Mel Brooks is a member of that exclusive club of people who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar. He has worked as a stand-up comedian, wrote for Your Show of Shows, created (with Buck Henry) the television series Get Smart, directed three films named to the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 comedy movies and was named one of the top 50 comedians of all time in a 2005 UK vote of working comedians and industry insiders. I could go on, but you get the idea: the man knows a thing or two about comedy.
However, in a career spanning more than 60 years there are bound to be misses as well as hits. Case in point: the three films covered in this review, now out on Blu-ray DVD and available separately. They’re far below the standard of his best work and will appeal primarily to hard-core Brooks fans who just can’t get enough of his particular brand of shtick.
Here’s a few questions to help determine if you should invest in these DVDs: Do you find big boobies and mincing queens hilarious? Are you in mourning for the sketch comedy television shows of years gone by? Do you love it when movies recycle familiar comic bits? Do you have a high tolerance for low production values? If so, these may be for you.
On the other hand, if you’re easily offended or annoyed by adolescent humor, have limited tolerance for films made up of loosely connected skits, dislike being sold the same material over and over again and have no particular desire to see cheesy costumes and sets in high definition — you’ll probably want to resist the urge to buy these editions.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) is the most recent of the three films but you’d hardly know it by watching—in fact it demonstrates how little Brooks’ comedic style has changed over the years. The film is a takeoff of the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as well as innumerable other Robin Hood films but feels more like a series of sketches from Your Show of Shows or something of that era salted with ’90s topical references to things like L’eggs and pump-up sneakers. Most of the jokes were groaners when this film was new and they haven’t improved with age.
However ,the cast does its best to salvage the material and sometimes even manage to do so. Cary Elwes plays Robin (his remark that at least he can do an English accent, originally aimed at Kevin Costner, works equally well in the context of Russell Crowe’s wandering accent in Ridley Scott’s recent take on the legend) and the cast also includes Roger Rees as the Sheriff of Rottingham, Amy Yasbeck as Maid Marian, Tracey Ullman as the witch Latrine, Dave Chappelle (in his first credited film role) as Ahchoo and Patrick Stewart as King Richard.
By the way, do names like “Latrine” (“we changed it from shithole”), “Ahchoo” (gesundheit!) and “Sheriff of Rottingham” make you laugh? How about the thought of Mel Brooks as a moyel who does circumcisions with a miniature guillotine? If so, take it as another indication that these films might be right up your alley.
History of the World Part I (1981) makes no attempt to maintain a conventional story line. Instead it is composed of a series of historical skits taking you from the time of the cave men through the French Revolution. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it bombs, but at least Brooks keeps things moving so you’re not stuck too long with any particular bit.
The self-contained nature of the sketches allows a great number of stars to appear: besides Brooks regulars like Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Dom DeLuise and Madeline Kahn the cast includes, among others, Sid Caesar, Shecky Greene, Bea Arthur, Jackie Mason, Gregory Hines and the voice of Orson Welles. Brooks is at his best playing Torquemada in the all-singing, all-dancing Inquisition sketch which features a slot machine whose tumblers are Catherine Wheels with Jews impaled on them—see what I mean about this material not being suitable for the easily offended? So help me I nearly bust a gut laughing, so maybe I have some of that Mel Brooks’ sense of humor myself.
High Anxiety (1977) is an homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, if by “homage” you mean a series of parody skits which would be at home on The Carol Burnett Show shoehorned into a plot drawing heavily on Spellbound. The setup is that Brooks’ character takes a position as director of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, finds himself framed for murder and has to find the true killer in order to exonerate himself. No points for guessing that the plot’s real function is to serve as a clothesline on which Brooks strings a series of gags referencing Hitchcock films. It’s a long slog through obvious material which, if it ever seemed clever, no longer does.
The discs are generously supplied with extras including a “making of” featurette for each film as well as a commentary track for Robin Hood and assorted other features such as a quiz to help determine if you are Very, Very Nervous. The visual and audio quality is excellent although seeing these films in Blu-Ray just accentuates their lack of production values. Seriously, I’ve seen high school plays which looked better. All of which leads me to the conclusion that this collection is best suited to Mel Brooks completists while everyone else would be better off watching one of his better films, like Young Frankenstein or The Producers.