A Slapstick Drama: Peter Bogdanovich's NICKELODEON

July 25, 2022 - 3:14pm
Posted by Jim Healy

Peter Bogdanovich (left) on the set of NICKELODEON

These notes on Peter Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon were written by film fan, film scholar, and film preservationist James Kenney, whose other reviews and essays can be found at https://tremblesighwonder.com/. James Kenney kicked off our current season of Peter Bogdanovich movies on June 29 with Squirrels to the Nuts, a movie he helped save from obscurity.  Our Bogdanovich series continues with a 4K DCP of Nickelodeon, shown in a Director's Cut featuring 5 minutes of scenes not included in the film's original release, and presented in black-and-white, as Bogdanovich originally intended. The screening will take place on Wednesday, July 27 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!

By James Kenney

Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant one-of-a-kind “slapstick drama” Nickelodeon is, like many of the late filmmaker’s films, a film out of time.  While his contemporaries were producing pessimistic works such as Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The French Connection and Chinatown, Bogdanovich followed up his early nihilistic triumphs Targets and The Last Picture Show with similarly personal projects that nevertheless doubled as family entertainments, all rated G or PG: What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon, a 1976 Columbia release, detailing the chaotic exploits of early independent two-reel silent filmmakers on the West Coast as they battle with the first movie moguls. 

Bogdanovich regular Ryan O’Neal plays a hapless lawyer who becomes a low-budget movie director, Burt Reynolds plays the guy at alligator wrestling matches that introduces alligators to each other and then “gets out of the way” who becomes a cowboy star, and Tatum O’Neal, fresh off her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, returns alongside Stella Stevens, and newcomers John Ritter and Jane Hitchcock as members of the film company.  Brian Keith (in a role Bogdanovich designed for Orson Welles) plays the bellicose independent producer who puts dollars and cents over O’Neal’s increasingly artistic impulses, O’Neal’s personal journey reflecting the entire film industry’s increasing maturity as filmmakers learned the genuine magic that a film camera could engender.

A movie about movies was inevitable for Bogdanovich, with his encyclopedic knowledge of motion picture lore, and he rewrote W.D. Richter’s original screenplay incorporating many anecdotes shared with him by the great early filmmakers he’d interviewed, such as Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Leo McCarey. Due to the previous year’s At Long Last Love’s well-chronicled commercial and critical failure, Bogdanovich for the first time had to “battle” with his producers during the making of Nickelodeon, having his initial casting choices of John Ritter in O’Neal’s part, Jeff Bridges in Reynolds’ part, and Cybill Shepherd in newcomer Jane Hitchcock’s part overruled by producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Bogdanovich, alongside cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, also conceived of the film in black & white, which had not caused a problem for Bogdanovich on Picture Show and Paper Moon, but after two commercial disappointments in a row (the first being the “art film” Daisy Miller) Bogdanovich made some concessions, and Nickelodeon was released in color.

Nevertheless, Nickelodeon works, delightfully, Bogdanovich’s attention to detail, comedic sensibilities and reverence for film history paying off wonderfully in a film that begins as a chaotic madhouse screwball comedy detailing the first uncertain steps made by pioneer filmmakers (whose films would often be shown with the reels out of order, audiences not noticing or caring). The tone shifts to a more thoughtful, measured one as the stakes rise, nickels turn to dollars, and genuine artists like D.W. Griffith recognize the value of cinema as an artistic statement. The opening shot of the film sums up the delicate meticulousness of Bogdanovich’s mis en scene and his dry sense of humor; we note the ceiling fans and sweaty faces in the 1910 courtroom (sans air-conditioning), as lawyer O’Neal is distracted reading a July 30, 1910 Saturday Evening Post featuring “part two of The Ranger’s Revenge” on its cover. This one “simple” shot establishes the time period and milieu; also that perhaps O’Neal is not destined for a career in law and more interested in the world of the imagination; and thirdly (perhaps only caught on second or third viewing) that he himself is not particularly creative at this point, as he soon after gets his first directing gig with Keith by stealing the idea of a “ranger” protagonist from this story. 

O’Neal and Reynolds are game (Reynolds joked in the Nickelodeon press materials that his earlier films “were the kind shown in airplanes and prisons so nobody could leave”), and perhaps after the enmity in the media provoked by Bogdanovich and Shepherd's real-life and highly publicized coupling, introducing the sweet, fresh-faced Hitchcock as the film’s ingenue proved wise. Bogdanovich told Peter Tonguette in his book Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations With the New Hollywood Director (University Press of Kentucky, 2020) that his initial conception was of a female lead that was more “threatening”; Hitchcock was “very good, but she’s in the Lillian Gish department and we wanted somebody more in the Theda Bara department.”

The version being screened at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque is Bogdanovich’s director’s cut, which returns the film to black-and-white as Bogdanovich desired and adding about five minutes to the running time, largely restoring Stevens’ love-triangle with O’Neal and Ritter that had been excised from the theatrical cut. As Bogdanovich told Tonguette “We shot [Nickelodeon] with the idea that eventually it would be printed in black-and-white. We designed it so that it would eventually look good in black-and-white because it’s got a lot of shadows and contrasts and so on, which you don’t normally do with color.”

Nickelodeon the film, in tone and temperament knowingly matures as its characters mature (John Milius’ Big Wednesday, made two years later, appropriates this unusual tonal approach). Columbia’s promotional copy that described the film as “fast, funny, frantic, frenetic and flavorful” is suspiciously alliterative but wholly correct in describing Nickelodeon, which will genuinely make you feel like you are there at the beginnings of cinema while also fashioning an unusual collection of characters you will grow fond of and miss when the film ends. 

As the advertising for Nickelodeon promised at the time, “Love. Action. Comedy. Suspense. Excitement.  Before Rhett kissed Scarlett. Before Laurel met Hardy. Before Butch Cassidy met the Sundance Kid. Before any movie ever made you laugh or cry or fall in love. There was a handful of adventurers who made flickering pictures you could see for a nickel.” Bogdanovich in the years following its release voiced some uncertainty with the tonal shifts in the film, but with Nickelodeon Bogdanovich created something wholly unique, not seen before or since, a “slapstick drama” which both captures the reality of the early frenzied pioneer days of silent films, when for a nickel audiences witnessed flickering images dancing across makeshift screens, and the dawning realization that so much more could be done with these flickering images— there is no other film quite like Nickelodeon, true to the tempestuous time in which it is set, when the screen had not truly found its voice, and true to the personal artistic filmmaking that for a fleeting moment in the 1970s allowed Hollywood directors like Scorsese, Coppola and Bogdanovich to share personal obsessions with audiences enthusiastic to take the journey with them.