Does the Future of Movie Comedy Include Using Technology to Allow Silent Film Comedians to Co-Star with Contemporary Actors?

“The Artist” may have stimulated some interest in the silent film legends of the past. If nothing else, the choice of misguided Oscar voters did introduce to audiences the realization that movie history goes back beyond when Eddie Murphy was funny. The next step for Hollywood studio executives is to figure out a way to turn the “The Artist” into a commodity that takes the form of a bovine creature from which money pours through its teats rather than milk. 

At this point, another winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture enters into the discourse. “Forrest Gump” followed up on the precedent set a decade earlier by Woody Allen’s masterpiece “Zelig” in seamlessly pairing contemporary actors with figures from the past. Almost twenty years have passed since Forrest interacted with LBJ and JFK and surely the technology has improved since then. The next logical step in taking advantage of the spike in interest for silent film stars is obvious. 

Comedy legends like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, for some, Charlie Chaplin are just as capable of producing laughter today as they were nearly a century ago. You can’t get those raised in the Platonic cave in which the shadows seem to indicate that what Jimmy Kimmel does is considered funny to sit down and watch the silent movies of Keaton and Lloyd without some serious straps. But what about a new movie starring Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton or Thelma Todd or Zasu Pitts in which they interact with Vince Vaughn or Mos Def or Jack Black or Amy Adams? 

The computer technology is clearly there to pull this off. It’s been done to an extent in the world of advertising already. Now, as far as I’m concerned, taking classic movie star footage out of context in order to insert it into a commercial to sell products is nothing less than an abomination, regardless of the product in question. But taking existing footage of silent film comedians and integrating them into a contemporary story that allows sophisticated interaction between the past and present and the dead and alive hardly seems provocative. 

“Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” utilized this conceit to the best of its ability considering the limitations of technology at the time. While that Steve Martin homage to the films of the 1940s and 1950s is a wonderful movie, the restrictions placed on those scenes in which Martin interacted with Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart would seem ridiculously outdated in comparison to what is possible today. Just like “Jurassic Park” changed the landscape of special effects by allowing humans and dinosaurs to share the same space, if “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” were made today, you could actually have Steve Martin walk behind Burt Lancaster or really seem to kiss Bette Davis. 

Woody Allen’s “Zelig” was the real breakthrough film here and though almost every critic missed its brilliant philosophical foundation to focus on the breathtaking technological innovations, at least everyone seemed to realize how authentically revolutionary the cinematic aspects of this film really were. Well, everyone but Oscar voters, of course. You can’t really be too hard on Oscar voters giving Best Cinematography to an Ingmar Bergman film, but come on! 

The seamlessness with which Woody’s Zelig character interacts with famous historical characters is as impressive now as it was in 1983. Imagine what could be done today. And imagine the possibilities of a movie comedy with Jane Lynch married to Buster Keaton or Ben Stiller playing Harold Lloyd’s brother.