For the 2009 holiday season, 20th Century Fox has put together nine of director Mel Brooks films in the nearly comprehensive Mel Brooks Collection. Included are The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History of the World: Part I, To Be or Not to Be, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Noticeably absent from this release is the comedy classic, The Producers, and two of his more recently released films, Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, most likely due to their licensing issues. This is the first time six of these films have seen a high definition transfer, while the others have had individual Blu-ray releases prior.
The collection packages the films chronologically in a slick box with Brooks’ goofy face staring straight at us with two cold blue eyes. In addition to the discs, bundled in the collection is a 120-page hardcover book with production photos, background information, and insight into the comic’s long and storied history. The portfolio sleeves that house the discs work with the aesthetics of the set, but are bound to come apart after repeated flipping of these flimsy pages. Nevertheless, 20th Century Fox has released a set that practically every Mel Brooks fanatic is going to want to have, while newcomers will be introduced to a comedic genius with a deep and varied catalog of films.
Beginning the collection is the director’s second film, 1970’s The Twelve Chairs, released two years after his Oscar win for The Producers established him as one of film’s most exciting comic writers. Loosely based on a Russian story written by two Soviet journalists, Ilf and Petrov, The Twelve Chairs takes place in Russia in 1927. The story is of a former aristocrat (Ron Moody) who is now a clerk under the Soviet regime. After finding out that his dying mother-in-law sewed her prized jewels into one of twelve dining room chairs, him along with a homeless con-man (Frank Langella), a greedy priest (Dom DeLuise), and his loyal former servant (Mel Brooks), set out to retrieve the stash.
Brooks uses the film to parody modern Russian politics, lampooning the failures of communism in the former Soviet Union. Released during the time of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, as well as the feverish tension of the Cold War, Brooks’ script is heavier on slapstick comedy than it is on satire. Moody and Langella offer solid performances as the reluctant duo, while DeLuise fits perfectly as the greedy apostate. And although The Twelve Chairs is a funny satire and an intriguing choice for adaptation, unlike The Producers, the chemistry isn’t as strong with the leads and the plot isn’t as interesting as the concept.
Reaching his creative peak in 1974, Brooks unleashed two of the greatest comedy films of all time that year with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Both are the most financially and critically successful of his career, and represent the pinnacle of what a comedic parody can accomplish. Released first that year, Blazing Saddles remains a legendary comedy with a multi-generational fanbase, and with good reason because the writing and gags still hold up better than the majority of comedies out in theaters right now. Largely a parody of westerns, the film is also a great criticism of hypocrisy in race relations in American film and society, forgoing political correctness for the sake of comedy and commentary.
Brooks uses a gag-a-second pacing to Blazing Saddles that packs every scene with memorable lines and characters. The all-star cast of Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn (Oscar-nominated role), Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, and Dom DeLuise, all put on excellently nuanced performances that bring so much energy to each respective character. And with a writing team including Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman, each line in the film is layered with so much humor and wit that it literally causes the fourth wall to break by the end of the film.
With Young Frankenstein, Brooks makes the jokes less obvious in this homage to Mary Shelley and all the Frankenstein films she inspired. Gene Wilder plays the young Dr. Frankenstein in a role tailor-made for him. Frankenstein is summoned by a will, which directs him to travel to his late grandfather’s castle in Transylvania. Shot completely in black-and-white, the film’s plot thickens when Frankenstein discovers his grandfather’s manual to bringing a corpse back to life. Supporting the film is the bulge-eyed Marty Feldman who captures the notorious Igor (“What hump?”), while Teri Garr looks stunning on screen as Frankenstein’s sexy assistant. Brooks regulars like Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn turnout dedicated performances, as well.
What’s refreshing about Young Frankenstein in comparison to other Brooks films is that the comedy comes from the absurdity of the narrative, and is never a result of desperation. The story is told rather seriously, with an emotive soundtrack by John Morris and careful direction by Brooks. The Oscar-nominated script by Wilder and Brooks is a dynamic collaboration, combining Brooks’ one-liner wit and Wilder’s chaotic tension. The result is Brooks’ most accomplished and artistically crafted film, and one of the most memorable comedies of all time.
After two massive successes in 1974, Brooks decided to take a big risk by making a parody of silent movies in the style of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, releasing the silent film Silent Movie in 1976. With no dialog in the film other than a French “no” said ironically by famed mime Marcel Marceau, Silent Movie’s gamble pays off by being one of the most daring and great self-reflexive comedies of its era. The ensemble cast features appearances by James Caan, Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft and Paul Newman, all playing themselves.
The film is a sharp criticism of big corporate buyouts of film studios in the ‘70s, such as Gulf+Western’s purchase of Paramount Pictures being mocked humorously in the name of the corporation in the film (“Engulf and Devour”). The plot centers on Mel Funn (Mel Brooks), a film director recovering from a drinking problem and low on work. He heads to Big Picture Studios to pitch a new script to the Chief (Sid Ceasar), with his sidekicks Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman). Funn’s idea for a script happens to be the first silent film production in forty years. Sound a little familiar? This deft use of reflexivity shows Brooks’ risk-taking power, and his character’s suggestion that by packing the film with stars, the studio could be saved, is an idea grounded very much in reality.
Though it pulls off the impressive task of creating a daring film like this, whose non-traditional narrative and lack of dialog would be alienating on first impression, Silent Movie runs a little long and a lot of the gags feel pointless at times. But surprisingly the film’s great use of film score and titles complement the humor just right when the jokes do work. Brooks knows how to deliver comedy into any scenario, and the physical gags in scenes like the knights and the table are able to solicit knee-jerk reactions in ways that few writers know how to do.
For his last release of the decade, Brooks ambitiously took on the task of parodying one of the most revered filmmakers of all time: Alfred Hitchcock. With a poster referencing Vertigo and a humorously appropriate title, Brooks released High Anxiety in 1977. Brooks again takes the lead role as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, who arrives as new administrator of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, to discover some strange occurrences. After being framed for murder, Dr. Thorndyke must face his own “high anxiety” disorder in order to prove his innocence and bring about justice.
Sending up pretty much every Hitchcock film there is, the film isn’t as funny played out as the concept is. That is because it tries to focus more on the suspense narrative than on the comedy, giving an ambivalent mood to the film which doesn’t always work. Brooks’ usual cast of supporters makes their appearance, with Korman standing out especially as the perverted doctor. Madeline Kahn also racks up another skilled and controlled performance on her belt as the female lead. For the most part, the predictable plot has its ups and downs, but it’s worth seeing for some great scenes and a few funny lines. And though the film is competently produced, it just doesn’t feel like classic Brooks.
Brooks started another decade off with an epic parody, History of the World: Part I. Released in 1981, the film comes a year after Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers struck it big with their parody film, Airplane!. Unfortunately for Brooks, this one doesn’t quite reach the standards of his best films. The film is a parody of all those classic epic historical films with wide landscapes and grand biblical drama. The eras that the film focuses on include the Dawn of Man, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution. The film’s large ensemble cast consists of a wide array of star cameos and Brooks regulars, while Orson Welles fittingly narrates.
As usual, John Morris goes all out putting up a big booming score for the film, helping give charm to Brooks’ films on a dedicated basis. The Spanish Inquisition song and dance number is ridiculously inventive, and the commandments scene is one of Brooks’ most memorable. While this is also one of Brooks few films to be rated R, it isn’t as envelope-pushing as you’d think. And it can be quite frustrating when some of the scenes just feel awkward, like much of the Roman Empire segment. But it’s nice seeing Brooks get back to the classic pacing of his earlier comedies, injecting each scene with sharp dialog and often effective physical gags. And unlike his previous two films, he relies more on arranged sketches and skits rather than focusing on a rigid genre parody, which had a tendency to waver over the course of an hour and a half. But with History of the World: Part I, Brooks makes a not-so-triumphant return to his strengths by letting his writing go wild again.
To Be or Not to Be
Curiously included in this collection is 1983’s To Be or Not to Be, produced and starring Brooks, but directed by Alan Johnson. The film is a remake of the 1942 release of the same title, based on the original story by Melchior Lengyel. It’s a lot more standard than his usual fare, telling the story of subversive Polish entertainers hiding from the Nazis after the invasion of Poland. The movie stars Brooks and wife Anne Bancroft as the Bronskis, while Tim Matheson plays a Polish bomber pilot. Charles Durning was nominated for an Oscar for his memorable performance as the Nazi colonel.
It’s a bold film for its portrayal of persecution against homosexuals and others during the Holocaust, but it isn’t exploitative in its storytelling. Although it isn’t big on laughs, it has a lot of energy to it, and the actors give spirited performances that make To Be or Not to Be a worthy but understated film. And musical numbers such as Brooks’ Hitler song manage to give the serious film some genuinely sharp and lighthearted moments. This may not technically be a Mel Brooks film, but his personality permeates throughout it. And because it’s an altogether entertaining and earnest film, it’s worth inclusion in this set.
After six years of absence, Brooks returned to filmmaking in 1987 with the science-fiction parody, Spaceballs. With the approval of George Lucas, Brooks skewers every indulgent aspect of intergalactic dramas like the Star Wars series and Star Trek. The story revolves around Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his half-man/half-dog sidekick Barf (John Candy) as they attempt to save Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) from the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis). While on their journey, they meet humorous characters like Yogurt (Brooks) and Pizza the Hutt (Dom DeLuise). Spaceballs might possibly be one of Brooks’ most obvious parodies, as there is absolutely no subtlety to this humor.
The script is evidence that Brooks was getting to be a little out of touch, as a lot of the jokes feel too forced at times. And the reflexive moments where the fourth wall is broken don’t work as effectively as before, because the lead characters have little life to them. Pullman and Zuniga are odd choices, and they feel out of place in much of the picture. Candy and Moranis relish with Brooks, honing in on two hilarious characters. With great special effects and set designs, the film is able to capture the feel of a science-fiction picture, which lends well to investing in the parody. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too uneven to be considered a Brooks classic, but is one of the better films from his later years.
Life Stinks (1991) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) were not included in this collection, either for licensing reasons or because they are his worst-reviewed films. Thus, the last film in the collection is Robin Hood: Men in Tights, his parody reinvention of Robin Hood released in 1993. The film retells the story of Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes), who tries to bring power back to absent King Richard (Patrick Stewart) from the illegitimate Prince John (Richard Lewis), while trying to gain the heart of Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck). Comedian Dave Chappelle appears in a notable acting debut as Ahchoo, son of Asneeze. He does the best he can with a very hit-and-miss script by Brooks.
The film definitely has its funny moments, but generally this is not one of Brooks more consistent efforts. Considering it came out between two of his worst films, however, it is entertaining enough to warrant a viewing. For Elwes, this is pretty much The Princess Bride: Part II, and though Yasbeck has her moments, she is hardly up to the standard of great Brooks female performers like Madeline Kahn or Cloris Leachman. Nonetheless, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a deserved mockery of the bloated Kevin Costner star vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so it deserves respect for at least having a worthy target to take aim at.
All of the Blu-ray transfers look great in 1080p, and the DTS HD audio really brings the movie alive in surround sound. Seeing how clear these ‘70s films (particularly Blazing Saddles) look in HD is a testament to how much of a difference Blu-ray makes. In terms of bonus features, this set is stacked, with nearly every film including something to please aficionados, like commentary by Brooks or production featurettes. As previously noted earlier in this review, the packaging is definitely a misstep, but at least the gorgeous book is compensation. Nonetheless, you might want to be careful when grabbing for your favorite Brooks disc, as this thing is quite flimsy.
Even though not all of the material here is up to quality of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and the absence of The Producers is certainly disappointing, The Mel Brooks Collection is the closest thing to a comprehensive showcase of Brooks’ talent and brilliance. And while his films are often inconsistent and a mixed bag by the later part of his career, Brooks is arguably the most influential comic figure of the later part of the 20th century, single-handedly cementing the parody as an exciting and intelligent form of cinema. For these reasons, as well as the sizeable bonus features and exclusive high-def transfers, the Blu-ray release of The Mel Brooks Collection is a must-have.
History of the World: Part I