By Scott Ross
Like his friend and sometime mentor Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich was fascinated by the very early days of American moviemaking and longed to make a picture about them, especially after interviewing Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh, both of whom were there from the beginning. Many of their anecdotes (and those of Leo McCarey, among others) inform the action of Nickelodeon. And while it’s a genial, entertaining movie it’s also overlong and largely inconsequential. I suspect part of the problem was its inception. Bogdanovich had a script on the subject, and so did W.D. Richter. Figuring there couldn’t be two such movies made at the same time, Bogdanovich decided the best option was to combine them, and one feels the pieces don’t quite fit. Nickelodeon aspires to what used (in those glorious days before the hideous portmanteau neologism “dramedy” was loosed upon a credulous world) to be called the “comedy-drama.” But the best of that breed, such as Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s The Apartment, blend the comic and the dramatic seemlessly, whereas the tone of this movie fluctuates wildly between frantic action, broad slapstick humor, melodrama and the introspectively bittersweet. There’s a scene, for example, in which the only thing that separates the usually reliable Hamilton Camp as a studio producer here from Harold Gould’s rabid head of Engulf & Devour in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie is that Camp doesn’t have foam spraying from his mouth.
I suspect there is a great movie to be made about the war between independent picture-making organizations and the violent Patent Company thugs Thomas Edison employed to maintain his monopoly on moving pictures — the conflict is why the burgeoning industry eventually settled in California — but Nickelodeon isn’t it. For one thing, it gets sidetracked by the romantic triangle at its center between the screenwriter and nascent director Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal), the reluctant cowboy star “Buck” Greenway (Burt Reynolds) and their nearsighted inamorata Kathleen Cooke, played with some sweetness but little heft by Jane Hitchcock. The set-up might have achieved greater weight had Bogdanovich been given his head on the casting; his original choices for those roles were John Ritter, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. He was able to use Ritter in a good part in the picture, as Harrigan’s cameraman (and Stella Stevens’ cast-off lover) but one can easily imagine how inspired he would have been in the starring role, just as Bridges would have lent Buck both a melancholy and a genuine naïveté Reynolds, who is otherwise fine, can’t quite manage, and Shepherd would almost certainly have given Kathleen (in the director’s phrase) an erotic “threat” that doesn’t exist in Hitchcock’s pleasant but unexceptional performance. He also wanted Welles for the role of the expansive “blanket” producer eventually played, with typical richness, by Brian Keith, and there are moments when you can just hear Welles barking out the character’s hilarious non-sequiturs and unflappable pronouncements (“We’ll have to leave now. This room is on fire.”)
Bogdanovich crams so many references to silent comedies, notably those of Keaton and Lloyd — and even, in Hawksian fashion, thefts from his own pictures, as in the mis-matched suitcases that recall the central plot device of What’s Up, Doc? — into Nickelodeon that he overbalances it. The first quarter in particular is stuffed with frenetic incident to such an extent its narrative is difficult to follow until it settles into the long stretch of Harrigan learning his new trade with renegade mogul Keith’s surreptitious movie company in Cucamonga (actually filmed in Modesto). There’s a nice directorial touch, however, in the use of the old “iris out” effect, which Kovács, like the cinema photographers of yore, achieved in-camera, allowing Nickelodeon to retain its sharp imagery by not subjecting the film to optical printing. (That process, which reproduces the original film, each succeeding generation losing sharpness and clarity, is why foreign films with subtitles — at least in the pre-digital age — always looked grainy, which the uninitiated assumed meant those filmmakers were somehow more courageous and innovative than our domestic breed… although why anyone would think graininess an advantage is beyond me.) And there is much period detail Richter and Bogdanovich get absolutely right, from the scene of O’Neal editing his film by cutting the negative and the way his people are called “movies” (the early parlance for “moving picture people”) by citizens they meet on an L.A. street to the wonderful long dolly shot in which the actor moves from one adjacent silent movie shooting-stage to another to another until he’s passed through five of them in a space not much longer than that encompassed by a suburban back yard.
The director, who had famously shot The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon in black-and-white, lost his battle on the topic with Columbia Pictures for Nickelodeon. Working with his cinematographer, the great László Kovács, Bogdanovich lit the picture for monochrome, always hoping he might one day be able to convert it from color. On the “Director’s Cut” DVD, which pairs it with The Last Picture Show, he did just that, also adding back in about five minutes of footage he’d been forced to trim in 1976. The additional material, particularly that involving the complicated sexual situation with Stevens’ character, is not without its uses. But despite my general indifference to color film, I’m not convinced that Nickelodeon was harmed by what was imposed upon it, nor that the black-and-white version in this case is appreciably better… especially when one is confronted in the theatrical version (also on the 2-disc set) with a pair of dawn skies shot by Kovács, one purple and one streaked with red, and both of which are breathtaking.
I also take issue with the way Bogdanovich puts a lovely sentiment once spoken to him by James Stewart into Brian Keith’s mouth at the climax. When Stewart said of movies that, “if you’re good… you’re giving people little, tiny pieces of time that they never forget,” he did so in the context of an anecdote about a man who’d remembered something the actor had done in a picture years earlier, and which had stayed with him. In the world of 1915, by contrast, there hadn’t yet been that kind of time-lapse; the sentiment feels out of place, and rings (as it most certainly didn’t do in Stewart’s case) strangely hollow. Much better is the way at the end of the movie Harrigan’s troupe, depressed or disgusted for differing reasons after attending the Hollywood premiere of what will later be titled The Birth of a Nation, sees a war scene being shot in a lighted greenhouse and is transfixed, all its preoccupations dissipated by the sight. “Look,” O’Neal observes with a kind of reverence. “They’re making a movie!”
Nothing else in Niceklodeon quite conveys the obsessive love of motion pictures contained in that brief, all-but-whispered phrase.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross