Well, this has been on my chest for a while. Welcome to my new series. I am going to be reviewing talking pictures that are either about the silent era or that incorporate silent films into their story. I will review the film itself and then briefly discuss whether the film helped or harmed public perception of the silent era.
Hollywood has never been particularly keen on getting its history 100% accurate and it is particularly disdainful of its own past. It is important to address this since many people will only be exposed to silent films through sound movies.
For the first review, I chose Three Amigos. Maybe it’s just my town but when I first got into silent movies, the first thing people said to me was “Like Three Amigos, right?”
Um, yeah, just like that.
Let’s take a look at the Amigos through the lens of silent film fandom and see how they measure up. Don’t worry, I promise to be nice.
What is a cult comedy? Definitions vary but to me, it is this: A film outside the mainstream (either a major film that bombed or an obscure title) that has been embraced by a passionate group of fans. A cult comedy should have off-kilter humor and it should be intensely quotable, producing all sorts of in-jokes. (And, like the definition of GEEK, there are thousands of opinions on this.)
By that definition, Three Amigos is one of the finest examples of the cult comedy. One only has to say Plethora or Sons of a Motherless Goat or In-Famous to send a fan off giggling.
The plot is older than the movies: Imposter(s) living a life of… imposting. Then he/she/they are called on to actually be what they have pretended to be. The potential for comedy is enormous.
In this case, the Three Amigos are a silent movie team. They engage in Fairbanksian heroics circa 1916 (before even Fairbanks was doing them! Zorro was still a few years away). However, they get too big for their britches and are fired by their studio. Fortunately (I think?) the Amigos have fans in Mexico. A tiny village has seen their films, believes they are real heroes and sends for them to save the village from bandits. The Amigos are not terribly bright and believe they have been summoned to put on a show. Oh dear!
The combination of Steve Martin (as Lucky Day), Chevy Chase (as Dusty Bottoms) and Martin Short (as Ned Nederlander) is a potent one and it is a large part of the movie’s success. They are just so fun that it’s hard to resist being charmed by their antics.
The whole plot is a send-up of The Magnificent Seven, a classic ripe for parody. Most of the humor of the movie is based on misunderstanding, miscommunication and sheer lack of brain cells. These types of jokes are not everyone’s cup of tea but I thought it was pretty funny. And, as I said before, intensely quotable.
Friend: Which one do you like?
Carmen: I like the one that’s not so smart.
Friend: Which one is that?
Ned Nederlander: Sew, very old one! Sew like the wind!
El Guapo: I like these guys! They are funny guys! Only kill one of them.
Watch or Pass?
Watch. If nothing else, watch it so you will recognize the quotes. It is a light, cheerful way to spend an afternoon and you may find yourself counted among its fans. The plot was used again for the wonderful Star Trek send-up, Galaxy Quest. It’s well worth a look if you want another variation of this tale.
Silent Era Perception
Did this film harm the silent era’s reputation, help it, or is it a draw?
What I am going to be examining is whether a film did actual damage to perception of the silent film industry in general. This is the part where I have to be careful. You see, I am going to be talking about the big picture rather than looking for tiny little inaccuracies. Frankly, no one likes a nit-picker and I don’t want to be one of those The Projection Speed is 2 Frames Too Fast For This Era kind of people.
Admittedly, the scene showing the Amigos’ silent movie is pretty inaccurate but no more than average. Sure, the cuts are a bit too rapid, the camera too agile and the close-ups too plentiful for 1916. Plus, it makes the usual mistake of thinking that One Line of Dialogue = One Intertitle, a very common misconception about silent films. However, the scene serves its purpose of establishing just who the Amigos are and the artificiality is meant to emphasize how incompetent they are in real life. I’m going to give it a pass.
Okay, okay, I get to have my one nit-picky thing. Just one!
When Ned narrates his Hollywood tales to the village children, he drops the name of Dorothy Gish. She called him “young man” and said that he had what it took. Three Amigos is set in 1916 and Ned’s story must be at least a few years old since he was still being called Little Neddy. Dorothy Gish was born in 1898 and made her debut in 1912. You do the math. (Martin Short was 36 when this film was made, by the way.) I don’t really think teenage girls, especially ones as rambunctious as Dorothy, would speak to a 30+ year old man that way.
Whew! Thanks for indulging me!
In general, I think the film may have been stronger and more confident in its era if it had been set in the 1920’s instead of the 1910’s.
The Verdict: A draw
While The Three Amigos is not going to correct any misconceptions about silent film, it also does really not add any new ones to the mix. The send-up of silents is cheerful and not mean-spirited. The humor of the film comes from the ditziness of the characters and they would have been ditzy no matter where they were from or what they did.
And, who knows? There is even a tiny chance that it might get a viewer interested in seeing some silent movies.