Over 40 years after he made “The Comic,” Dick Van Dyke was experiencing a little déjà vu.
“I was just sitting here thinking this is about an old, old comedian trying to relive his glory days by showing his old movies,” Van Dyke said with a laugh before an appreciative crowd at the New Beverly Cinema. Joined by the film’s director Carl Reiner and his co-star Michele Lee, Van Dyke regaled the audience with stories about the making of the pitch black comedy about the rise and fall of fictional silent star Billy Bright in a film unfortunately has itself has stayed silent for far too long, last released on VHS in 1986 and other than the occasional appearance on TCM has remained securely in the vault.
As a result, the print shown was pristine, though the same can’t be said for the reputation of the screen legends Bright was inspired by. If “The Comic” was intended to be a tribute to the comedians Van Dyke and Reiner grew up in admiration of, the two had an odd way of showing it, painting the contemporary of Laurel & Hardy and Chaplin as an impetuous and pathologically self-centered second-rate star who co-opts his own wedding for a film shoot and has a habit of destroying things he believes to be his property – say, a house or a son – only to discover they aren’t.
“We researched and found out that every major silent movie comedian had two things in common: much married drunkards,” Reiner recalled. “This film is to me very unusual in that it’s a story of a shit, a rotten person, an egocentric, which is exactly what this man [Dick Van Dyke] isn’t. And we asked him to play this and he found the evil within himself.”
Van Dyke surprised many when he said they were never bothered on the set and had done most of his research well before he was offered the part, not just because he had watched plenty of silent comedies growing up, but took it upon himself to cold call his idols during the 1960s.
“I found Buster Keaton in a phone book like I found Stan [Laurel],” Van Dyke said, launching into a surreal experience with Keaton. “I found him out in Woodland Hills and [Keaton] had a little electric train that ran along that fence there and he’d make you the hot dog and send them out there. He had a big St. Bernard named Elmer and we’re sitting in the kitchen having coffee and Elmer walked in the screen door and went meow. And he pulled down his jaw and he had a baby kitten. He found it and he was keeping it!” (Reiner added the kicker for him when Van Dyke first relayed the story was that “Buster Keaton didn’t know where the meow was from and he had that dead face,” making Keaton’s trademark facial expression.)
“The Comic” should’ve suffered the same fate as the poor kitten since Reiner thought the original script was “the worst script I’ve ever read.” It was offered to him twice before “The Andy Griffith Show” producer Aaron Ruben proposed they throw out the script and make the film they wanted to make. Van Dyke said this wasn’t limited to the original script, as they would wake up every day and begin rewriting — “if there was something that was funny, we’d put it in,” he remembered — and Reiner made sure to keep the film on schedule, shooting all of the many of the highly credible fake films from Bright’s career in a single day.
“We did 12 silent movies in about two hours,” said Reiner. “We went on the backlot of the studio and whatever was on the lot from the last picture, a garbage can…I said, ‘Dick, okay, you’re walking against the wind and [the trash flew in his face] and he did.’”
What proved considerably more difficult, according to Reiner, was getting Mickey Rooney, who plays Bright’s frequent comic foil Martin “Cockeye” Van Buren, to cross his eyes. While Reiner referred to Rooney as “maybe the single greatest acting talent all-around,” he was greatly dismayed to discover on the set that the one thing the famed singer/dancer/actor couldn’t do was follow the director’s instructions to “put the finger on the tip of your nose and look at your finger with both eyes” to the point where they had to create a painful prosthetic for him to wear.
“We had to have a doctor on the set because when we put the eye in, he teared up and got very red,” said Reiner, grimly chuckling when he remembered he would say before the scenes Rooney was in, “Action! Put the eye in! Next!”
Van Dyke also suffered through one particular scene where he prepares himself a softboiled egg while watching one of his old films and was so committed that he accidentally chewed on the shell, which Reiner only noticed when his star did a spit take after it was over.
“I said, ‘Dick, why didn’t you stop?’ It only costs a few dollars for film,” said Reiner, who put the scene in since the softboiled egg was part of his father’s daily routine. “But he said, ‘no, it was going well.’ He had half an eggshell in his eye. That’s dedication.”
Such dedication was also evident amongst Courtney Joyner and Douglas Dunning, the organizers of the evening with Reiner, Van Dyke and Lee, who made it clear they hoped the screening would lead to bigger things for the film, which would be well-deserved for the deliciously nasty piece of work that when coupled with Reiner’s “Where’s Poppa” and Van Dyke’s subversive turn in Norman Lear’s sole directorial effort, the biting cigarette satire “Cold Turkey,” demonstrate the “Dick Van Dyke Show” alum weren’t afraid to push the envelope.
While a manufactured-on-demand release from Sony Pictures Choice Collection seems like a logical destination for some type of release, Joyner openly campaigned for a Blu-ray when Van Dyke had mentioned a cache of footage of Bright’s silent films that had been lost and Reiner’s thanks to the organizers doubled as a plea to show it again.
“It’s one of the little gems that fell under the rug and nobody found it,” Reiner said. “You found it and I hope it gets out there to another theater some day.”