Silent Movie is a 1976 comedy film directed by and starring Mel Brooks. The ensemble cast includes Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman, Bernadette Peters, Sid Caesar, Anne Bancroft, Henny Youngman, Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, and Paul Newman.
As its title suggests, the film is a parody of the silent film genre, particularly the slapstick comedies of Hal Roach, Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton. Among the film's many jokes is the fact that the only audible line in the movie is spoken by Marcel Marceau, the famous mime. Sound is also used for a scene that shows New York City and the score begins to play "San Francisco", only to have it come to a sudden stop as if the orchestra realizes they are playing the wrong music. They then go into "I'll Take Manhattan" instead.
A play on the 1970s trend of large corporations buying up smaller companies is parodied in this film by the attempt of the Engulf and Devour Corporation to take control of a studio (a thinly veiled reference to Gulf+Western's takeover of Paramount Pictures).
Mel Funn (Brooks), a great film director now recovering from a drinking problem and down on his luck, sets out to pitch a new screenplay idea to the Chief of Big Picture Studios (Caesar), aided by his assistants Dom Bell (DeLuise) and Marty Eggs (Feldman). The screenplay is for the first major silent motion picture in forty years. At first the studio chief, who is in danger of losing the studio to the New York conglomerate Engulf and Devour, rejects the idea, but Funn convinces him that if he can get all of Hollywood's biggest stars to be in the film that he could save the studio.
Funn, Eggs, and Bell proceed to recruit Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, and Paul Newman (all played by themselves) to be in their silent film in various comic ways. They also ask world famous mime Marcel Marceau (also as himself) to be in the film and he replies, "Non", the only spoken word in the entire film. Funn claims not to understand Marceau's reply because he "do[es]n't understand French."
Meanwhile, Engulf (Harold Gould) and Devour (Ron Carey) worry that Funn will save Big Picture Studios, and they will be unable to buy it out. They attempt to "stop Funn with sex", by sending Vilma Kaplan (Peters) to seduce, and then pretend to fall in love with Mel Funn. Funn falls in love with her, but realizes the truth the day before the filming of the movie is set to begin, and returns to drinking. Vilma, who has actually fallen for Funn during the course of their relationship, teams up with Eggs and Bell to find Funn and get him sober.
Vilma, Eggs, and Bell locate Funn and feed him several hundred cups of coffee to sober him up. Funn is able to direct, and the movie is filmed on schedule, but is stolen from the theater by Engulf & Devour just before its preview. Funn and his associates steal it back while Vilma distracts the audience with her Cabaret act, and after a slapstick car chase and final showdown involving cans of soda being launched like grenades, return the film to the theater, where it a huge success, saving the Studio.
The film ends with the title card "This is a true story", implying that it is the story of how "Silent Movie" itself was made (which implies that Marcel Marceau changed his mind about being in the film).
The film is loaded with silent-movie style slapstick gags in the style of Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, including the following:
- At the beginning of the movie, Mel, Dom, and Marty give a pregnant woman (Carol Arthur DeLuise) a lift to the hospital, and her weight causes the car to make the entire trip on its two rear wheels.
- Just before going to see the Studio Chief, Mel and his friends cross their fingers for good luck, and Mel can't uncross his. Later, he shakes hands with the Chief, and the Chief's fingers are crossed instead of Mel's as a result; the Chief then "passes" this crossed condition to his secretary's fingers the same way.
- Right after the Studio Chief tells Mel that "slapstick is dead", the Chief falls backward in his chair onto the floor, and the force of this causes him and the chair to be hurled forward through the front of his desk and across the office.
- When Mel gets a bright idea in the Chief's office, a lamp bulb that's behind and above his head comes on.
- A recurring gag involves a newspaper vendor (Liam Dunn) being knocked over by two delivery boys who throw the headline news at him.
- In one scene, the Studio Chief and the movie-making trio watch a scene from a low-budget picture called The Queen's Rifles: Three rows of British troops are being ordered to fire their rifles. First the front row fires; then the second row fires, shooting the first row in their backs; and then the last row fires, shooting the second row in their backs. Trying to find something positive to say, Mel says, "I like the last row best."
- A man is seen exiting an Acupuncture parlor with over-sized needles sticking out of his back.
- A running gag involves a soda machine that fires cans out at a high velocity, and the trio use the machine as grenade-like ammunition against Engulf, Devour and Associates in the final battle.
- The trio pursue Paul Newman through a hospital in a car chase performed with slow-moving motorized wheelchairs. The scene ends with Newman jumping his wheelchair off a roof and onto a lower roof, only to turn around, recognize the trio and request a part in their movie.
- The trio recruit Anne Bancroft by posing as three Flamenco dancers at a nightclub that sweep her off her feet, and (accidentally) into the kitchen.
- When the Chief goes in the hospital and is visited by Funn, Eggs and Bell, Eggs and Bell accidentally unplug and plug in his heart monitor several times, ending up changing the screen to a Pong display and playing while the Chief flatlines and recovers repeatedly.
- While Dom uses a public restroom, two men — one blind, one sighted — each ask Marty to look after his dog while they use the facilities. After they come out, they each accidentally take the other's dog; because of this, the guide dog won't let the sighted man cross a street, and the non-guide dog takes off, dragging the blind man behind it.
- In order to approach Liza Minnelli so they can ask her to be in their movie, Mel, Dom, and Marty disguise themselves in suits of armor and go into the studio commissary where she's eating. Unaccustomed to such cumbersome outfits, the trio stumble and trip repeatedly, destroying tables and chairs in the process.
- In the theater where the preview of the movie is going to take place, two people go to the snack counter and get a trash can loaded with popcorn (the front of which reads "Popcorn — Trash Can Size"). Butter is poured into it with what appears to be a gasoline pump. Astounded by the sight of this, Mel turns to Dom — who's eating a Hershey bar the size of a door.
- During the car chase, one of the vehicles causes an exterminator's van to run off the road; this causes the giant prop fly to be hurled from the roof of the van and land on a customer's table at a sidewalk café. The diner, played by Henny Youngman, then shouts the famous line, "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup!" (The cast credit reads, "Henny Youngman--fly-in-soup man.")
- James Caan's trailer has a broken spring, which makes it tilt precariously any time one of its occupants makes a move. Dom ends up upsetting the whole thing when he sneezes.
- Another running gag involved a clear mismatch between what the characters were actually saying and the subtitles; the spoken lines are inaudible, as it is, after all, a silent movie, but they can be easily lipread. For example, at one point Brooks expresses doubt about DeLuise's suggestion of a silent movie by shouting "That's crazy!" with more furious comments, but the screen says "Maybe you're right." In another scene, Marty hits on a nurse but gets slapped. When he gets back in the car, Mel clearly mouths, "You dirty son of a bitch", but the screen says "You bad boy!"
- The trio keep bugging Burt to join their movie using tactics such as Dom sticking his foot into the door when Burt closes it, causing his foot to be partially flat, as seen in many cartoons involving foot-squishing; sneaking into his shower; and lastly, they use the "tallest man" as a trick, which backfires when Burt gets tangled up in the long coat (which has Mel as the top), and a Street-Cleaner runs over the part the coat which was empty, causing him to faint.
- There is a lengthy scene in which Devour attempts to help Engulf put on his topcoat with disastrous results.
- The yellow roadster driven by Funn, Eggs and Bell is a Morgan four-seater. Specific model or year of manufacture is unknown.
- Brooks biographer James Robert Parish says that Brooks based the Eggs and Bell characters on his relationship with his three brothers.
- The pregnant woman in the first scene is Dom DeLuise's real-life wife, Carol Arthur.
- Brooks initially envisioned the movie without even a musical soundtrack. But the idea made 20th Century-Fox executives nervous, so Brooks added John Morris' score, "like a rug from beginning to end, just to be on the safe side."
- Even though the movie was filmed without sound, Brooks was initially frustrated when he could not get the film crew to laugh, as they were afraid their laughter would spoil a take.
- This was Brooks' first starring role in a movie. Referring to himself as actor-director, Brooks said, "I'm not going to tell myself how much I like me or I'll ask for more money."
- Even though Brooks had never starred in a movie before, he was ranked No. 5 in a U.S. film exhibitors' 1976 list of the top 25 movie stars with box-office appeal. Brooks' co-star Burt Reynolds, who ranked No. 6 on the list, got used to receiving phone calls from Brooks which began, "Hello, Six, this is Five speaking."
- The DVD-release of Silent Movie contains audio tracks in English, Spanish, and French, even though the film's only spoken line, "Non" (French for "No") which is spoken by famous mime Marcel Marceau in the only words he ever spoke on stage. It sounds almost identical in all three languages. The DVD also includes English subtitles.
- The three main characters have the same first names as the actors playing them. "Dom Bell" is a play on "dumbbell"