The Billy Bright Film Festival

Last night, the Beverly Cinema here in L.A. had a one-time-only screening of the 1968 movie, The Comic, directed by Carl Reiner and starring Dick Van Dyke and Michele Lee, with Mr. Reiner in a supporting role. All three of them were in attendance before a sell-out crowd.

What follows here are two reviews — one of the movie itself and one of the way in which the theater handled the evening and treated its distinguished guests and their work.

The Movie: I really like this movie, especially the first half. The script by Aaron Ruben and Mr. Reiner tells the story of Billy Bright, a silent comedian whose career embraces many of the tragic elements of comedy stars of his era…but maybe not. There are moments that remind one of events in the lives of Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Harry Langdon and some others but it's really a story not about Hollywood but of a man who screws his life up by being almost criminally self-obsessed. The gent last night who interviewed the stars said it was a stark, unforgiving portrait of the movie business…and I don't see it that way. I think it's a stark, unforgiving portrait of this a-hole that Dick Van Dyke played…and played so well.

The parts of it about the silent film biz are very funny and very entertaining…and maybe that's why I like the first half — in which Billy is making movies — more than I like the second half, in which his marriage and career collapse and he pretty much ousts himself from the movie business. And I think but am not absolutely sure I like this about the film: It is not a story about a man who is rotten and uncaring about others but we come to understand his basic humanity and to see the nice guy underneath that crusty exterior. It's the story of a man who is rotten and uncaring and where that takes him. Period.

Mr. Van Dyke is awfully good in it and the scenes we see of Billy Bright's silent comedies are wonderful. He's hilarious in them…hilarious the way Keaton and Laurel and Hardy and the best of their generation were hilarious. The man not only moves funny, he poses funny when he's not moving. Michele Lee is utterly charming as his leading lady and wife. She has such expressive eyes that she instantly makes you understand the inner feelings of a woman trapped with that horrible, unfaithful man as her spouse. And Mickey Rooney deserves special mention for his role as Cockeye, a character who played important supporting roles in Billy Bright's movies and an even more important one in Billy Bright's life. So I enjoyed all of that. Which brings us to the part of the evening I didn't enjoy…

The interviewer, Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner and Michele Lee
Photo by Jeanine Kasun

The Theater: I know some people hail the Beverly Cinema for preserving the bygone days of moviegoing by showing old, sometimes overlooked films and only running 35mm prints, no digital. Hailing the overlooked is commendable. Insisting on 35mm sounds better than it plays, in part because there are not a lot of pristine, high-quality 35mm prints around of neglected movies. Also, the curtainless screen at the Beverly Cinema is not that large. When we talk of seeing movies on "the big screen," this is not what we have in mind. A friend of mine goes there often in spite of the projection and the general grubbiness of the place. He likes seeing movies with an enthusiastic audience and that, they usually have. But as he says (and I agree), a digitally-restored copy projected via digital means might serve many of these films better than the 35mm copies that are available.

But that's not my big complaint. I didn't see that Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and Michele Lee (giants, all) were treated very well.

When people of that stature show up for free, they do the theater an enormous favor. The screening was sold-out with a waitlist and of course, the prestige of having them there enhances the standing and reputation of the business. It appeared someone spent all of about thirty seconds figuring out how to welcome their guests, where to seat them, how to make them feel welcome and comfortable, etc. There was no crowd control so they were mobbed, mostly by autograph seekers.

I understand the desire of fans to get something signed by a celebrity they admire but there is a pushiness about some that always makes me cringe, especially when they bring piles of photos, thrust a metallic-ink Sharpie at the celeb and demand signatures aplenty. I mentioned to someone that the organizers of the appearance should have done something to protect their guests from that and I was told that at least one of the pushier autograph-demanders was an organizer of the event. I also heard there that the theater had not offered transportation, nor does the theater have any sort of green room or comfy waiting area for them. Mr. Van Dyke and his lovely new bride were stashed away for a time in a corner of the projection booth.

Later, they joined Mr. Reiner in the house where, of course, they were crowded and made to sign things. The Beverly Cinema's aged stage is not lit for this kind of event and there's an antique, unsafe-looking set of stairs to get up there. A lot of us worried as Carl Reiner (age 90) and Dick Van Dyke (spry but still not much younger) climbed up to sit in old, ugly folding chairs, then later climbed down.

They were introduced by a British gentleman who I gather has a smidgen of local celebrity and show biz background. At least, he seemed to assume that everyone knew who he was. He introduced Reiner as a legendary writer-producer-director-actor, which was fine. Then he introduced Van Dyke, who is not a writer or director, as a legendary writer-producer-director-actor, which made you wonder if he really knew who Dick Van Dyke was. And then — and I am not making this up; I have witnesses — he introduced Michele Lee by saying, "Well, she's not really legendary…" The audience booed him as well they should. Fortunately, he turned the Q-and-A over to a decent interviewer and I apologize that I did not get his name.

Of course, the interview should have come after the movie but it was already clear that not a lot of thought had gone into this event. A show of hands revealed that the vast majority of those present had never seen the film so when Carl, Dick and Michele discussed it, they couldn't talk freely about it for fear of ruining it for most of those in the audience. Also of course, if it had been done after, their memories of the film would have been refreshed and they would have had more to say about it.

Dick Van Dyke and his wife left well before the movie was over, which isa shame. The only benefit of the evening to them would have been to sit and hear a new audience howl with glee at the film and applaud the stellar performances. But if I'd been them, I would have gotten the hell out of there at the first opportunity, too.

After, folks milled about on the sidewalk outside, including the British guy who was trolling for people to compliment him on the wonderful event he had arranged. He seemed pretty clueless that the stars of the film and the evening hadn't had a peachy time.

I wish I could say this kind of thing was a rare exception but I have been to too many like this, including at least one other elsewhere with Mssrs. Reiner and Van Dyke. The folks who know how to operate a repertory cinema or other such venue often haven't the slightest idea of how to stage a live event. And even when they do a lot of them, they never learn, never remodel as necessary to make such appearances go smoothly. They seem to think that getting the celeb to agree to show up is all it's about. One often hears tales of stars who agree in a casual conversation to appear and assume there'll soon be a follow-up contact to confirm dates, transportation, their guests, etc. The next thing they know, they're advertised…and then they feel they have to show up — no matter how inconvenient the date may be for them — because their fans have bought tickets, will be disappointed if the person isn't there, and may not think to blame the theater.

Quentin Tarantino is reportedly the landlord of the Beverly Cinema. He is of course a major talent in motion pictures and a man whose respect for his fellow artists is well known. Mr. Tarantino was not present last night and if he had been, I have the feeling that he would have stepped in and corrected as much as could have been corrected. I further have the feeling that if he's ever treated like that at one of many evenings to come honoring his work, he will not suffer in polite silence the way Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and Michele Lee did.