Failed lawyer Leo Harrigan becomes a director in the pioneering days of early American cinema, specialising in slapstick comedies featuring stunt man Buck Greenway and short-sighted gamine Kathleen Cooke.
Having lost a reported $6 million on At Long Last Love, his shambolic attempt at reviving the movie musical, Peter Bogdanovich contributed $500,000 of his own money to this fond, often fact-based, but deeply flawed tribute to the chaotic and occasionally violent world of film-making in Hollywood's infancy. The heroic efforts of America's independent producers to resist the monopolising tyranny of the Motion Picture Patents Company between 1908-17 should have made for compelling viewing. But Bogdanovich allows nostalgia to cloud his vision and, consequently, he devotes too much time to the mechanics of early movie making and not enough to his potentially engaging characters.
A respected critic before he turned director, Bogdanovich clearly knew his stuff and he not only captured something of the dangers involved in staying one step ahead of the MPPC's hired goons, but he also the celebrated the exhilarating nature of making pictures on the hoof, as inspiration and finances allowed. However, he singularly failed to rise to the challenge of paying homage to the likes of Mack Sennett, as his slapstick pastiches simply weren't funny - a fact that is doubly puzzling considering that not only was Bogdanovich such a keen student of the medium, but his knockabout passages in What's Up, Doc? had been so accomplished. Irving Cummings had covered some of the same territory in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), in which Don Ameche had played the pioneer whose ambitions were eventually thwarted by the advent of Talkies. But while Bogdanovich invested his film with considerably more affection than Cummings had mustered, he only had Burt Reynolds, Brian Keith and John Ritter at his disposal, instead of Al Jolson, Buster Keaton and Rin Tin Tin, Jr. Moreover, he succumbed to the same clichés and stereotypes, right down to Ryan O'Neal's wannabe realising the game is up at the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, while Ameche saw the writing on the wall at a screening of The Jazz Singer. This is a well-meaning and often diverting picture. But it lacks focus and soul.