In the more-interesting-than-good category is Carl Reiner’s The Comic (1969), depicting the life of a fictional silent-movie comedian. It’s an odd work that tries to cash in on the 1960s nostalgia boom while at the same time critiquing its often mindless adoration. It found a certain favor with—of all people—nostalgists, who seem to love to argue over exactly which silent comics the lead character of Billy Bright (Dick Van Dyke) is an amalgam of. Silent movie buffs will spot a version of the 1925 Stan Laurel short Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde with Van Dyke aping Stan Laurel aping John Barrymore’s performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). Van Dyke is good, but—and this is true throughout—too often he falls into the trap of “look at me, I’m being funny.” There’s another Laurel gag borrowed from the Laurel and Hardy short From Soup to Nuts (1928), but then there are evocations of Chaplin—especially City Lights (1931)—and personal problems added that more recall Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon.
The film suffers from a TV-movie feel (the Jack Elliott score really hurts), its typical inauthentic period evocations (those hairstyles!), and from the simple fact that the Billy Bright character is almost completely unsympathetic. (There’s also a cringe-inducing bit of homophobia late in the film.) The end result is actually a rather depressing movie. At the same time, there are many pleasing moments (the Citizen Kane newsreel is terrific, as is the “Whitee Wash” commercial) and it’s hard not to admire the film for its peculiar tone.