“Don’t you know that slapstick is DEAD?!” hollers movie-studio honcho Sid Caesar to washed-up director Mel Brooks near the beginning of Silent Movie (as Brooks is pitching the idea of a silent movie to Caesar). He promptly topples backward into his office chair, which flips him onto his back and inexplicably rockets him across the room, colliding with the wall.
At ages four and two, my kids were already movie buffs, both able to devote their attention to a full-length movie and speak intelligently about the stories and the characters. Jonah, age four, exhibited enormous sensitivity, mirroring the emotions of the characters on the screen — joy, sorrow, fear, excitement. Archer, age two, hadn’t reached that milestone. He watched and enjoyed movies without becoming emotionally involved.
One day I put on Silent Movie and read the title cards aloud for them (making a few judicious edits along the way). I could tell the boys were enjoying it, but Archer was impassive as ever…
…until the elevator scene. Mel Brooks and Dom Deluise board an elevator at the hospital to visit Sid Caesar, but their friend Marty Feldman — distracted by a toy airplane — misses it. There are six elevators, so he waits for the next one. When it opens, he is prevented from entering by an improbable crush of exiting passengers. When the next elevator comes, the doors close almost immediately and he collides with them. The same happens with the next elevator, and the next. Soon he is ricocheting between the elevator doors like a pinball.
Archer started laughing and laughing. Jonah had been only mildly amused but Archer’s infectious giggle got him going, and then me too. Helpless with mirth, we missed much of the next minute or two of the movie.
Archer’s three and a half now and plenty else has made him laugh or worry or cheer in the movies he’s watched. But Silent Movie was the first one to get a genuine reaction out of him. For him, slapstick definitely wasn’t dead.