Monday, May 10, 2021

The Comic

TCM had a couple of new-to-me movies in their tribute to Carl Reiner when he died last summer. I got around recently to watching the last of them, The Comic.

Dick Van Dyke plays the comic in question, a man named Billy Bright (not a real person, although many character traits were based on old-time comic actors). The movie opens with Bright's funeral, fairly sparsely attended since, as one passerby says, he didn't even know Bright was still alive. One of the attendees comes to the church with a package. As it turns out, he was hired by Bright to pie the eulogist (and the eulogist was in on it). After all, a pie to the face is always funny.

Bright had been big back in the silent days, before the pictures got small, and we flash back to those thrilling days of yesteryear as Bright narrates his own life story. Bright was a vaudeville clown with a very distinctive look who shows up in California ready to act in movies, although the directors want things done their way, not the way Billy necessarily wants. Eventually, Billy starts to do things the directors' way, and becomes a pretty darn good comic actor and silent film star.

Bright even falls in love with his female lead Mary Gibson (Michele Lee), marrying her and, as a wedding present to her, starting his own studio so they can produce their own movies. Not every actor knew the first thing about production, however, and it's bound to be difficult. Billy also has other problems, in that he has a tendency to drink, as well as an eye for other women, tendencies his best friend Cockeye (Mickey Rooney, obviously based on Ben Turpin) tries to stop with a noted lack of success.

Eventually Mary files for divorce so that she can marry a man who will treat her and the kid well, Billy's old director Frank Powers (Cornel Wilde). By this time, sound has come to the movies, and Billy makes the fatal mistake of saying that comics act, not talk. Like a whole bunch of other silent comics, he fails to make the transition to sound, and winds up living in comedy until a late-career rediscovery thanks in part to Steve Allen (playing himself). But will Billy live long enough to enjoy it?

Dick Van Dyke was a very good comic actor on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but other than tripping over the ottoman I hadn't much considered his ability for physical comedy. I also hadn't thought much about his love of silent movies (in real life he knew Stan Laurel at the end of Laurel's life, and of course also appears in the silent-film section of What a Way to Go!). Van Dyke gives a fine performance here, as does Rooney. Lee understandably disappears in the second half of the movie, although she's more than adequate as Billy's wife.

Where The Comic isn't quite as good as it could be is in the script, which doesn't balance the dramatic and comic sides as well as it might, being at times too zany (Pert Kelton trying to marry her daughter off to an elderly Billy being a big example). Still, as an homage to silent cinema, and especially the silent comics, it's definitely worth a watch.

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