The silent-screen clown who canít "save it for the cameras," his life from the funeral backwards, a fond and astringent portrait. Carl Reinerís key model is none other than Welles, the comicís wake is lifted from Ikiru and the pallbearer gets a pie in the eye as "his final joke on earth." Five decades earlier, the vaudevillian (Dick Van Dyke) had come to Hollywood equipped with Keatonís agility and Langdonís trilby, ready to conquer the screen. Sennett is the presiding style, Chaplin is his hobgoblin, "I could be twice as big as him if I were half his height." (His own pathos-laden City Lights is called Forget Me Not.) Success, marriage to one of the Bathing Beauties (Michele Lee), alcoholism, philandering, family neglect. And then, poof, heís a wax figure with blanched teeth dutifully doing old pratfalls on TV for Steve Allen. Custard mixes with arsenic in a bright meditation on slapstick, with Reinerís and Van Dykeís affection for vintage comedy darkened by their scorn for show-biz. A string of two-reeler recreations (everything from Cockadoodle Dumbbells to Love, Honor and Oh Boy!) prefigures the pastiche virtuoso of Dead Man Donít Wear Plaid, and thereís genuine burlesque flavor in Mickey Rooneyís soulful rendition of a Ben Turpin trouper (complete with milky-white eye dutifully cocked) and in the seasoned gravel in Pert Keltonís voice. On the sour side thereís the industryís amnesia toward its pioneers, plus a vision of modern times represented by gum-chewing gold-diggers and the comicís swishy progeny. "I donít think you know whatís funny anymore," Reiner as the exasperated agent tells the protagonist. His act of cinematic remembrance is also one of melancholy embalming; as Van Dykeís artificially aged jester sinks in his armchair watching one of his antiques, Beckettís words on Van Velde spring to mind: "No, no, allow me to expire." With Cornel Wilde and Nina Wayne.
--- Fernando F. Croce