Many years ago a friend told me about a seldom-seen movie called “The Comic,” starring Dick Van Dyke. While I was familiar with the actor’s work in family musicals like “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” I had never seen or head of this film.
Some years later I spotted the movie playing on a cable station in the afternoon and taped it, the only time I ever saw the film running on TV.
Why Van Dyke and director/co-writer Carl Reiner didn’t receive award nominations for this hidden gem is a mystery. Despite the title, “Comic” is a dark comedy about the rise and fall of a man who was both a comic genius and a jerk.
The film opens at the sparsely attended funeral of Billy Bright (played by Van Dyke), a once-great silent film comic. Billy provides an ongoing narration throughout the film as he reflects on his life and blames others for his own shortcomings.
To say too much about the film would spoil it. Billy leaves vaudeville to break into silent movies. He meets a young actress named Mary (Michelle Lee), then steals her from her boyfriend, marries her, and churns out hit films with her as his leading lady.
But the trouble begins on their wedding day when Billy insists on skipping the honeymoon to shoot a film (“c’mon, honey, the guests are all here and we’re losing the light”), ignoring Mary’s protests. Billy’s philandering causes his wife to take their son and leave him, which sends the comic into a tailspin.
Unable or unwilling to pull himself together, Billy wallows in a sea of booze and cheap floozies. He unwittingly ends his career when he refuses to adapt to the new world of sound pictures (“comics don’t talk, they act”). Billy spends his sunset years attempting to recapture his glory years, begging anyone to hire him. The star who once lived in a grand Hollywood palace is now a broken old man surviving in a run down, one-bedroom apartment.
Mickey Rooney co-stars as Cockeye, a cross-eyed clown who is not only Billy’s comic sidekick but also his best (and only) friend off screen. Despite Cockeye’s physical quirk, he prefers to “see” the good part of Billy’s nature even during the comic’s temper tantrums and drinking bouts.
As the two comics go older (both Van Dyke and Rooeny are great as their characters “age”), Cockeye bemoans the lack of acting roles; modern producers say making fun of crossed eyes is “offensive.” Cockeye says, “When people stopped laughing at these (eyes), they started fighting.”
Van Dyke also plays the comic’s only son, Billy Jr., grown up. Billy Sr. is not happy with how his son turned out. Would the son have been a different man if his father had been by his side growing up?
At the end Billy watches one of his films at home on a small black-and-white TV set. As the movie runs his face is a mask of regret, anger and sadness. Anyone who can view this final scene without crying lacks a pulse.
What can we learn from this movie? It’s too easy and safe to say the film is only about the troubles of the rich and famous. The movie is about anyone who can’t identify and change their faults. It’s about making the necessary changes to live a good and decent life. It’s about moving on from past failures into a better tomorrow.
How fitting that the movie begins with a funeral, because the film is about how Billy “killed” his career, his friendships and his chance at having a good family. “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”(Matthew 16:26).
Interesting trivia: The film has a fantastic montage of clips from Billy’s films including one in which he plays a waiter chasing an elusive cherry around a dinner table. The scene is no doubt an homage to a similar routine done by Stan Laurel in the silent short “From Soup to Nuts.” It’s no secret that Laurel was a major comic influence on Van Dyke.
The church exterior seen in the opening shots is mostly likely St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale, a church that has often opened its doors to filmmakers. The interior shots, however, were made on a soundstage, as the St. Mark’s sanctuary looks quite different.
Has anyone seen this film? What were your reactions to it?