talkie about silents. As in Sunset Blvd, the dead protagonist narrates the story. But The Comic finds an interesting variation. Even after death, Billy Bright can’t accept his own flaws, which the filmmakers show clearly. Dead or alive, he’s a completely self-serving jerk.

I couldn’t find The Comic streaming anywhere, so I bought a DVD for $18. There are reasons why it’s difficult to see. It’s a shallow drama, with obvious tropes and skin-deep characterizations. Most of the individual gags work, but only one sequence – a riff on Jekyll and Hyde – provides an extended, truly funny comedy sequence. And yet, if you love silent films, you’ll want to see it. (Don’t confuse it with the 1985 science fiction film with the same name.)

I give The Comic a C+.

One last thing: When you have Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke working together, you can’t help thinking about The Dick Van Dyke Show. When Reiner cast Michele Lee as the leading lady, he must have wanted a Mary Tyler Moore look-a-like.