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Quick! Name three other silent film comedians other than Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton? If you said Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle or Charley Chase - you're in! If you said: "I dunno...," go read a book on silent comedians. I would also have taken James Finlayson, Ben Taupin, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (not as a pair but as single comedians).

Now, name a very good documentary about the birth of film. How about the birth of comedy? How about just a good documentary about the early days of film? That's what I thought. It's difficult to do. And thus my number 2 film: Nickelodeon.

A nickel for anyone who can tell me what a Nickelodeon is (and it's not a television network devoted to showing kiddie shows and gawdawful cartoons). For the record a Nickelodeon was a small room or a tent, set up for people to come watch films for, you guessed it, a nickel! The films shown would run about one reel (10 to 20 minutes) and were usually accompanied by a person playing a piano or an organ.

But what, you may ask, is "Nickelodeon - The Movie"? It is what it is and that is: A 1976 comedy about the birth of film. Back in the 1910's and 1920's there were two warring companies trying to take over the film industry. Film started in New York (okay, New Jersey) but then quickly moved to California where you had 16 hours of sunlight and nice weather to boot. The problem, though, was who had rights to what. Who owned what? Who owned the cameras, who owned the film? And a war started. It even got so bad that films often would have a "trademark" in the shot so they could PROVE that it belonged to them and not the other company that was trying to copy them. And, yes, this is all true.

"Nickelodeon" is about a man, played by Ryan O'Neal, who falls into the movie making business. On the lam for screwing up as an attorney, he gets sent West to write a movie with a team already in place (John Ritter, Tatum O'Neal and others).

Burt Reynolds is hired by a rival company to go out there and disrupt the shoot by, literally, killing the people - or the camera.

When Burt shows up, the group realizes he would be great for the part of the lead and quickly hire him. Caught up in the wonderment of movie making, he falls into the group and they begin making a wonderful love story.

Unbeknownst to the group, the reels they have been sending back have been re-edited into one-reel gag films good for a nickel and a laugh. Not the melodramatic love stories they thought they were creating.

When they return to Los Angeles they quickly realize two things: One, their classics have been edited to pieces and, two, they're big stars.

Suddenly they're put into the grinder of silent film comedies and dramas and are split up into different productions.

They soon learn that they had something special in their group, their family, when they were out in the desert making movies.

The film ends with them going to see the movie "The Klansman" (the original title for "The Birth of a Nation") and see that they were on the right track all along - and realizing that film can be so much more than 15 minute comedies, much more. It can move hearts and minds.

Why do I love this film? Isn't it obvious? It's about FILM! But not like some stale documentary or some half-assed "behind the scenes" movie about making films (though I liked "Hooper" and "The Stuntman"). This film is an honest look at how film used to be made and distributed before HOLLYWOOD took over. Peter Bogdanovich, who directed, is a noted film historian and scholar - besides a great director and his love for this era of film shows in every frame.

Granted, when you talk about silent films, most people glaze over and think of Chaplin or Keaton or Gish or DeMille or Barrymore or Fairbanks. It's a bygone era. But when you dismiss the history, you dismiss the present and this film praised the history (warts and all) and paid homage to what is now at the same time.

If you're a movie fan at all, you should see this film.

Available? Good luck. It has not been released on VHS or DVD. I have no idea why. Best bet is to find a copy that someone made off of Showtime or HBO.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich (director of "Paper Moon", "Mask", "The Last Picture Show" and many others).

Starring: Ryan O'Neal, Burt Reynolds, Tatum O'Neal, Brian Keith, John Ritter and Stella Stevens.

Time: 121 minutes

Released: 1976


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