Nickelodeon gets no love. And yet its place in the popular, Biskind-approved narrative of The Decline and Fall of Everyone in the 1970s New Hollywood is a bit uncertain. It comes after the despised At Long Last Love (1975), which ought to mark the same point in Peter Bogdanovich's career as Sorcerer for Friedkin, Heaven's Gate for Cimino and especially One from the Heart for Coppola. True, critics didn't go for it, except in the sense of savaging it, and the public didn't go to it, in any sense, but it certainly didn't attract the tsunami of opprobrium that P-Bog's Cole Porter musical, sung live, brought down upon the heads of the director and his entire cast.
Like his musical, his comedy about early Hollywood (it climaxes with the premiere of Birth of a Nation) now exists in two versions, as Bogdanovich revisited the film, inserting a few deleted moments and converting it into black & white, which he'd always preferred. He says that he and Haskell Wexler had kept b&w as an option when shooting it, and indeed the grey tones work well, with no loss of clarity.
In either version, I find the film largely delightful, and I'm inclined to attribute its frosty reception to the lingering revulsion from its auteur's previous Burt Reynolds movie. In the seventies, when filmmakers were able to shoot a film a year if the front office was favorable, critics quite frequently made the strange mistake of reviewing the previous year's movie, or else judging this year's movie by the standards of the one before.
The scenario blends an original script by W.D. Richter (a significant figure himself, specialising in weird genre mutations) with Bogdanovich's additions, some derived from interviews he conducted with Hollywood old-timers Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh. There's also some swapped suitcase business too familiar from What's Up, Doc? This, and the presence of Ryan O'Neal and especially his daughter Tatum, may make the film seem too much of a mash-up of favorite Bogdanovich tropes, so I guess that's another reason people didn't warm to it. But the beauty of seeing films out of their historic context is you can more easily forget that stuff.
O'Neal plays a failed lawyer and Reynolds (I think I heard this right) an alligator farmer, followed in slightly shapeless parallel narratives until they collide with ingenue Jane Hitchcock (pretty, a little blank) and the new-born medium of silent movies. O'Neal's character incorporates elements of the young John Ford, but director and star concentrate on wringing the value they can get out of him as comic schlemiel rather than inspiring us with glimpses of Greatness To Come. Good.
Reynolds' career often looks like a black hole, with everything between Deliverance and Boogie Nights part of the same terrifying singularity from which not even light can escape. But in fact there are bright spots, and he's rollicking fun in this. Bogdanovich stages a slapstick fight between his leads which is, again, Ford-inspired, but best enjoyed simply as artful slapstick, more Sennett than The Quiet Man. In the rush to dump on Bogdanovich, who may well have been gargantuanly arrogant and punchable at the time, it shouldn't have been overlooked that he had a flawless sense of timing for both dialogue (mostly rat-a-tat crosstalk here, Sturges-inspired) and action (and the only other filmmakers at the time who could shoot visual gags were Blake Edwards and Richard Lester... and the largely quiescent Tati, of course).
Oddly, the b&w version seems less nostalgic than the slightly sepia-inflected color cut. For the most part, the film is rambunctious, cheerfully disrespectful (it doesn't know how to address Griffith's racism, but it throws in a cheerful sideswipe at his eccentricity and pretension) and fun. The revisions inject some bittersweet qualities (everyone is in love with the wrong person, like a knockabout version of The Seagull, and the romantic tangles are left unresolved), but the pace is frenetic and the whole absurdity of movie-making laid bare: all the better to hit us with a speech (almost to camera) right at the end, from mini-mogul Brian Keith, who until now has been a cigar-chomping, motormouthed vulgarian and trampler of Art.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.