The notorious flop that finally knocked director Peter Bogdanovich off the Hollywood A-list after a precipitous slide, Nickelodeon is a fascinating movie unfairly relegated to obscurity. In the overstuffed narrative, Ryan O’Neal and Burt Reynolds play early-20th-century ne’er-do-wells who stumble into cinema careers when they encounter a disreputable producer (Brian Keith); a romantic triangle then emerges because O’Neal and Reynolds are both infatuated with the beautiful klutz (Jane Hitchcock) who keeps crossing their respective paths. Eventually, O’Neal becomes a director and Reynolds becomes his long-suffering leading man, so they wend their way through calamitous filmmaking experiences accompanied by a motley crew of actors and technicians (played by a vibrant ensemble including George Gaynes, Tatum O’Neal, John Ritter, and Stella Stevens).
In a rare case of a movie being too meticulously scripted for its own good, Nickelodeon smothers a slight premise with painstaking detail, since each new plot development is dramatized at considerable length; accordingly, the movie wavers between happy-go-lucky farce and romantic dramedy as Bogdanovich endeavors to include every colorful episode he can imagine, whether the episodes advance the narrative or not. Bogdanovich, a scholarly cinephile who interviewed many of the great studio-era directors, rewrote W.D. Richter’s original script to include fictionalized anecdotes drawn from the life experiences of real-life cinematic pioneers, and the all-business soberness of Bogdanovich’s attempt to re-create the madcap milieu of silent-era comedy undercuts the story’s frothy appeal.
Yet even with these storytelling excesses (and an overreliance on slapstick gags like breakaway walls and pratfalls), there’s a lot of gorgeous filmmaking on display in Nickelodeon. Laszlo Kovacs’ photography is elegant, the craftsmanship of the sight gags is impressive, and the nerdy motif of shout-outs to classic directors is endearing. Ryan O’Neal and Reynolds lock into smooth grooves during light-comedy passages like their epic fistfight, while Tatum O’Neal delivers a memorable dose of her signature old-before-her-years edginess. So even though Nickelodeon is excessive and undisciplined, it’s crafted with such care that it can’t be ignored. In 2009, Bogdanovich revisited the movie for its DVD debut, adding several minutes of previously unused footage and converting the imagery to black-and-white, the format he originally intended to use; the disc features both the monochromatic version and the original full-color theatrical release.