While the ultimate quality of the movie itself may be open to question, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1976 homage to the early cinema is nothing if not an interesting celebration of the early years of the movies. Based on stories told to him by silent movie directors Alan Dwan and Raoul Walsh, Bogdanovich’s film relays the historical through the filter of the technique of the early cinema itself. The film’s protagonist for example, Leo Harrigan, portrayed by Ryan O’Neal is clearly modelled on the typical Harold Lloyd character, with the latter’s trademark spectacles and round straw hat present on O’Neal’s lawyer-turned-director. There’s slapstick at every turn of the films opening act, as Harrigan makes his escape from a particularly over-zealous plaintiff, as the pair bounce around the streets of a studio-lot reconstructed metropolis. The usual silent comedy tropes all play a part, from planks of wood to buckets of water, while it would be fair to declare Nickelodeon as to the silent comedy what the director’s earlier What’s Up, Doc? was to the screwball comedy, although much of the relationship drama of Nickelodeon also maintains some semblance of the screwball too. Elsewhere, sequences are intercut with piano accompaniment, while inter-titles pop up to re-open each successive scenario.
The story of the patents war makes for a neat debate on the battle the independent production houses of the New Hollywood production houses and their relationship with the major studios of the time. Five years earlier Bogdanovich had produced one of the great success stories of the period in The Last Picture Show, but around the time of Nickelodeon the power that the earlier film had afforded him had begun to wane, thanks largely to the critical and commercial failure of At Long Last Love. Regardless, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to read Nickelodeon as an analogy for the tumultuous times of adaptation that was tearing through the American film industry. The film’s co-star, Burt Reynold’s would chart similar territory some years later, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a film which too charted the underbelly of a film production house, albeit a production house far more honest with it’s intentions from the off.