50 Years Ago Today: The Comic

50 years ago today, Carl Reiner’s second movie The Comic (1969), opened nationwide.

I am one of the many who have an affection for this laudable attempt to recapture a lost era, but in the end it has to be acknowledged as a squandered opportunity, its ambitions exceeding the abilities of its creators (Reiner directs and plays a supporting role; he co-wrote and co-produced it with Aaron Ruben, best known for creating Gomer Pyle, USMC).

Released just a few short years after both Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton passed away (four since Laurel, three since Keaton), The Comic casts Dick Van Dyke as a silent movie comedian who has it all, but then blows it. Van Dyke is pretty well cast. He was gifted at slapstick and was Stan Laurel’s anointed as the one person he’d have sanctioned portraying him on screen. In addition to starring in magical family films like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he had been at the center of Reiner’s TV masterwork, The Dick Van Dyke Show (in which he essentially played Reiner). He was also hoping to demonstrate his chops as a dramatic actor. All to the good, as far as they go. The character he plays is a sort of hybrid of the great silent comedians and their biographical arcs. While he resembles Laurel the most, he upends his life and career royally like both Keaton and Harry Langdon. And like Harold Lloyd, he marries his comedy costar (Michelle Lee), who gives up her career, and their son (played by Van Dyke) is gay (here presented as a by-product of Van Dyke’s failings as a father). 

Much like Langdon, Van Dyke’s character is way old at the start of his stardom. Van Dyke was 44 when this movie was made, older even than Langdon was when he was laucnhed in pictures. Most silent comics were 20 years younger than that when they broke in. At 6’1″, Van Dyke was almost a foot taller than any leading silent comic I can think of. Little is funny. Tall is intimidating, but it can also be funny when clumsiness is involved.

And though the ’60s were a period when there was a good deal of condescension about the crudity of comedy’s early days — I’m here to tell ya, any Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd film has a story arc and a character arc. This movie, with the benefit of an intervening four decades to let it sink in, manifestly does not. There is womanizing and alcoholism and ego. After we watch Van Dyke be a jerk for 90 minutes, we see him as old man in front of tv watching a broadcast of his first feature film (which looks somewhat like Chaplin’s City Lights) and we get the sense that Reiner wants to tell us that there is at least one thing that redeems the man — his art.

But it feels like too little, too late. Van Dyke is REALLY unlikable in the movie. Dishonest, angry, mopey. At moments it strives creakily to be one of those racy Hollywood melodramas like The Oscar or Valley of the Dolls or Inside Daisy Clover or Harlow, but the best it can do is bathos, and I usually find myself laughing at the parts where its supposed to be serious, like when he drunkenly drives his roadster through the front door of a mansion and his sidekick bawls, “But this is the neighbor’s house!”

The fetching Michele Lee plays Van Dyke’s co-star and wife, with some Mabel Normand echoes

The comic’s sidekick, one “Cockeye”, played by Mickey Rooney, is a clear nod to Ben Turpin. Chester Conklin and Snub Pollard also get nods, and these are the touches the films fans love I believe. Especially fun is the extended stretch where we see scenes from Van Dyke’s character’s movies. Reiner always has fun with parody, in everything from the stage melodrama take-off in Enter Laughing to the mock noir of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Neither he nor Van Dyke quite nail it though (Reiner even forgets to undercrank in some of the bits) but they tackle it gamely. One of the films seems to be a nod to early Laurel short Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925) itself a parody of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Interestingly, Reiner’s old colleague Mel Brooks would also tackle silent comedy form with Silent Movie (1976), with results roughly as spotty.

As I wrote here, the ’60s were an awkward period for comedy film. The slapstick expertise that had been built up during the first third of the century had been long lost. Neither entertainers nor audiences seemed to care whether it was done right any more — a condition that persists to this day, may I add.