Anyone looking for a pleasant crash course in the history of early cinema, Nickeloden is the place to start. Nearly everything in it is startlingly authentic — and often done in a style that reflects much of the silent film. The whole business with the Patent Companies (the sort of strong-arm thing that followed wherever Edison went) trying to destroy the independent production companies is very true and presented with honesty and wit. The largely happenstance nature of early filmmaking — and the creation of a cinematic vocabulary –is pretty accurate, as is the idea that “anyone can direct.” The emergence of movie fans — presented like something out of a Laurel and Hardy short — happened largely by accident, not in the least because the production companies didn’t want the public to know who the actors were, since they might want more money if they realized they were underpaid and popular (and, of course, they did). The savvy viewer will recognize the inclusion of many Hollywood anecdotes. And all this may have bearing on why the movie flopped — it was too much for “insiders.”
As a comedy in its own right, Nickelodeon largely works, though it’s certainly built on Bogdanovich’s earlier popular movies. Tatum O’Neal is pretty much the same character — but a little older — she played in Paper Moon. Ryan O’Neal is almost exactly a duplicate of his nerdy, glasses-wearing, stumblebum character in What’s Up, Doc? and suffers many of the same indignities. The business of the three identical suitcases is straight out of What’s Up, Doc?, but with less point here. But the truth is that it all works here as it had before. Actually, Ryan O’Neal’s character here is allowed to grow in ways that did not happen in the earlier film. Maybe if the producers had been willing to let the film be made in black and white, the similarity to Paper Moon would have put it over. Who knows? (By the way, what is being called the “director’s cut” is now available. It mostly consists of putting back a pie fight, which, if nothing else, explains what’s on the characters’ faces at the end of Christmas party scene. Unfortunately, it’s also printed in black and white. The problem with this is that the original designed and lit for color. Printing it in black and white doesn’t make it a black and white movie, only a color movie in black and white, and it doesn’t really work.)
The Asheville Film Society will screen Nickelodeon Tuesday, Sept. 1, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.