Before there was Judd Apatow, there was Mel Brooks. Before the Farrelly Brothers parlayed a love of gross out gags into multimillion dollar blockbusters, there was Mel Brooks. In fact, before the ’80s gave birth to every Saturday Night Live spin-off imaginable, before scatology snuck into almost every punchline, before post-modern irony, self-effacing slapstick, or anything remotely sacrilegious or sanctimonious became the funny business norm, there was Mel Brooks. From his days as a writer for Sid Caesar on the hit ’50s variety hour Your Show of Shows to his Best Screenplay Oscar for his brilliant 1968 film The Producers, he was a firebrand, the gold standard in humor matched only by a gangly group of Oxford/Cambridge kids from the UK.
Indeed, Mel Brooks is as important as Monty Python, proving with equally adept skill that no subject was off limits, no situation or social class was beyond satiric poking and prodding. It’s evident from the titles included in the new Blu-ray compilation, The Mel Brooks Collection, that he was willing to broach any and all subject with supreme comic timing and incredibly biting wit. While one sure classic is absent (why, oh why, wasn’t the amazing Producers included?) and one non-directorial turn is present (the unusual remake of the Jack Benny chestnut To Be or Not To Be), the rest of this set is pure Brooks – campy, crude, indebted to both the vaudeville and burlesque of his youth while catering to the far more sophisticated entertainment palette of a calming counterculture.
While it may not seem so at first, Brooks’ Producers‘ follow-up, The Twelve Chairs, was an incendiary indictment of the Establishment. Based on a fabled Russian folktale, the story of a former nobleman (now bureaucrat) in a post-Revolution Soviet state, desperate to reclaim some of his family’s wealth, is a strident attack on government, religion, and the hypocrisies of same. When his dying mother confesses that her jewels were sewn into the upholstery of one of a dozen dining room chairs, Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) teams up with a local con man Ostap Bender (an impossibly young Frank Langella) to find them. Unfortunately, a villainous priest (Dom DeLuise) knows about the riches, and he too begins a quest for same.
Thus Brooks, flush with success and ready to try anything, wanders the Eastern European countryside inventing old school silent film physical shtick while ridiculing the mangled Marxism of Communist Russia. Moody is excellent as the displaced royal, moving from slow burn anger to fiery insanity over the course of his journey. DeLuise is also in complete and utter whack job mode, so mannered and extreme that you’ll wonder where all said deranged energy comes from. Langella acts as the buffer between the two, the quick thinking fulcrum on which this wild back and forth rides. While far more understated than most of Brooks’ future films, The Twelve Chairs still argues for the man’s anarchic style. Like Python placing their bizarro world ways into a Medieval, or ancient Holy Land setting, the newly crowned King of Crazy Comedy believed that anything could be twisted into entertainment.
So it came as a huge surprise when The Twelve Chairs bombed. Few responded to Brooks’ warped vision, and the despondent filmmaker was left licking his wounds. According to the commentary provided on the next title, it was the studio that approached him about working on a script for something called Tex X (many of these Blu-ray discs have such insightful bonus content). Andrew Bergman had come up with the idea of a racist Wild West town suddenly stuck with a black sheriff, but the suits felt it needed more pizzazz. Brooks and his buddies Norman Steinberg and Al Unger teamed up with then unknown stand-up genius Richard Pryor to turn Bergman’s lampoon into the biting social satire Blazing Saddles. The rest, they say, is rib-tickling history.
Pryor was supposed to play the character of Bart, the freed slave, convicted of a crime, who is used by an unscrupulous Attorney General, Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) to drive the citizens of Rock Ridge away from their homes (and their valuable land holdings). With the help of the goofy Governor (Brooks, in a boffo cameo) and his flunky Taggart (Slim Pickens), Bart (Cleavon Little) is put in power. Natural, the populace of the tiny backward town doesn’t take too kindly to such ethnic shenanigans. While they plot to get rid of Bart, Lamar sends in a hired goon named Mongo (Alex Karas) to get rid of the citizenry once and for all. In between, Bart befriends a drunken gunslinger known as The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder).
An immediate smash, Blazing Saddles was a pop culture lightning rod when it was released in 1974. Brooks sparked several debates, especially in a media still reeling from the recent Civil Rights movement. He use of the N-word, as well as other derogatory racial and gender stereotypes (including some fairly outrageous gay slurs) would come to mark the vast majority of his ’70s output. While he would argue that he was merely asking the audience to confront their own obvious prejudices, it is also clear that his “anything for a joke” mentality was indifferent to the often offending nature of the comedy. Luckily, the movie’s overall mastery, including its slap in the face facets regarding bigotry, leave it one of the greatest laughfests of all time. Brooks would continue to battle the pro-PC thugs for the majority of his career.
Oddly enough, there were no such complaints when he delivered his second major smash in less than a year – Young Frankenstein. Gene Wilder had actually come up with the idea of spoofing old Universal horror films, and he had a script treatment prepared when Brooks was looking for his next project. With newfound cache thanks to Saddles, he could do anything he wanted – including a full blown black and white tribute to Mary Shelley’s modern Prometheus. Brooks’ commentary on this film provides enough of the background on both the production and the performances to solidify its legendary status. But what’s really amazing is the cast – from Wilder as the original Baron’s distant relative, to Madeline Kahn as his fiancé, the remarkable Marty Feldman as Igor, Terri Garr as sexy lab assistant Inga, and Peter Boyle as the Monster him/itself.
For years, many considered Frankenstein to be Brooks’ masterpiece, and with good reason. If resonates a kind of classicism that some of his latter, more slapdash efforts would fail to offer. It tells a real and recognizable story, unlike the more vignette oriented approach of his other spoofs. It offers memorable running gags (like Feldman’s finicky hunchback, or Cloris Leachman’s horse-startling servant, Frau Blücher) and wonderful one-liners. But most importantly, Frankenstein remains the ultimate homage, a film as reverent to the movies it is mocking as it is disrespectful to the clichés it is mimicking. By the end, when Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) has the villagers grabbing pitchforks and torches, we see though the silliness to appreciate they level of post-modern invention Brooks is aiming for.
It’s the same thing with his ode to old timey cinema, Silent Movie. Yes, only Mel Brooks could fashion something thoroughly cool and contemporary out of a genre that died in the late ’20s. His big brainstorm? Star power. By taking the humongous box office appeal of then uber celebrities Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Paul Newman, and Liza Minelli, Brooks guaranteed full studio support and some potent commercial clout. The storyline was relatively simple – failed filmmaker Mel Funn (Brooks), fresh out of rehab and looking to jumpstart his career, gets the brainstorm to create a modern silent film. With the help of his associates (Feldman and DeLuise), he will court the major Hollywood talent to be in the picture. Meanwhile, big bad corporate thugs Engulf and Devour want to take over the studio, and use sexy vixen spy Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) as a way of destroying Funn.
With its debt to old fashioned slapstick and the ever-engaging work of its cast, Silent Movie remains one of Brooks’ best, most memorable movies. It’s fun to wax nostalgic about the days when someone like Burt Reynolds was a respected Tinseltown titan, not a TMZ tabloid punchline. Brooks pulls out all the stops, recycling material from his TV days (the endless mugging of friend Caesar and co-star Feldman) as well as some novel invention on how the lack of dialogue can be used as a vehicle for humor. This is a movie that was way ahead of its time, taking the corporatization of Hollywood to task with the whole Engulf and Devour subplot. While some may see it as gimmicky and more mainstream than his other efforts, Silent Movie is still subversive. This time, however, it’s the artform itself that is under attack.
By now, Brooks was a certified genius. Critics adored him and fans lined up in droves to see his latest unhinged humoresque. It was an interesting time for the then 52 year old. He was determined to broaden his artistic endeavors to include more TV and theater (he had both successes – Get Smart, New Faces of 1952 – and failures – When Things Were Rotten, All American – in both). In 1980, he would start a production company, Brooksfilms, which would foster such masterworks as David Lynch’s Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly to the big screen. Still, Brooks needed another sure thing, and he thought he had it with his latest concept – a spoof of Alfred Hitchcock films.
The result, High Anxiety, is still a contentious movie for many Brooks’ fans. Some see it as recycled and derivative, the artist finally showing that he had run out of originality. Others view it as his best work, a seamless amalgamation of his Borscht Belt buffoonery and the Master of Suspense’s cinematic flair. Hitchcock himself LOVED the idea (and the eventual film), even giving Brooks some notes about possible jokes and memorable moments to mock. As Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the filmmaker is in rare romantic lead mode, playing straight man to his excellent ensemble of Kahn, Korman, and Leachman. The story lifts bits and pieces from North by Northwest, Vertigo, and several other Hitchcock gems. But there is also the standard Brooks byproduct of general, genial juvenilia and toilet humor to content with.
As with the hilarious scene where Blazing Saddles‘ cowboys “cut the cheese” around a campfire, we are treated to Dr. Thorndyke being deluged by a flock of birds – and their copious droppings. While investigating the disappearance of a famed psychiatrist, Brooks gives us B&D, S&M, fourth wall breaking in-jokes, and the always interesting mid-narrative song and dance. From Lili Von Shtupp’s Marlene Dietrich by way of John Ford turn, to the monster and his maker crooning “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, Mel’s movies were inundated with music. It was something he started way back when The Producers needed a bad taste showtune to shock the fictional theater audience, and Brooks devised the now hilarious standard “Springtime for Hitler”. “High Anxiety” was fashioned after the ’70s incarnation of Frank Sinatra, and the filmmaker delivers it with all the brash bravado of the chairman himself. As a study in cinematic history, this is one of Brooks’ best. Some still prefer his earlier, more outrageous efforts.
The ’80s heralded the beginning of the end for the comedian turned commodity’s mainstream dominance. While his sketch-like History of the World Part 1 was a massive hit, the rest of his output was scattered and often disregarded. Spaceballs (also part of this set), a meandering spoof of Star Wars, is still beloved to this day, but it’s the source references, and not Brooks’ belly laughs, that garner most of the wistful nostalgia. Life Stinks, his half-baked homeless comedy, was nothing to laugh at – literally, and the less said about the appalling Dracula: Dead and Loving It the better. No, it would be up to History and its non-Brooks other To Be or Not To Be to start off the decade with a bang, and for the most part, they succeeded. Many enjoyed the four part deconstruction of man on planet earth, from the Neanderthal nonsense of the beginning to the trip through Ancient Rome, the musical look at the Inquisition, and the fabulous French Revolution riffs.
To Be, on the other hand, was an unusual choice for the comic. Clearly he wanted to work with his incredibly talented second wife, Anne Bancroft, as well as take on some material that wasn’t so bound by bathroom humor and bodily functions. There are some ripping moments throughout as Brooks plays a member of a troupe of Polish actors, avoiding persecution by the invading Nazis. With the help of a young US pilot played by Tim Masterson, he and his wife devise a plan to escape. Since Brooks did not direct (he let collaborator and choreographer Alan Johnson take the reigns), he seems more at ease here. There’s not the need to be overly manic and mannered. Instead, this is a more mature Mel Brooks, something audiences had not really seen – not even in High Anxiety. Instead, it was a window into his range as an artist, as well acknowledgment that fans probably preferred the nuttier, gassier version of his onscreen persona.
This was especially true of Spaceballs, a post-millennial source of much geek love. While it’s a movie filled with obvious Star Wars quips and take-offs, there is still something quite magical about watching SCTV‘s Rick Moranis running around like Darth Vader’s 98-pound-weakling doppelganger. Other elements that work include John Candy as Barf – half man, half dog (he’s his own best friend) – and Joan Rivers as yenta-ish whiny C3PO clone. Of course, some of the material mined is beyond silly (our heroes owe money to…wait for it…Pizza the Hut) but there are some who swear by Brooks’s belittling of all things interstellar. One thing’s for sure – Spaceballs remains the filmmaker’s last likable effort. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (included as well), meant to spoof the recent Kevin Costner reimagining of the Sherwood Forest legend, was as limp as lampoons come. Luckily, the awfulness that was Brooks’ vampire tale helped keep said send-up from being the comedian’s sour swansong.
Since Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Brooks has found a new arena to conquer – Broadway. He turned The Producers into one of the Great White Way’s biggest smashes and bagged a bunch of Tonys in the process. He tried to do the same with Young Frankenstein, with less than successful results. Aside from his occasional appearance as part of DVD and Blu-ray supplements of his films, the writer/director has been relatively quite. He played a part in both a big screen adaptation of Get Smart, as well as a small screen animated version of Spaceballs. Neither was particularly memorable – and with good reason.
As with most comedy and its creators, Brooks’ domination of the genre was cyclical. One moment, you’re the king of cut-ups. The next, you’re as unfunny as a Congressional filibuster. Unlike many of his ilk, however, he managed to squeeze decades – not just years – out of his run behind the laugh riot rudder. For many, the movies made by Mel Brooks represent the pinnacle of American filmic funny business. Looking over the titles featured here, the current crew of crack-ups has a lot to live up to. A lot!