Mel Brooks is one of the great American filmmakers. Or he was, for a few films. Or he could have been, if he had just trusted his own instincts. Or he would have been, if he had ever been interested in actually becoming one of the great American filmmakers. Or he never was, due to his addiction to the cheap laugh, the fart gag and the dick joke and the horrible pun and all the vulgar moments that disqualify him for any kind of lofty title.
Or all of the above. After watching the eight films contained in the new DVD box set, The Films of Mel Brooks, I am of all six of these opinions. The set includes all the movies Brooks made for 20th Century Fox. While every movie here has evidence of Brooks’ genius, only four of them truly follow through on their promise. Of these, however, two of them deserve a major critical reappraisal, and one of them needs to be acknowledged despite, and in fact because of its mix of high concept and low humor as one of the best movies ever made.
The most important thing about this box set is the fact that five of these movies have never been released on DVD before. Because Brooks’ first movie, The Producers, was released by MGM, it is not part of this set, so one has to start with his second movie, the largely and unfairly-forgotten The Twelve Chairs. This movie, based on a satire written in the ‘20s by two Russian journalists, follows Ippolyt (Ron Moody), a former nobleman now pretending to be a loyal Soviet diplomat, in his quest to find 50,000 rubles’ worth of jewels once sewn into a chair by his dying mother-in-law. This information is learned by Orthodox priest Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise, chewing scenery right and left), and by Ostep Bender (a very young Frank Langella), and the movie’s action centers around these three and their quest for these forbidden riches.
The movie’s soul comes from the unlikely alliance between Ostep and Ippolyt. Brooks throws in enough sly filmic gags (sped-up silent movie action, strange camera angles) to let us know that he’s an auteur, and there’s enough corny slapstick to move the film along. In retrospect, it’s not hard to figure out why the film failed; everyone has a different acting style and a different accent, and there is a general lack of hip, with-it cynicism for 1970. Hopefully, the DVD release of The Twelve Chairs will restore this funny and strange movie to its rightful place in film lore.
After this, Brooks hit gold with his next two releases, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. They’ve both been available for ever and ever on DVD, in versions identical to the ones here, and it must be assumed that everyone is eminently familiar with them already. (Don’t worry, I will talk about these two masterpieces of parody later.) But Brooks’ next movie is the other major find in this set: Silent Movie is a silent movie about the making of a silent movie, and it is funny and knowing and weird, weird, WEIRD. Brooks takes the lead here, as ex-alcoholic director Mel Funn, who tools around LA in his roadster with sidekicks Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (DeLuise, again). When Funn comes up with a plan to make a silent movie with all the biggest stars of ‘70s cinema, the studio head Sid Caesar, mugging all the way complains that no one likes slapstick anymore, and then promptly falls down, slides all the way across the room, and brings down half the furniture onto his head, a gag that even the hardest-core no-fun anti-slapstick advocates would have to admit is seven kinds of brilliant.
There are celebrity jokes (Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, and others play self-mocking versions of themselves), big business jokes (the business firm that wants the movie to fail is named, of course, Engulf and Devour), movie-biz jokes, and a whole bunch of isn’t-modern-life-crazy jokes, which seem even funnier for being presented silently with title cards. (Even these cards provide boffo laffs. The best of them is probably the running gag about Funn, Eggs, and Bell ending up in embraces, only to be seen by two passing women who mutter “Fags!” It’s really not mean-spirited in the least, and you have to admit that the idea of this epithet showing up as a dialogue card is kind of brilliant.)
There is a lot here to love, from Anne Bancroft’s cameo playing herself as a diva with four stage-door johnnies surrounding her all the time, to a wheelchair race pitting Brooks, DeLuise, and Feldman against Paul Newman. We even get a command dance performance from the almost unbearably sexy Bernadette Peters. And, yes, there IS one line of dialogue spoken in the movie—hands up if you know who speaks it. (Answer at the end of this very long piece.) Overall, the biggest disappointment of this box set is the lack of extras. Only four of the movies have anything approaching interesting stuff. Could it have been so hard to get Brooks to really talk about Silent Movie, just a little?
Some of Brooks’ later parodies are not quite as successful as Silent Movie. High Anxiety, from 1977, suffers from being TOO faithful to its subject, Alfred Hitchcock. Here, Brooks again stars (stepping in for original choice Gene Wilder) as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, who finds some very strange goings-on in his new gig as the head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous. Many of Hitchcock’s most famous bits are recreated or reimagined perfectly; the Psycho shower scene now involves a newspaper and a strange hotel employee, and Hitchcock’s archetypal “trouble during a speech” scene is defanged by having it be about not using sexual terms in a speech about Freud because there are two children in the audience. It’s all just a little too perfect, though, even to the point of the occasional boredom that Hitchcock used to create tension. Not to mention, of course, that parodies of Hitchcock were getting a bit stale by 1977—hell, even Hitchcock was parodying himself by then.
The same problem crops up in 1993’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the last film included here. (Spaceballs, Brooks’ sendup of Star Wars, is not included, which is okay by me.) The HBO documentary included on the DVD is subtitled “The Legend Had It Coming”, but it cannot have been all that hard to poke fun at Robin Hood in the ‘90s, especially after Brooks had done it himself in his hilarious ‘70s sitcom, When Things Were Rotten. (I watched this show religiously, because I am old. It was cancelled after 13 episodes. My father and I were crushed. Yes, I’m old.) Sure, it’s pretty funny to see Richard Lewis playing Prince John as, basically, Richard Lewis; sure, the sight of a very young Dave Chappelle as a hip-hop Merry Man is shocking and adorable; and sure, it’s all pretty sprightly and breezy. But the well had dried up by then, both for Robin Hood jokes and for Brooks’ parodic ear.
The worst movie in this set is History of the World, Part One. It’s uneven, crude, and stupid—and that’s the best thing about it. I have no problem with its rag-bag format, jumping between historical eras and making fun of them all; what gets me here are the obviousness of many of the jokes (distracting Roman soldiers with a huge joint of “wacky weedus” is the single low point of Brooks’ directing career), the half-assed “shocking” moments which look like Brooks trying to reclaim his title from the Zucker Bros. and other parodists, and the casual homophobia played for laughs.
But the song-and-dance routine about the Spanish Inquisition still rules the way it did in high school, and I can’t help cracking up at some of the stuff in the French Revolution scene. (Full disclosure: this movie will always be associated in my mind with the first time I saw it at a drive-in theater in Oregon, buzzed on Olde English 800. We had just managed to talk to some girls from another town when my friend Joe decided to throw up, and continued to do so for hours. So maybe I’m still bitter. But yeah, this is a drive-in movie kind of movie all the way. If you miss large parts of it to go get popcorn or to hook up in a Camaro, it’s probably better that way.)
The key to Brooks’ mindset can be found in the mini-feature on the DVD of To Be or Not to Be. To Be or Not to Be, a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic movie, would have been Brooks’ most serious film, had he written it (he didn’t) or directed it (he let longtime friend and choreographer Alan Johnson do the honors). The movie deals with Nazis and theater and infidelity and Judaism and homosexuality and bravery and love and war.
It is an adorable movie, for all that. Brooks finally gets to star with wife Anne Bancroft as Frederick and Anna Bronski, famous actors in Warsaw who use their theatrical skills to thwart Nazi attempts to exterminate the Polish underground, and then to help their entire troupe escape to England. There is a lot of heart here, and a lot of soul, and Brooks gets to play a ham actor finding himself by pretending to be real life characters within the movie; very Pirandello, very Brecht, very highfalutin. On the featurette, when he is asked about whether this is his attempt to make a serious movie, Brooks replies with three fart noises, and then says “That’s as serious as I get.” That’s about the size of it.
Man, that’s a pretty good ending line. It kind of ruins the fact that I promised to talk about Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles later. Each of these films deserves its own individual article. Suffice it to say that the former is my single favorite movie of all time, and the latter is even funnier. And suffice it to say that these are his two most soulful movies, in that we care deeply about Sheriff Bart and Victor Von Frankenstein, because of the genius performances of Cleavon Little and of Gene Wilder. Also, suffice it to say that they both prove that Brooks was funnier with collaborators, because it allowed him to really stretch out as a director: Blazing Saddles started out as an Andrew Bergman idea called Tex X, and featured scriptwriting contributions from a young comedian named Richard Pryor, while Young Frankenstein was the brainchild of star Gene Wilder, and featured tons of input from its stars.
Maybe that’s the key to Mel Brooks’ career: he has always been funniest when he was bouncing ideas off other people. Or maybe the key is that these movies have been considered his most effective because they were really great parodies but, unlike High Anxiety, they didn’t try to be perfect. Nah, that wouldn’t explain the unfair obscurity of Silent Movie or The Twelve Chairs. Or maybe the key is…
How about this: Mel Brooks is one funny son of a bitch, and always was, and half these movies are classics, and the other half are really funny too, and then I make three fart noises and say that’s about as serious as he gets.
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Q.: Who speaks the one line of dialogue in Silent Movie?
A.: Famous mime Marcel Marceau!