Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon—which has just received a long-overdue DVD release featuring both its color theatrical version and a far superior black-and-white “director’s cut”—begins with Ryan O’Neal’s milquetoast lawyer intentionally losing a case, then racing out of the courtroom one step ahead of his enraged, corpulent client in a slapstick chase so goofy and over-the-top that it seems inevitable that the director will pull back to expose the shenanigans as a film within a film. Bogdanovich never does. Even more astonishingly, the opening sequences were inspired by the real-life exploits of legendary director Leo McCarey. With Nickelodeon, Bogdanovich finally achieved his dream of erasing the thin line between reel and real life, and he did it in a movie about people making movies, meticulously styled like a silent movie from the era it depicts.
O’Neal stars as a bumbling barrister who literally stumbles into a job first writing, then directing silent movies for an unruly pirate ship of an upstart film company run by brash mini-mogul Brian Keith. O’Neal soon finds his perfect leading man in Burt Reynolds, a charismatic hayseed whose ascent to movie stardom is every bit as half-assed and random as O’Neal’s path to the director’s chair. But their personal and professional bonds are threatened by O’Neal’s lingering infatuation with Reynolds’ wife, played by model-turned-actress Jane Hitchcock.
Nickelodeon gleefully inhabits the Wild West era of film, a lawless time when pretty much everyone was an enthusiastic amateur making up the rules as they went along. Bogdanovich’s affection for film’s embryonic beginnings informs every frame, from the machine-gun crackle of snappy banter smartly executed to meticulously choreographed pratfalls and comic fights to silent-movie-style intertitles. Nickelodeon begins to sag in its third act, as the pace slows and O’Neal and Reynolds’ dull romantic rivalry dominates the proceedings. But it recovers spectacularly during a movie-mad climax featuring the première of Birth Of A Nation and a stunning, succinct monologue from Keith about the transformative power of cinema.
Key features: The theatrical and director’s-cut version, plus a Bogdanovich commentary that discusses the many scenes inspired by the real-life travails of directors like McCarey, Allan Dwan, and Raoul Walsh. There’s also a director’s cut of Bogdanovich’s most widely admired film, The Last Picture Show.