The Comic is a 1969 Pathécolor comedy film co-written, co-produced, and directed by Carl Reiner. It stars Dick Van Dyke as Billy Bright (which was the original title of the film), Michele Lee as Bright's love interest, and Reiner himself and Mickey Rooney as Bright's friends and work colleagues. Reiner wrote the screenplay with Aaron Ruben; it was inspired by the end of silent film era, and, in part, by the life of silent film superstar Buster Keaton.
|Directed by||Carl Reiner|
|Produced by||Carl Reiner|
|Written by||Carl Reiner|
|Starring||Dick Van Dyke|
|Narrated by||Dick Van Dyke|
|Music by||Jack Elliott|
|Cinematography||W. Wallace Kelley|
|Edited by||Adrienne Fazan|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures Corporation|
Billy Bright (Dick Van Dyke), a silent-era film comedian, narrates this film which begins at his character's funeral in 1969 and tells his life story in flashbacks, unable to see his own faults and morosely (and incorrectly) blaming others for anything that has gone wrong.
Headstrong and talented, vaudeville clown Bright arrives on his first California film location insisting that he will perform his bit role only if he can wear the outrageous costume and makeup of the character he has been known for on the stage. The director (Cornel Wilde) refuses and Bright begins to storm off, but when his car rolls off a cliff he is forced to accept the terms. As soon as the cameras are rolling, however, he improvises (and sabotages) his way to becoming the hero of the scenario. His combination of acquiescence and audacity pays off, and before long he has become a major film comedy star in the 1910s and '20s, the silent picture era of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
Bright steals his leading lady, Mary (Michele Lee), and is beaten up by the director, whom she's been dating. The two increasingly popular performers marry, starting their own production company together. As early as her pregnancy, she begins to suspect his adultery; when she confronts him, he tries to turn the tables and shame her into apologizing for the accusation. But at the height of their fame and fortune, he is served with papers naming him in a Hollywood power couple's divorce filing. Mary leaves him, taking their young son — and the couple's palatial estate.
Bright sinks into despair and alcoholism, also leaving the country to film in Europe for four years. He sobers up and attempts a comeback in Hollywood, but — ever living in the past — will accept it on no other terms than those he had been accustomed to, adamantly refusing the studio's offer to star him in a talkie, and storming out on his agent (Carl Reiner). Like the film industry, people are moving along without Billy: his wife has moved on, rebuffing his attempt to win her back. The one constant in his life, other than his decreasingly appealing sense of identity, is his old screen sidekick and only friend, Cockeye (Mickey Rooney).
A late-1960s talk show host (Steve Allen as himself) has the faded star on in an effort to revive Bright's career, and the elderly comedian proves capable — if somewhat patheticly to the groovy stars of the day on the couch alongside him — of recreating his old pratfall schtick. The pitch works, but this time the only vehicle that will allow him to run through his preferred brand of slapstick is a detergent commercial. The denouement of Bright's life, and the film, finds him in and out of the hospital, and visited by his now-grown son Billy Jr. (also played by Van Dyke in a dual role), reduced to setting the alarm in his dingy two-room apartment, and catching airings of him and his former wife's old comedies at odd hours on TV — which he watches without a hint of a smile.
In his autobiography, Carl Reiner said that he wrote the film as a vehicle for Van Dyke, who had often expressed the wish on the set of their TV show The Dick Van Dyke Show that he had been working at the same time as comedy legends such as his hero Stan Laurel.
Reiner loosely patterned the story of Bright's career downfall on the real-life travails of a number of early film actors, primarily Buster Keaton, who likewise saw his Hollywood success falter as filmgoers' tastes changed and he fell into alcoholism. Some details parallel the experiences of silent comedian Harold Lloyd, as well as the film's co-star Mickey Rooney. Ironically, Van Dyke disclosed that he had only recently overcome a serious drinking problem in his own life after his critically acclaimed performance as a desperately struggling alcoholic in the 1974 TV film The Morning After.
Not many people saw the film upon its release, but it was appreciated later as a movie about one silent star's rise and fall, patterned after the many silent stars who tried to make it and failed in later years. Among the exceptions were silent and sound film star Stan Laurel, whom Dick Van Dyke loved. He later learned that many imitators came and went since the end of Laurel's time with Oliver Hardy, and no attempt was made to legally stop them from imitating Laurel and his friend Hardy or even copying his face, which in part inspired this film. Van Dyke said of The Comic: "very few people saw that movie, but we were proud of it."
The Comic was produced on a VHS tape published by RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video (Burbank, CA) in 1986 (OCLC 17939307). Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment also released a VHS edition the same year (ISBN 0800132823). The film was also released on Laserdisc by Image Entertainment.
- Reiner, Carl. My Anecdotal Life (St. Martin's Press; 2003, hardcover, ISBN 0-312-31104-4). Quoted on The Comic trivia page at the Internet Movie Database.
- On Larry King Live, "Dick Van Dyke Discusses His Career in Entertainment". Aired September 22, 2000. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0009/22/lkl.00.html