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The Movie's Silent, But Mel Brooks Isn't

"I'd say 'Silent Movie' is my best film by far," Mel Brooks was saying, "and, let's face it, the others were pretty good. This is the funniest, the hardest to accomplish, the best. But we could not get the crew to laugh! There we were, knocking ourselves out to be funny, and behind the camera, not a snicker. This was a veteran crew. After 50 years of making sound movies, they were afraid if they made a noise it would spoil the shot. Fer chrissakes, fellas, I said, there's not even a microphone. Laugh a little! Yuk it up!"

Brooks waved his hands as if directing tumultuous hilarity. "I'm a fan of the film," he said. "Everywhere I go, I go to see it. I love to hear the people laugh. I sneak in after it starts, I sit in the back, I sneak out again before it ends. For all I know, it starts and ends slow. But the middle--the middle is terrific!

"But I'll tell you how inane the studio was. 'Go ahead,' they told me, 'make your silent movie. But, Mel, do us a favor. Just as a safeguard, record dialog. Please.' What? Just as a safeguard? I banned the microphone! We didn't even rent one for the picture! 'Just as a safeguard, Mel, against doing a radio program, why don't you bring along the television cameras?'"

Brooks shook his head. "The story of 'Silent Movie,' " he said, "is the story in 'Silent Movie.' We made a silent movie, we put a lot of big stars in it, we saved the studio. It all started over lunch. Ron Clark--he's the one who had the original idea--said let's have lunch. If you like my idea, you buy lunch.

"We have lunch. Let's make a silent picture, he says. Ron, I say, this has got to stop! If I go back any farther, I'll be directing oil paintings. First I make movies with color and sound. Then I make 'Young Frankenstein,' with black-and-white and sound. NOW you want me to make a movie with black-and-white and no sound. This has to stop! OK, OK, Ron says. No sound - but you can put color back in. I'm buying lunch, I say."

The rest is history, as Brooks would have been the first to admit during his visit to Chicago last week. "Silent Movie," now at the Carnegie, has opened to enormous business all over the country and confirmed Brooks' position as the funniest contemporary director. He is also arguably the most manic; a Q & A session with him is simplicity itself because all you need is one Q and he's got two hours of A.

"Getting the big stars!" he said. "That was fun. The word leaked out in Hollywood that I was doing a silent movie with big stars, and the phone rang. Jimmy Caan. You got all your stars? he says. We're paying $138 a day, I say. He'll take it. Star No. 1.

"Burt Reynolds, he says sure. My wife, Anne Bancroft, we get her because I know she'll work for nothing. Paul Newman was a little skeptical. I sent over the motorized wheel chair he was supposed to ride in the movie. That sold him. For weeks, there was no Paul Newman in town, just this blue-eyed blur whizzing past in a wheel chair.

"He's a good looking guy, Newman. Caan is good looking. All Burt Reynolds is good looking. I know because I was in the shower with him, along with Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman. What a scene! We laughed so hard we couldn't do the scene, and meanwhile the hot water is making our fingers like prunes."

Brooks looked at his fingers in wonderment.

"The day after we signed Newman aboard," he said, "we got a call from Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen! A true recluse, calling me! Here's a guy, McQueen, you leave a script for him at a gas station on the Malibu Highway, and along comes a guy in a German helmet, riding a motorcycle with a sidecar, to pick it up for McQueen. He calls, he wants to know if the motorcycle part is still available. This was the week after he turned down $3 million for three weeks' work."

The fact that big stars (also including Liza Minnelli and Marcel Marceau) play themselves in the movie was originally intended to be a secret. "A little surprise for the folks," Brooks said. "We don't advertise James Caan, Paul Newman in the newspaper ads because, what the hell, they got $138 a day, we don't want to exploit them. Of course, we show them in the TV ads. You can't draw the line everywhere. The scene where I dance with Annie was the hardest. We laughed through about 35 takes."

That is also the scene, I observed, where Brooks' wife displays an ability to cross either of her eyes separately. How, I asked, did you get that effect?

"Effect?" said Brooks. "That was no effect, that was Annie! She can really do nthat! That's why I married her. Twelve years ago, we're sitting in '21,' I'm in love with her, I ask, 'Come on, how am I doin'?' And in reply, she crosses her eyes like that. Now I know it's love. For 12 years, I've been searching for the right role for Annie. Not 'The Miracle Worker.' Not 'The Pumpkin Eater.' Not Mrs. Robinson. The right role, where she can cross her eyes!"

Brooks tried to cross his own eyes. No luck.

"Eyes, this picture has eyes," he said. "How about Marty Feldman's eyes? He's got peripheral vision that you wouldn't believe. During the picture, when I wanted to hide from him, I'd creep up and stand right in front of him. He can't see straight ahead. If a fly got on his nose, he wouldn't know it unless the fly got stupid and moved.

"And Dom DeLuise, he's so funny, he has this high-pitched laugh, when he'd start in, we'd all be helpless with laughter for 20 minutes. After a while, when we saw him coming, we'd wave him off, like a plane landing on an aircraft carrier. Wave him off! Not here! Don't start us laughing again! Heart attack!"

Brooks said a lot of critics thought "Silent Movie" was a tribute to nostalgia. Not at all, he said. "Sure, 'Young Frankenstein' was a tribute. But 'Silent Movie' is a new movie. We used Coke machines, cardiac monitors--gags growing out of the things you find around you, like Keaton would be doing now if he were alive. Still, we didn't totally pluck the chicken of modern technology. We used title cards. That was a tribute to silent movies. Our sole concession."

One of the title cards appears after Henry Youngman discovers a gigantic fly in his soup. The card, inevitably, reads: 'Waiter--there's a fly in my soup!' I told Brooks I thought it might have been funnier to just say 'Waiter...' on the card and let the audience complete the line.

"Yeah," said Brooks, "that's the same thing my brother Bernie said. But, Bernie, I said, what if somebody in the audience doesn't know the line about the fly in the soup? Never heard of it? Around him, everybodys' breaking up, but he doesn't get the joke. He feels depressed and excluded. We can't have that! Besides, Bernie, overseas, nobody's heard about the fly in the soup. Over there, it's a new joke! I'll be famous, Bernie, famous!"

I asked Brooks what he was going to do next.

"First," he said, "Annie's going to do something next. I'm producing a film she'll star in, about a ballerina at a turning point in her life. It's like a Ingmar Bergman film, a little. Wow, was that something! Bergman went back to Europe! When he got off the plane in Hollywood, he was very solemn and earnest. He kept asking questions: 'Who are we? Why? Where? How come?' That was when he got there. When he left, all he said was, 'It's too hot.' That's what a month in Southern California does for you." No, really, I said, what are you going to do next? "Maybe a tribute to Hitchcock," he said. "The camera opens up on a mountain. We fade a little closer. There's a village. Fade a little closer. A house. Fade again. A window. Inside the window. We see a man. Close-up of his face. Then his nose. He pulls a hair out of his nose. Then we reverse the sequence until we're back looking at the mountain again. I don't know where to take it from there."

It's a great beginning, I said.

"No--wait, I'll level with you. What I'm really going to do next is a play called 'Too Much Johnson,' based on Volpone." Brooks paused. "You know," he observed wonderingly, "that has the rhythm and ring of a real remark."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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