DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Nickelodeon

Friday 24 July 2009


Nickelodeon (1976) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, Stella Stevens, Jane Hitchcock, Tatum O’Neal, Brian Keith, Don Calfa.


Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

“Nickelodeon” is a mess, but WHAT a mess! This notorious Peter Bogdanovich boxoffice and critical failure from the 70s is a big budget, star-studded love song to the pre-D.W. Griffith pioneers of the motion picture industry. Reviled in its day as a clumsy attempt to cram early movie history into a pastiche of early film techniques, it’s a picture that not only managed to keep audiences away in droves, but (at least for me) inexplicably alienated Bogdanovich’s biggest supporters – the critical elite of both the popular mainstream and alternative press. To dump truckloads of manure onto a picture for excess is one thing, but when the excess seems somewhat justified and not without entertainment value, it’s incumbent upon some of us to refute the elitism of the predatory gaggle of scribes who were clearly looking for any excuse to take Bogdanovich, the critic-turned-filmmaker, down a few notches.

Set at a time when Thomas Edison and his cronies maintained the position that they held exclusive patents to the motion picture camera, we follow the adventures of a ragtag band of moviemakers who refuse to shell out royalties to the inventor-thug who stopped at nothing to shut down all the independent businessmen who sought to grab their fare share of the profits from the new magic called movies. Edison hired gun-toting strong men to seek out these upstarts and rough them up and destroy their labs and equipment. In “Nickelodeon”, one such upstart is the blustery showman H.H. Cobb, insanely portrayed by a crazed Brian Keith. Failed lawyer and Harold Lloyd look-alike, the bespectacled Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal) literally pratfalls into this independent company and is quickly nominated to the position of screenwriter. Dispatched to a sleepy, one-horse California waterhole to take over the filmmaking operations, Harrigan discovers that a teenage girl, Alice Forsyte (O’Neal’s daughter Tatum) is an even better screenwriter than he is and when he furthermore discovers that the director has gone on a drunken bender, absconding the unit’s working capital, he is further nominated to the position of director. The group includes a sexy leading lady (Stella Stevens), a near-sighted ingénue (Jane Hitchcock), an amiable sad sack cameraman (John Ritter) and best of all, a two-fisted galumphing galoot from Texas played with good humour and cheer by a thoroughly delightful Burt Reynolds.

All of this probably sounds terrific. It’s not, but it should have been. Where Bogdanovich errs is when he spends far too much time on meticulously recreating slapstick farce from the period. While technically proficient, it’s seldom funny – not so much out of familiarity with the style of humour, but that many of the set-ups are so meticulous that instead of seeming freewheeling and fresh, the laughs – what few we actually get – are utterly predictable. They’re also at odds with what should/could have been a thoroughly compelling story – taking us out of the action to grind everything to a standstill in order to watch one set piece after another.

When the humour works, it works not because it is mannered, meticulous and stylized, but when it’s rooted in the story, characters and backdrop. These moments work so beautifully that they come close to canceling out all the moments that don’t. Many of these well-wrought sequences happen when Bogdanovich doesn’t play over-the-top moments… well, over-the-top. When he plays them straight or relatively straight, they’re as fresh and funny and downright exhilarating as any great comic moments should be. It’s also no surprise that the best stuff involves Burt Reynolds. A scene where Burt is recruited to mount a house for the first time in his life, dressed in full KKK garb and hold a burning cross aloft IS the stuff great comic set pieces are made of. Another, great moment involves Reynolds, who is terrified of heights, and is bamboozled by Ryan O’Neal to get into an air balloon which instead of rising only to the height of a horse, is released and set on a wild course into the Heavens. As well, there are a number of fun scenes involving Tatum O’Neal as she unleashes her trademark “Paper Moon” precociousness and gives us one fine display of cutthroat negotiation after another.

When the movie sticks to moviemaking and does so in a muted fashion, it IS terrific. One can only wish Bogdanovich hadn’t indulged his slapstick muse so often.

The best thing about the movie, though, is a truly exciting and moving recreation of the world premiere of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”. This astounding sequence is so elegiac, that one is inclined to forgive the movie any and all of its flaws.

One of the main reasons to give this picture a whirl on DVD is the fact that Bogdanovich has been given an opportunity to present the film in black and white. When it was first made, the studio balked at such an expensive picture being unleashed in shades of grey rather than all-out colour. Bogdanovich and his cinematographer, the late great Lazlo (“Easy Rider”) Kovacs acquiesced, but with new digital technologies, the film has been transformed into gorgeous black and white with a lovely range of tones and a mouth-watering grain that looks especially stunning when one plays the regular DVD on a Blu-Ray machine with an HD television monitor. In spite of its flaws, “Nickelodeon” was always a picture I liked, but I have to admit that in black and white, I do believe I like it a whole lot more.

“Nickelodeon” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in a two-disc with Bogdanovich’s masterpiece “The Last Picture Show”

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