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The Comic
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The Comic

Stan Laurel, the surviving half of the legendary Laurel and Hardy partnership, succumbed to a heart attack in February 1965. Although the slight, Lancashire-born comic was by no means wealthy in retirement (it was self-imposed, following the death of Oliver Hardy in 1957), he was rich in the admiration of a generation of younger comedians, among them Jerry Lewis, Laurel's countryman Peter Sellers, French mime Marcel Marceau and Dick Van Dyke, star of the popular CBS sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. An intensely physical performer, plucked from the original Broadway cast of Gower Champion's Bye Bye Birdie to headline the weekly series in 1961, Van Dyke had long acknowledged a debt to Stan Laurel and had even played him in a sketch within a sketch on his show, with portly character actor Henry Calvin standing in for Babe Hardy. Nine months after Laurel's death, Van Dyke hosted A Salute to Stan Laurel for CBS. The hour-long tribute featured a lineup of popular and rising comedians and comic actors, including Lucille Ball, Phil Silvers, Bob Newhart, Fred Gwynne, Harvey Korman, Tina Louise and a terminally ill Buster Keaton, three months shy of his own death. The special was written by The Dick Van Dyke Show creator/producer Carl Reiner with Aaron Ruben, a former gag man for Burns and Allen, Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. The tribute was not well-received by critics of the day, who opined that the program felt less like a celebration of Laurel's career than a promo for the new fall shows; the same critics were, however, in general agreement that Van Dyke's devotion was palpable and heartfelt.

The success and instant classic status of Disney's Mary Poppins (1964) notwithstanding, Dick Van Dyke never felt entirely comfortable in or well-served by his forays into feature film work. His star vehicles in the post-The Dick Van Dyke show years - Disney's Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN (1966), Delbert Mann's Fitzwilly (1967), Ken Hughes' Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Garson Kanin's Some Kind of a Nut (1969) - left Van Dyke feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. An attempt to split the difference between offering Van Dyke's fans what they wanted (the actor in physically demanding comic roles) while plumbing Van Dyke's taste for edgier material was Columbia's The Comic (1969), directed by Carl Reiner and written by Aaron Ruben. Filmed under the working title Billy Bright, the production centered on the career and troubled personal life of the eponymous silent film comedian, patterned in part after Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Charlie Chaplin. Despite Van Dyke's affection for the funsters of a bygone era, The Comic is anything but a hagiography, reveling as it does in the protagonist's behind-the-scenes misdeeds (including an extramarital affair that seems patterned after Buster Keaton's doomed tryst with actress Kathleen Key, who infamously trashed the star's MGM dressing room after a lover's quarrel and was blacklisted by the studio). Structured as a memory piece, The Comic is narrated by a postmortem Billy Bright as he lies in repose in a mortuary casket, a likely nod to Billy Wilder's proposed opening to Sunset Boulevard (1950), which was nixed by the studio.

Silent film fans remain divided on the merits of The Comic, with its boosters praising Van Dyke's performance - as well as that of an endearing character turn by Mickey Rooney, as Billy Bright's partner Cockeye- and Carl Reiner's stab at an unflinching Hollywood expose; the film's detractors bemoaned the film's cynical tone and what they perceived as a lackluster approximation of silent filmmaking. Critics were divided in their own reactions. Writing for The New York Times, Roger Greenspan likened The Comic to "an extension of The Dick Van Dyke Show gone sour" but allowed that Van Dyke's silent film recreations were "genuinely funny and sophisticated." Pauline Kael expressed contempt for Carl Reiner, whose direction she found "prodigiously facile," but reserved kudos for the cast: "Dick Van Dyke has the true manic feeling for the silent-comedy routines, and Mickey Rooney... creates a character out of almost nothing and lives it on the screen so convincingly that you fully expect to see him again after the movie is over." Columbia Pictures seemed not to know what to make of The Comic, pairing the feature after its November 1969 New York premiere with Henry Levin's violent The Desperados (1969), whose entire dramatis personae lies dead on the ground by the final frames.

Producers: Carl Reiner, Aaron Ruben
Director: Carl Reiner
Screenplay: Carl Reiner, Aaron Ruben
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Music: Jack Elliott
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Cast: Dick Van Dyke (Billy Bright), Michele Lee (Mary Gibson), Mickey Rooney (Cockeye), Cornel Wilde (Frank Powers), Nina Wayne (Sybil), Pert Kelton (Mama), Steve Allen (himself), Barbara Heller (Ginger), Ed Peck (Edwin G. Englehardt), Jeannine Riley (Lorraine), Gavin MacLeod (1st Director), Jay Novello (Miguel), Craig Huebing (doctor), Paulene Myers (Phoebe), Fritz Feld (Armand), Jerome Cowan (Lawrence), Isabel Sanford (woman), Jeff Donnell (nurse), Carl Reiner (Al Schilling).
C-96m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
The Official Dick Van Dyke Book by Vince Waldron (Applause Books, 1994)
Interview with Dick Van Dyke by Lee Goldberg, Archive of American Television, January 8, 1998
Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy (The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy by Simon Louvish (St. Martin's Griffin, 2005)
Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase by Marion Meade (Harper Collins, 1995) VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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