By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
4-Word Review: Making a silent movie.
The year is 1913 and Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal) is tired of being a lawyer and representing sleazy clients, so by chance he gets a job writing scripts for silent movie mogul H.H. Cobb (Brian Keith). Later on he’s sent to California to direct his first silent film, but he has no experience doing that and finds that he has a rough relationship with the film’s leading man Buck Greenway (Burt Reynolds).
When this film first came out Columbia Pictures was convinced that they had a big hit on their hands and to celebrate they allowed everyone attending the L.A. premiere to pay only 5 cents to get in, in order to correspond to the price of admission during the silent film era. Yet many of those who attended were not satisfied with the movie causing critic David Sheehan to claim “it wasn’t worth paying a nickel to see.”
It’s hard to know who to blame as both sides have differing accounts for what went wrong. David Begelman, the then head of Columbia Pictures, loved the script, which was written by W.D. Richter and had by all accounts a good dramatic edge to it, but when they gave it to Peter Bogdanovich to read he described it as a ‘piece of garbage’. Yet they decided to hire Bogdanovich to direct it anyways by promising him he could change the script any way he wanted as Begelman considered Bogdanovich to be a ‘cinematic genius’ and that ‘everything he touched turned to gold’. Bogdanovich on the other hand stated that he liked the script as it was, but was pressured by the studio to add in farcical elements as they were hoping to recreate the magic of his earlier film What’s Up Doc?.
In either case the attempted comedy doesn’t work and the gags, which come at a rapid-fire pace, ultimately become more mind numbing than anything. The only funny bit is the extended fistfight between O’Neal and Reynolds while everything else sinks into mundane silliness. Supposedly some of the story is based on the real-life remembrances of film veterans Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan, but with so much misguided zaniness thrown in it’s hard to know what if anything to take seriously.
The story desperately needed more of a focus. Having it about a small cast and crew trying to make their first silent film and the many challenges that it would entail could’ve been both amusing and revealing, but the story jumps ahead too much. We see the characters in one setting at one moment and then on a whim the film fast forwards to them in some completely different setting a year or more later, which never allows the viewer to connect emotionally with the people or what they’re going through.
O’ Neal is good playing a befuddled sort who simply reacts to the goofiness around him while Reynolds is excellent as the rough and tough good ole boy and their budding love/hate friendship should’ve been the film’s main focus. Supermodel Jane Hitchcock, in her one and only feature film appearance, is easy on the eyes, but her part was originally intended for Cybill Shepherd, who would’ve given the role more edge.
The cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs is pristine as is the period detail, but the story takes on too much especially the second hour, which just goes from one tangent to another.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Released: December 21, 1976
Runtime: 2 Hours 2 Minutes
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube