The Comic (1969)

Directed by Carl Reiner, written and produced by Reiner and Aaron Ruben

The Comic is a strange film. It is not necessarily one that is particularly enjoyable (and Dick Van Dyke’s character was not necessarily designed to be liked), but there is certainly value in it as a piece of Hollywood history. The Comic tells the life story of fictional and deeply flawed silent film star Billy Bright, played by Dick Van Dyke, as he experiences the unbelievable highs and catastrophic lows of success and addiction in early Hollywood and beyond. His story, told in flashbacks, closely resembles that of Buster Keaton, and to a more subtle extent, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, and Stan Laurel, among others. In one of his most iconic roles, Dick Van Dyke seems as though he could have stepped right out of an old slapstick two-reeler, and I have no doubt that if he was of the right generation, he would have fitted right in on the Keystone lot, churning out picture after picture with the best of them.

Audiences at the time would not otherwise have been exposed to the mundane and tragic realities of ageing former silent stars’ fading lives, and I wonder how eye-opening The Comic was for the youngsters who came across it. And similarly,  I wonder how heartbreaking it was for those older folks who used to idolise the silver screen gods and goddesses, who then perhaps saw themselves in Billy Bright’s lonely, empty house and haunted halls of unspoken regrets.

The recreations of old silent comedies of course were under-utilised highlights in an otherwise illogically paced film. However, narrative and structural issues are completely irrelevant to the film’s ultimate purpose. The film’s significance is in its historically unique and valuable perspective on something that Hollywood was still just trying to make sense of, and that in many ways, we still are. This film was able to capture a difficult and complicated truth about the life and death of a generation of pioneers, and about the nature of filmmaking itself. It speaks of how quickly everything can change, and how quickly we forget. The Comic is a striking effort to tell a story that is true in many ways; a cinematic scrapbook that gives homage to everything those stars were and were not.

The film’s final sequence is of particular note, as it records the mundane routine of an old Billy Bright, before he sits down and watches one of his old silents (a film closely resembling Chaplin’s City Lights) on television. Is his heart breaking, longing for those magical, monochrome days? Does he see that he won’t be forgotten after all? We can’t ever quite know what’s inside his head or his heart as he watches, stone-faced; there are parts of him that are forever intangible to an outside, modern world. Yet as a modern viewer, one can’t help but feel nostalgic and mournful, too, of a time which we never even knew.

The Comic
is calmly accepting of reality in a way that is oddly therapeutic. As Billy Bright accepts his own death, he accepts everything else as he recounts it, and we witness all we are presented without question or judgement. And in that quiet, still, and sad final moment in an old man’s living room, as Billy sits in silence, mirroring the audience in the act of watching, I accept it, too. None of it ever made sense at all.


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