If there’s one thing my generation loves, it’s Mel Brooks. We grew up on him. My parents lived in fear of the day when I would finally see Blazing Saddles. Would I get that they were making fun of racists and not blacks? Did they really want their son to watch a movie with that much sexual inuendo and not only the first fart scene in cinematic history but also the most intense? What in the wide, wide world of sports was going on here?
But the first movie I was allowed to go by myself to watch was Young Frankenstein, made shortly after Blazing Saddles. If my parents realized that I and my pal Jimmy James (That was his real name) would quote Igor’s lines constantly, damn your eyes, they might not have let me go. But as I got older, I missed History of the World, Part I, but caught Spaceballs. As an adult, I skipped Life Stinks but watched and rewatched Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Dracula: Dead and Loving It did disappoint, but the musical version of Brooks’ first movie, The Producers was hysterical. (Does that count as a Mel Brooks movie? I count it.)
I’m going through a slow marathon of Brooks’ canon. Brooks is the master of parody, though there are times you can tell he was trying to escape being the forerunner of Airplane! and The Naked Gun. He even produced (uncredited) David Cronenberg’s The Fly, as decidedly un-Brooks-like as possible. But parody is why we love Mel Brooks. Even his more serious movies are clearly the product of a young Melvin Kaminsky, a soldier in the Battle of the Bulge who, when trapped waiting for Patton’s troops to come rescue his company, taunted Nazis with his Borscht Belt schtick over a loud speaker. Mel is one of those last remaining Catskills comics still working, having gotten his start on the prototype for Saturday Night Live and Monty Python, Your Show of Shows. Yes, he’s still working. Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money (or The Schwarz Awakens, depending on who you talk to) is a go. He’s even still doing standup. While his brand of standup is not my cuppa (I’m a fan of the great George Carlin and Dennis Miller back when he was still funny), he’s still on when he does it. How many other people can you say that about just shy of their 90th birthdays? Betty White. I think that’s about it.
So after the jump, here’s the Brooks canon, with a couple that, technically, might not count. I’m counting them anyway.
The Producers (original) 1968
The first movie Brooks wrote and directed concerns two Broadway producers who can’t seem to make any money with their plays. Max Bialystock (Mostel) raises capital by sleeping with as many rich elderly women as possible that he has to give all the money to his bevy of geriatric babes. He and Leo Bloom (Wilder) hatch a scheme to produce a play so offensive and awful that it will tank, the play will be a disaster they can write off as a loss, and they can keep all the money.
When Springtime for Hitler is a surprise hit, hilarity ensues. It’s Brooks’s first collaboration with Wilder, who plays the more nervous character that showed up in his later films with Richard Pryor. Since Brooks did not direct, many of the usual features of Mel Brooks parodies don’t appear here. The notable exception is Brooks’s need to ridicule the Third Reich, which happens through almost all of his movies. In this case, Brooks, who is Jewish, gleefully gouges the eye of a regime that destroyed six million of his fellow Jews and would not stop… Pretty much ever. Even the officers in Spaceballs wear uniforms reminiscent of Germany in World War II.
The Twelve Chairs 1970
This one sticks out for its “small” feel, its vein of comedy which is decidedly un-Brooks-like (as we would later come to know it), and its underlying serious tone. Based on a Russian short story set in in the USSR of the 1920s, The Twelve Chairs tells of a former aristocrat who learns he still has a fortune in diamonds stashed away somewhere. It turns out they were hidden in one of twelve antique chairs he sold after the revolution. He and a young rogue (played by an extremely young Frank Langella. Ladies, you will want to see this one for Frank in his prime alone. That’s him on the right in the picture.) go off on a series of comic adventures seeking the chairs and the diamonds. Their chief adversary is a shady Orthodox priest played by Dom DeLuise in the first of many movies he and Brooks would do together. DeLuise is every bit as neurotic and larger than life in this as he is in later movies. The Twelve Chairs, however, is rather poignant, and its punchline at the end is not your typical fourth-wall breaking Brooks. But he hasn’t started to do parodies yet. For all its humor, The Twelve Chairs is a tragic story with a happy ending. Brooks is not the first to film this story, nor is he the last. (A Russian filmmaker shot his own version around this time.)
Blazing Saddles 1974
“What’s your crime?”
“Not much of a crime.”
“Through the Vatican?”
“Kinky. Sign here.”
Yes, in Mel Brooks’s universe, the bad guys have to sign up for the great raid on the good guys. Brooks starts his career of film parody by sending up the Western, a tired genre by 1974. The nucleus of Brooks’s preferred acting troupe is in place here: Wilder, DeLuise, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn. This movie pulls no punches and eviscerates the still-prevailing racism of the day. Well, it should. Richard Pryor cowrote the movie and was originally tapped to play Sheriff Bart, the unlikely savior of the town of Rock Ridge, a town full of the inbred “common clay of the new West. You know. Morons.” Here, Brooks gleefully indulges in breaking the fourth wall: Harvey Korman getting annoyed with the audience, Count Bassie in the middle of the desert providing the soundtrack on screen, “This is 1874. You can sue her!” in reference to Heddy Lamar, whose name is similar to villain Hedley Lamar’s. Sidenote: Heddy Lamar did sue Brooks. They settled. Made for a cool addition to the DVD. I could (and have) do an entire blog post on this movie alone, but it’s a cultural touchstone for those of us of a certain age or older. Younger, they either don’t get it or are deeply offended by the racial humor, which means it actually did its job. “You can’t say that! That’s racist!” Exactly. Those are the people Brooks and company are lampooning.
Young Frankenstein 1974
On a roll, Brooks teams up again with Wilder and brings Chloris Leachman into his comic fold as Frau Blucher (Whiiiiiinnnnneeeeeyyy!!!) Wilder is Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen” because his grandfather “was a cuckoo!“), a respected neurosurgeon and grandson of Victor Frankenstein. Seems Vic left Frederick his castle and laboratory. He travels to Germany to look over the place where he meets Igor (“It isn’t Eee-gor. It’s Eye-gor.”), son of Victor’s assistant.
The movie is a sendup of the original Frankenstein from the 1930s that might have benefited from a cameo by Boris Karloff had he been alive. Like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein has a plethora of references that still ring true. I, for one, realized I’d hit puberty watching Terri Garr as Inga, Frederick’s comely assistant who sings “Roll! Roll! Roll in the hay!” But where as Blazing Saddles held up an uncomfortable funhouse mirror to part of American society, Young Frankenstein has an almost Rocky Horror vibe, only the cliches and cultural references come from the screen itself, whereas Rocky Horror (which is really Frankenstein on acid at an Andy Warhol party) is as much a product of its audience as it is anything in the film itself.
But for all its parody, Young Frankenstein is actually truer to the original Frankenstein story than many movies made before or since. It’s essentially the 1931 classic remade, but its spirit is closer to the Mary Shelley story.
Because I’m sure Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, would have insisted on having Inga in the story as well.
But I’m probably just making that part up.
Silent Movie 1976
A silent movie in 1976? Seriously? That’s the premise of this rather retro film. Mel Brooks plays Mel Funn, a washed-up director who has finally quit drinking and wants a hit. What follows is a slapstick attempt, all done silent movie style, to lure every major star of the day, including Burt Reynolds, James Caan, and Brooks’s wife Ann Bancroft (who looks stunning in this film.) Bernadette Peters is the sultry vixen sent to seduce Funn and derail the film, only to fall in love with him. (A callback to Madeline Kahn’s character in Blazing Saddles.) Funn’s partners are played by DeLuise and Young Frankenstein‘s Marty Feldman (in one of his last roles.) And I dare you to not read the dialog cards in Feldman’s voice. I double dog dare you. You can’t, not if you’ve seen Young Frankenstein.
High Anxiety 1977
An homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Brooks plays the acrophobic head of a mental institution who takes over amid foul play going on behind his back. Korman, Leachman, and Kahn are back. Dick Van Patten makes his Mel Brooks debut here. There are references to many major Hitchcock films: Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, and most notably, The Birds, when Brooks, instead of being pecked to death, is attacked by hordes of pooping pigeons.
Hitchcock was so impressed with the movie that he sent Brooks a case of wine.
History of the World, Part I 1981
Another slew of cultural references, Mel Brooks attempts to explain the history of mankind in a film that almost parallels Monty Python‘s The Meaning of Life. There are a lot of great nuggets in this one, such as someone walking down the streets of Caesar’s Rome carrying a boom box blaring “Funky Town” at full blast. Brooks also plays one of his most memorable characters as King Louis XVI’s “piss boy,” the hapless man assigned to carry a bedpan around for the nobles and royals to piss in. When King Louis (also played by Brooks) realizes the French Revolution is about to remove his head, “piss boy” is tapped to pose as the King while he flees town. Piss boy is soon eating good, getting drunk on fine wine, and helping himself to the willing ladies of the court. He constantly breaks the fourth wall and informs the audience “It’s good to be the king.”
And if you’re a scifi fan, then you love the preview for History of the World, Part II featuring “Jews in space!”
To Be or Not to Be 1983
Brooks’s only remake until 2005 (and that was The Producers), this was originally a Jack Benny movie. Why did he remake it? Brooks started out taunting the German Army in France in 1944. Almost all his movies poke fun at the Third Reich unapologetically. Now Brooks gets to spend two hours tweaking the Fuhrer‘s nose in this farce about a Polish acting troupe caught in the middle of the 1939 invasion that started World War II. The trailer is notable for Brooks bursting into a barroom in a German uniform with a Hitler mustache and asking, “Excuse me, is this England?”
My only question about Spaceballs is “What took Mel Brooks so long?” Scifi had been ripe for parody since the days of the original Star Trek. And Brooks was the man to do it. In fact, in the mid-1970s, Brooks’s former partner on Get Smart, Buck Henry, created a short-lived space comedy Quark, which had a lot in common with Get Smart and Brooks’s other show with Henry, When Things Were Rotten (something of a dry run for Robin Hood: Men in Tights.)
The movie pretty much lifts its plot from Star Wars but has all the tropes. Spaceball President Skroob is the spiritual descendant of Governor Lepetomane. Rick Moranis, whose retirement delayed the sequel for decades, is perfect as Dark Helmet, a decidedly less than impressive dark lord who totally wasn’t caught playing with his dolls. George Wyner is the commander clad in a Germanesque uniform, Colonel Sanderz. (“What’s the matter, Colonel Sanderz? Chicken?”)
The good guys are played by Bill Pullman as Lone Star, Daphne Zuniga as the smart mouthed Princess Vespa, and John Candy as Barf (short for “Barfolomew!”) Capping it off is a miniaturized Brooks as Yogurt, Master of the Schwartz. There’s are a couple of cool cameos, including Michael York as one of the apes in an ending that parodies Planet of the Apes (“Oh, shit! There goes the planet!”) and John Hurt reprising his role as Kane from Alien. Kane has the special at a diner, which causes a repeat of his… um… digestive troubles from the Ridley Scott original. This time, the Chest Burster does his rendition of Michigan J. Frog’s “Hello, My Baby!” after a horrified Kane looks on and groans, “Oh, no. Not again.”
Life Stinks 1991
Haven’t seen this one yet, and yet this is probably Brooks’s least popular film. The Twelve Chairs has the advantage of being an obscure indie, but this movie is not a parody like most of Brooks’s other work. Brooks plays a real estate mogul who bets his rival he can survive as a homeless person for 30 days. The rival, George Wyner again, uses the bet to seize a property Brooks has his eye on. In the meantime, Brooks finds love in the gutter with a homeless woman, played by Lesley Anne Warren (who is one damn fine looking bag lady.)
I totally get why Brooks did this one. It would be like Michael Bay or Tarantino shooting a remake of Kramer Vs. Kramer just to give the explosions (Bay) or pulp (Tarantino) a rest.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights 1993
Brooks visited Robin Hood once in 1973’s When Things Were Rotten. This time, he one ups Kevin Costner (all the while stealing the plot of Costner’s movie) by having Carey Elwes play the title role. And unlike some Robin Hoods, Elwes’s Robert of Locksley has an English accent. Amy Yazbeck plays Maid Marian, locked in a chastity belt made by Everlast. Roger Rees, fresh off his stint as Kirstie Alley’s boyfriend on Cheers is the Sheriff of Rottingham, chief lackey to the neurotic Prince John (Richard Lewis.) This movie is almost a greatest hits for Brooks, with callbacks to Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, and Spaceballs! It’s also notable for being the screen debut of Dave Chapelle, who plays Achoo, a young stand-in for Morgan Freeman’s character in the Costner movie. It’s also the most musical of Brooks’s movies until the remake of The Producers.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It 1995
I have to rewatch this one, but I remember being disappointed by it. Both Brooks and Leslie Neilsen are kind of tired in this send up of the original Dracula, which throws a few well-placed darts at Coppolla’s overblown Dracula film. Harvey Korman returns as the head of the sanitarium. (Hmm… Shades of High Anxiety?) and several long-time Brooks veterans return, including Rudy DeLuca and Mrs. Brooks herself, Ann Bancroft.
One wonders why Nielsen, whose career was revitalized by Airplane (and don’t call me Shirley), hadn’t done a Brooks movie before. However, Neilsen’s Dracula is a clumsy straight man, and the humor is a bit dumbed down, probably because fart humor was taking over in the mid-1990s. I do remember rather fondly Dracula’s doom where Peter MacNichol’s Renfield opens a curtain at sunrise for his master, only to have Dracula, transformed into a bat, shout in a high-pitched voice “Renfield, you asshole!” The Count disappears in a puff of smoke. I think at that point, Brooks decided to call it a career and stuck with supporting roles and voice work from then on… And then he wrote himself a musical, which got made into a movie, both of which are remakes of…
The Producers 2005
Yes, Brooks comes full circle by casting Nathan Lane as Max (whom he played on Broadway) and Matthew Broderick as Leo as the hapless pair of producers try their scheme again. This time, the half-baked Neo-Nazi genius behind Springtime for Hitler is played by Will Ferrell, who steals the movie.
It has some of the elements of classic Brooks, but this movie is also free of having to be another Blazing Saddles or Spaceballs. It’s its own thing, not even related to the original even though it’s faithful to the original’s story.
I debated about adding Get Smart, but while Brooks was involved with Get Smart, it seems to stand apart from his canon. Well, so does The Twelve Chairs, but that was early in his career. On the other hand, the 2005 The Producers is still, for all its differences, the 1968 original, updated and influenced by the musical the remake was based upon. I supposed I should have said something about Get Smart, but having seen it once, I didn’t get the feeling this was a Brooks movie. Mel might disagree, but last I checked, he didn’t ask me anyway.
Besides, I can’t wait to see Spaceballs 2: The Schwartz Awakens!