Sunday, September 23, 2012


Mickey Rooney
& Dick Van Dyke
"Same old Billy Bright."

-- Billy Bright, narrating The Comic from his funeral casket

When I posted my blog on the movie posters of Dick Van Dyke, I included several versions of the poster for his 1969 film The Comic... 
Now I'd like to expand on that particular film.

"The Comic" was a long planned dream-project for Dick Van Dyke and writer/director/comedian/actor and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" creator, Carl Reiner (along with the film's co-writer Aaron Ruben). It's a dark and cynical fictional account of a famous yet troubled, (a self-destructive, womanizing, alcoholic), silent screen comedian named Billy Bright. Bright was loosely based on Buster Keaton, with parallels to Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel (Van Dyke's friend and idol), Harry Langdon, and Lloyd Hamilton, and possibly channeling some other difficult comedians both Carl Reiner & Dick Van Dyke might have at one time or another encountered.
The film premiered in 1969 to little notice and several mixed to negative reviews. It soon wound up playing on a second bill with "The Desperados", starring Vince Edwards and Jack Palance (which is when, at age 10, I first saw and loved The Comic. In fact, I returned to see it another five times that week. And... The Desperados wasn't bad!) but over the years it's become a cult favorite. 
It's flawed for sure, much of the tone and dialog between Dick Van Dyke and his co-star Michelle Lee sounds like re-scripted Rob and Laura Pertie banter (Michelle Lee's character is even named "Mary" and she even looks like Mary Tyler Moore. I've wondered if the part was first offered to MTM?). The reviewer in The New York Times wrote that "Dick Van Dyke and Michelle Lee seemed like Rob & Laura Petrie gone sour".
Dick Van Dyke & Michelle Lee
Another of the film's drawbacks (and a pet peeve of mine), is that the actors appear in what is supposed to be the mid to late twenties, yet they sport late sixties hair styles and sideburns. (I have a "sideburn theory": By the late sixties, in an effort to  remain hip and with-it, the majority of adult male Hollywood actors sported sideburns. Directors simply didn't have the nerve to ask them to suddenly shave them off, even for a twenties period film).

Billy Bright tests a Chaplin mustache 
Billy Bright's erratic, self destructive behavior is confusing and never fully explained, and the film's color can be overlit, harsh and garish. Aside from the costumes and automobiles, you never really get a sense of the film taking place back in the twenties (unlike say, "The Artist" which successfully takes you back to that same Hollywood era). Also, the lead actors in their aged makeup, especially Cornel Wilde and Michelle Lee are unconvincing (their hair is basically whitened), only Mickey Rooney and Dick Van Dyke in his final, post- heart attack scenes seem truly old.
The film's writer & director Carl Reiner also appeared
in The Comic playing Billy Bright's nasty agent Al Schilling
Yet in spite of those drawbacks, the film is a classic. "The Comic" was Carl Reiner's second film as director after "Enter Laughing", two years before, which was based on his hit play. Without the restrictions of network TV, he was clearly looking for darker, edgier material, and "The Comic" fit that bill. His next film (in his original trilogy), "Where's Poppa?" with George Segal and Ruth Gordon, would be his darkest comedy yet. 

"The Comic" has more than a few truly memorable and even haunting sequences. The opening credits feature nothing but blaring music and a vintage Billy Bright tin toy, wound up yet constantly tumbling over, an analogy to Bright's troubled life.  Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner lovingly recreated many inspired and truly funny vintage silent screen comedy scenes (in B&W).

 And there's a very funny sequence with an aged Billy Bright attempting a  comeback (ala Buster Keaton), on the late sixties Steve Allen show surrounded by several clueless guests, screening a hilarious Billy Bright TV commercial for "Whitey White" laundry detergent (with a cameo by Isabel Sanford). 

TCM on The Comic:

There is also a beautifully played and subtle performance by Mickey Rooney as Billy Bright's long suffering movie comedy co-star and (for some unexplained reason), only loyal friend "Cockeye". Then there's Dick Van Dyke himself, Oscar-worthy as Billy Bright, particularly in the sad final scenes as an old, forgotten man, slowly roaming down Hollywood Blvd with Cockeye, eyes covered in their feeble game of attempting to identify the Hollywood walk of fame stars. Finally, Billy alone, comb-over bald, unloved and forgotten, sitting in his tiny Hollywood apartment,  mouth agape, blankly staring at one of his old movies ("Forget Me Nots") on the late show while eating and dribbling a soft boiled egg down his chin, wondering what went wrong. Harrowing and still funny stuff. Despite it's flaws, "The Comic" is Carl Reiner's finest and finally most poignant film.
Mickey Rooney as Cockeye presents Billy Bright
(recovering from a stroke) with a Billy Bright tin toy
Several film clips from The Comic:

Dick Van Dyke was in his mid-forties when he made The Comic and he looks a bit old as the young and eager Billy Bright, arriving in Hollywood after his success as a Vaudeville comedian, but his sad, drawn face works perfectly in the later scenes of Billy Bright in decline. Van Dyke, who also struggled with alcohol problems, was the perfect choice for Billy Bright. He had appeared in several turkeys leading up to The Comic ("Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was his only late-sixties hit), and sadly, The Comic would also flop at the box office. He'd star in just one more film (the very funny "Cold Turkey") before returning to television. Yet in this film he achieved something he had never actually pulled off before. Van Dyke, always likable, in "The Comic", he made himself almost completely unlikable. He's simply note-perfect in this tailor made role and It's by far my favorite performance of his. 

Read about the 2011 "The Comic" reunion with Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and Michelle Lee:
The original one-sheet poster for The Comic. The working title for the film was
Billy Bright,
but the studio chose the inevitable bland, nondescript title "The Comic" and created this equally bland poster
Dick Van Dyke as Billy Bright poses as a mannequin in one of the films early
 silent comedy film recreations (notice the sideburns)
Carl Reiner as Billy Bright's agent discuses Billy's faltering career
with Van Dyke
Another early silent comedy bit
49 year old Mickey Rooney played Billy's best friend, Martin "Cockeye"
 Van Buren.
This is Rooney as the younger (bewigged) Cockeye
Filming at Paradise Cove in Malibu. Mickey Rooney, Michelle Lee and Dick Van Dyke.
 The girl in the bikini doesn't appear in the film.
Billy Bright, drunk and passed out, with drinking partner Ginger
(Barbara Heller)
Billy Flirting with Sybil (Nina Wayne) and admiring a statue of her
An ad for the film from a Canadian newspaper
Billy Bright and Mary Gibson first meet 
                                 Various movie Lobby Cards for The Comic...

Cockeye driving the just- married couple
Billy once again attempting to make up with Mary
After their divorce, Billy brings a gift for their son who he's never met
Cornel Wilde as film director Frank Powers discovers Billy in bed with his girlfriend
Mary Gibson until She explains to him that they're "just married"
Billy pushes a cream puff into his agent Al's face explaining "That's funny"
Mary, Cockeye and Billy attend a film premiere 
An older Billy Bright (with combover) appears on the Steve Allen show.
Notice the sideburns
The following rare behind the scenes photos, which include
Carl Reiner directing the cast and posed stills of Mickey Rooney and
cast member Pert Kelton, were taken by a Columbia studio photographer
on the set of The Comic...

The Comic was released on video cassette
with yet another bland cover for the VHS box
in 1993, Entertainment Weekly reviewed the videos of both The Comic, and the newly released Billy Crystal comedian bio "Mr. Saturday Night", and asked me to supply the illustration. I posed both washed-up comedians as guests together on the late-night Joe Franklin show in 1968
One of Dick Van Dyke's Billy Bright costumes recently went up for auction


  1. Nice work Drew. "The Comic" was always a favorite of mine, on those rare occasions it was shown on broadcast TV. Van Dyke's recent autobiography ("My Lucky Life...") was quite readable but I was disappointed he only devoted a few paragraphs to "The Comic." Van Dyke said they created a lot more of the faux-vintage footage than they needed for the finished film. Reiner and Van Dyke wanted to do something with the extra footage but apparently it disappeared.

  2. I loved this film as a kid. It was my first real introduction to silent comedy (other than the Youngson compilations).

    As to its production design, there's not one period movie from the 60s that even tries to look like anything but the 60s. ("The Cincinnati Kid" is particularly egregious in this regard.) If they're not that, they're overlit -- or both.

    To this day, I still drop the reference "You got good color," but no one gets it.

  3. From Bob Greenberg...

    These wonderful Color Pics reveal many insights into THE COMIC as well as what's missing like an obvious Billy Bright Western centered around the hangman's noose. This COMIC "Short" as well as many others are LOST like many of the authentic Shorts that this Film celebrates. Talk about IRONY. Today, both Reiner & Van Dyke are at a loss as to what happened to all those shorts that didn't make the final cut... Perhaps someone reading this blog will have a clue? Truly, these "Comedies" are a highlight of this Film and I for one would love to see them all... I got to see THE COMIC for the first time First-Run in Brooklyn when I was a kid. The Papers gave it a big splash in ads and I clipped out everything that I could find at the time. A wonderful Film, even with it's drawbacks, and probably the best showcase for all of DVD's talents with the exception of his singing and dancing. That's okay since we've got MARY POPPINS for that.

  4. Great work, as usual. I just have dim memories of seeing "The Comic" and only once. Thanks for seeing it five times (!) so that you could do this excellent job of reporting on it. Those behind-the-scenes shots are priceless.

  5. One minor correction, I believe that pier is at Paradise Cove, Malibu not Santa Monica.

  6. Ah, I had actually wondered about that! Thanks, correction made!

  7. Wow! Thanks for this -- an embarrassment of riches on The COMIC. If this post doesn't get this underrated classic finally released on DVD, nothing will.

    Every decade or so, some producer announces a similar film about the real story (as opposed to the sensationalized Hearst lie) of the Arbuckle scandal -- but the projected stars keep dying, along with the project. Being considered for the role of Arbuckle (or an Arbuckle-type), has become the kiss of death, (although it apparently didn't kill James Coco). Same with playing the fictional Ignatius Reilly for CONFEDERACY Of DUNCES. (At least that's the way I heered it. It could just be a Hollywood urban legend.)

    By the way, TCM has been broadcasting digitally-restored Mack Sennett KEYSTONE comedies all month long, and it's been a revelation. This is the first time I've ever had the opportunity to view these films unbutchered, run at the correct speed and with excellent, period-appropriate music scores. I've seen every one so far and they're a thousand times better than I expected. It's easy to see why Sennett influenced everybody who was anybody in movie comedy for so many decades, including animators and cartoonists. (There are way too many highlights to list here, but suffice it to say you haven't lived 'til you've seen Vernon Dent as the manic-depressive "goth" Professor McGlumm in HIS MARRIAGE WOW!)

  8. Thanks Mike. Your comments are always fantastic.

  9. Terrific post! One of my all time favorites! (and, yeah, COLD TURKEY wasn't so bad either!)

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.