The film is set in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Mel Funn (Mel Brooks), a great film director, is now recovering from a drinking problem and down on his luck. He sets out to Big Picture Studios to pitch a new script to the Chief, aided by his ever-present sidekicks Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman). His big idea: the first silent motion picture in forty years. At first the Chief (Sid Caesar), who is in danger of losing the studio to the (literally) rabid and greedy New York conglomerate Engulf & Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey), rejects the idea, but Funn convinces him that if he can get Hollywood's biggest stars to be in the film, he could save the studio.
Funn, Eggs, and Bell proceed to recruit various people for the film. Their first target is Burt Reynolds, whom they first surprise in his shower. This does not go well, but they are able to sign him on by appearing at his house in disguise (and almost getting him killed by a steamroller). They recruit James Caan despite a disastrous lunch in his broken trailer, and then torture Liza Minnelli at the studio commissary (fortunately, she already badly wanted to be in the movie). They then disguise themselves as Flamenco dancers to get close to Anne Bancroft at a nightclub, and sign her on as well after a comical dance sequence. News breaks out that the Chief has taken ill and is in the hospital. While there, Mel phones Marcel Marceau in Paris who apparently declines the offer, delivering the only line of dialogue in the film, in French: "Non!" When asked by the others what Marceau said, Funn explains he doesn't understand French. Paul Newman is seen on the hospital grounds. After leading them on a wild Hollywood-style chase in electric wheelchairs, he asks to be in the film. Funn and company reply with the typical Hollywood-esque "We'll get back to you." In the next shot, a newspaper ad indicates that they "ink" Newman to do the movie.
In the process of their search for stars, the trio have a number of brief but funny misadventures, including a mixup between two German Shepherds (one trained as a seeing-eye dog, the other most assuredly not), a flying blueberry pie, and several (mostly unsuccessful) efforts by Marty Eggs to seduce various women. Their most notable encounter involves a Coca-Cola machine that dispenses cans by launching them like grenades.
Engulf and Devour, meanwhile, worry that Funn will save Big Picture Studios and they will be unable to buy it. They attempt to "stop Funn with sex" by sending voluptuous nightclub sensation Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) to seduce Funn and pretend to be in love with him. Funn falls head over heels, but when Eggs and Bell reveal the truth to him on the day before filming begins, the director returns to drinking. Ironically, moments after this turn of events, Vilma is seen calling Mr. Engulf with the news that she is quitting: she has fallen for Funn for real. We see Mel stopping by a liquor store and buying what first appears to be an advertising prop in the store's window, but is actually a genuine giant bottle of liquor. After a misadventure involving a Skid Row hotel room and a murphy bed, Funn ends up in an alley where he dispenses booze from his giant bottle and is proclaimed "King of the Winos". After a few hours of hitting the local gin mills, Vilma and Funn's associates find the would-be "King" passed out in a pile of his "subjects", but several hundred cups of coffee sober him up. Funn's silent movie is completed in record time. Unfortunately, the only copy of it is stolen from the theater by Engulf & Devour just before its big premiere.
Vilma volunteers to stall the movie theater's audience with her nightclub act while Funn and his associates go out to steal back their film. They succeed, but are chased by Engulf and Devour's thuggish executives. They are eventually cornered, but fortunately they are near the violent Coke machine, which they use against their foes. Most of the executives, including Mr. Devour, are disabled by the exploding cans of Coke, allowing Funn, Eggs, and Bell to escape. They hurry the film to the theater, where it is shown for the first time. In the meantime, Eggs has gotten himself tangled up in the film and he is immediately rushed up to the projection booth with the film wrapped around him. After the movie is over, the audience applauds wildly and leaps to its feet while balloons and streamers fill the air. "They seem to like it," Funn says.
The film ends with the jubilant audience filing out of the theater past Funn, Eggs, Bell, Vilma, and the recovered studio chief. At the end, a title card is shown: "This was a true story."
Mel Brooks enjoyed success with the release of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in 1974, both being parody films spoofing entire genres. He followed this success with Silent Movie, an affectionate parody of the slapstick films of the silent film era. The film feels like a throwback to this earlier era, despite using color and other up to date techniques. As a film about filmmaking, Silent Movie also parodies "Hollywood deal-making". Co-writer Ron Clark was previously the producer of The Tim Conway Comedy Hour (1970), while Rudy De Luca and Barry Levinson were writers for The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978). Unsurprisingly the humor of Silent Movie would not be out of place in a sketch comedy. Henry Jenkins points out that for Brooks the decision to make a silent comedy represents an allusion to an earlier era of his career. He used to be a writer for Your Show of Shows (1950–1954), a show which included pantomime segments and parodies of silent films. Television audiences of the 1950s were familiar with the silents through their broadcast in late night television.
The film features an unflattering portrayal of the film industry. Big Picture Studios' front gate sign boasts of the multimillion-dollar scope of their films, never mentioning their quality. The film project is green-lit not on the merits of its script, but solely on the drawing power of the movie stars attached. Executives cannot tell good film footage apart from bad, while the 'Current Studio Chief' is one box office bomb away from losing his position. The studio itself is under threat of a takeover by a "soulless" conglomerate. The movie stars are portrayed as vain figures who flaunt their wealth. The film audience is portrayed as fickle and unpredictable.
The villainous conglomerate 'Engulf & Devour' is a parody of real-life conglomerate Gulf+Western Industries, which had acquired Paramount Pictures. The film also parodies corporate executives as essentially interchangeable yes-men, following the whims of their boss.
The logo of Big Picture Studios is a parody of the MGM lion. It depicts the Studio Chief (Sid Caesar) as a braying donkey. Liza Minnelli features in a scene which makes no use of her dancing talents. Robert Alan Crick points out that the part could be easily played by any well-known actress of the 1970s, with no apparent difference. The film was the first notable acting role for Brooks, who was previously limited to off-screen voiceovers and short cameos.
One joke makes use of the difference between the expressive gestures of silent cinema and those used in guessing games, such as charades. A secretary attempts to explain to the Studio Chief that Funn has a drinking problem, by pantomiming an uplifted bottle. Her boss misunderstands, figuring that Funn sucks his thumb. Another scene with the Boss pays homage to slapstick. The boss proclaims slapstick to be dead. Then he flips his chair backwards, and goes sliding across the room. He slams his head, with the sound of a bell ringing. The humor of the scene derives from the combination of the image and the unlikely sound. Many of the gags of the film actually depend on careful synchronizations of sound and image. For example, a sequence has Feldman tossed about between elevator doors. It is set to the sounds of a pinball machine.
Other gags are delivered through intertitles. For example, in a meeting of 'Engulf & Devour', an underling whispers something in the ears of his boss. The intertitles report: "whisper...whisper...whisper". The boss fails to understand, forcing the man to shout. In response the intertitle is written in all caps: "YOUR FLY IS OPEN".
Marcel Marceau reprises his "walking into the wind" routine while trying to lift a phone. He then shouts the only spoken word of the film: "non". Mel Funn does not apparently understand the reply, since he does not speak French.
Silent Movie currently holds an 81% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film a four-star review. He cited as positive elements the ability of Brooks to do anything for a laugh and the world of his films where everything is possible. He stated that Brooks took "a considerable stylistic risk" which he managed to pull off "triumphantly". He considered the film equal in comedic ability to Blazing Saddles (1974), superior to Young Frankenstein (1974), and inferior to The Producers (1968). He also praised the film for offering an encyclopedia-worth of visual gags, both old and new.
It earned North American rentals of $21,240,000. At the 34th Golden Globe Awards, the film received nominations for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical or Comedy for Mel Brooks, Best Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role for Marty Feldman and Best Motion Picture Actress in a Supporting Role for Bernadette Peters, winning none.
The DVD contains audio tracks in English, Spanish, and French, even though the film's only spoken line, "Non" (French for "No"), sounds almost identical in all three languages. The DVD also includes English subtitles.