On Nov. 19, 1969, Columbia premiered a comedic, yet dark, look at Hollywood with Dick Van Dyke starring as a silent movie star in The Comic. The Hollywood Reporter’s review, originally headlined “Columbia’s ‘The Comic’ Likely BO Disappointment,” is below.
Columbia’s The Comic, called “Billy Bright” in production, isn’t likely to turn throngs of people away from the box office. It may turn a modest profit on its initial showings but it will probably show its biggest return in general release. Producer writers Carl Reiner and Aaron Ruben, with Reiner also directing and acting, have fashioned the script and film in much the same manner they’ve put their central character together. A touch of zaniness, a dab of seriousness and fully incapable of taking itself seriously at any time. Their script, like the character, is utterly unable to completely carry through with a serious scene before becoming embarrassed at showing its inside and attempting a joke as cover. A joke which never quite covers the shown emotion. The same is true to a certain extent in regard to comedic scenes and serious shades.
There are some good hearty laughs in the film and there are some genuine moments of pathos yet outwardly they never seem to blend smoothly. The audience finds itself laughing at things that appear funny, things that have been laughed at for years when used as a single punch line yet when Reiner and Ruben purposely carry it a step further it doesn’t seem quite so humorous.
Opening in 1969 on the funeral services for Dick Van Dyke we are led back through time to the era of the silent films when he first hit town to make his name. Led by his voice as it was when he died, an old man’s voice. His marriage to Michele Lee, director Cornel Wilde’s girl friend is made after Wilde discovers them in bed together and they lie about their marital status, as an excuse.
One affair with a leading lady causes a slightly humorous rift in the marriage during Miss Lee’s pregnancy. After the baby is born he has an affair with a backer’s wife and on the eve of the premiere of his and Miss Lee’s biggest movie Forget Me Not he mistakenly hands her a summons naming him co-respondent in his backer’s divorce action. One of the spots in the film which brings a laugh by the way it is handled yet when the next step is taken, her leaving him and he hitting the bottle, the question of “Why did I laugh?” arises.
Talkies enter, Van Dyke is out and he and Mickey Rooney now sit in the park discussing dentures and money they used to have. They play a game by walking down Vine St. with eyes closed guessing the names of the stars embedded on the sidewalk. After a brief career following a trade paper ad and a shot on the Steve Allen show he is left alone in a lonely apartment watching the “Early Bird Movie” on TV. The movie is Forget Me Not, the height of his career and the beginning of his end as he sits forgotten.
The sequences of silent film made for The Comic are well done and chronicle his rise to stardom though perhaps they are made a little too much of at times. The cuts from the past to the present to show the funeral procession serve mainly to get in some one liners. A sequence on the Steve Allen show offers an interesting comparison between the old guard and the new breed with Van Dyke as an old man showing his Billy Bright windup doll, his particular “Rosebud,” and a young rock type rolling his eyes at the old man’s antics.
Van Dyke gives a fine portrayal of the composite, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon character both as a young and old man. He is as adept at doing silents as with talkies or TV. Van Dyke also cameos himself as his dress designing son with a Huntz Hall nose, smoking pink cigarettes.
Mickey Rooney as fellow comedian and old friend greatly resembles Ben Turpin with his optical affliction and gives a very warm performance. A rather amusing comment is made on TV through Rooney as he tells Van Dyke a commercial was killed by a network because “they said my eye was in bad taste.” Miss Lee handles herself well throughout the film and transitions nicely in aging. Cornel Wild, billed as special guest, has some nice bits as the director and the late Pert Kelton shines as a movie mother in the last reel.
Familiar faces adding touches of reality and remembrance to the Hollywood surroundings are Jerome Cowan as a commercial producer and Jeff Donnell as the aged Van Dyke’s nurse. Jeannine Riley and Nina Wayne as seductresses give good accounts of themselves, while Barbara Heller, Ed Peck, Gavin MacLeod, Jay Novella, Craig Huebing, Paulene Myers, Fritz Feld and Isabell Sanford round out the fine cast.
W. Wallace Kelley’s photography in both the old black-and-white silents and present-day color is of high caliber and integrated nicely. Production designer Walter Simonds has mounted some attractive settings in keeping with the roaring early years with noticeable changes when Billy Bright falls on harder times. Music by Jack Elliott blends nicely and unobtrusively. — Jack Goff, originally published Nov. 5, 1969.