Mel Brooks: Restrain Yourself

Tonight on TCM, the AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Mel Brooks, will air and I couldn’t help but reminisce about the first comedy filmmaker I got to know by way of stuff he never did in the movies.   From seeing old clips of him with Carl Reiner to reading his name in the opening credits of Get Smart, Mel Brooks was a name I got to know early, mainly from his tv work, including multiple appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  Brooks, of course, became enormously successful in film, too, but it’s a career that’s always run hot and cold for me and I think I know why.

Producers 01

Mel Brooks first cinematic success was the 1963 short subject, The Critic, running a little over three minutes and consisting of nothing more than abstract animation being commented on by an unseen narrator, a curmudgeonly old grump, confused and perplexed by the designs he sees on the screen.   It wasn’t based on anything more than a gentle jibe at folks who might be a little put off at modern art and another jibe at modern art itself.  Brooks himself came up with the idea and execution and Ernest Pintoff, as director and producer, took home the Oscar for Best Animated Short Subject.  It would be another five years before Brooks himself would take the director’s chair and attempt a full length theatrical film but when he did, Oscar came calling again.

In 1967, Mel Brooks wrote and directed The Producers (released in 1968) and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  It was the story of an unscrupulous producer, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), selling massive percentages (in the range of, say, 100 percent) of productions to rich old widows for upfront production cash.  Then, when the show tanks, it’s a write off and he doesn’t have to pay out any percentage of profit.   He meets up with accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), and schemes with him to pick the worst show in history to produce, get a ton of money from the old widows, and laugh all the way to the bank when the show fails.  Except, it doesn’t fail, it succeeds wildly, meaning Bialystock and Bloom, are on the hook to pay 100 percent of the profit to multiple investors, several times over, something financially impossible to do.

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder worked wonderfully together and the “Springtime for Hitler” dance number took the movie into new territory for 1968, leaving audiences entertained and offended in equal quantities (even if now it all seems so tame).  Dick Shawn, Christopher Hewett, Kenneth Mars and Estelle Winwood all do fantastic work, as well, making this one of the best performed comedies of the sixties.  Not many others in any decade have as many as six great comedy performances in them.

A couple of years later Brooks made another film, The Twelve Chairs, which has always been a nostalgic favorite of mine (watched it a lot in the early days of cable) even if it is, admittedly, not among his best work.  It may not be his funniest, and certainly resides among his least known, but I’ve always felt it had a good heart to it.  Yes, it has a lot of silly slapstick humor that’s hit or miss but the relationship between ex-aristocrat Ron Moody and streetwise con-man Frank Langella turns into something quite real and moving.  They both need and use each other for their separate selfish gains but, by the end, they honestly just need each other, period.  And Brooks directs that extremely well, without overbearing sentimentality or emotional underlining.  In fact, it’s not really commented on at all, just presented as a part of the comedy package.  It’s a lot better than its near invisible status among Brooks’ films would indicate.

With the big success of The Producers six years behind him, The Twelve Chairs already half-forgotten after only four, and an unproduced screenplay based on She Stoops to Conquer dead on arrival, Brooks turned to parody and accepted a job as writer, then director, of a western parody, Blazing Saddles.  It was a huge box office success.  During the filming, he began working on his second parody film script, Young Frankenstein, with Gene Wilder, whose idea it was.  Given the incredible success of both films, and multiple Oscar nominations for both as well, it was no surprise that from this point on, Brooks stuck with parody.  And that’s where he sold himself short and painted his career into a corner.   It’s at this point that he starts to run hot and cold for me.

blazing saddles

Once Brooks decided that parody was the way to go, he restrained himself only to jokes that work within the parody at hand.  His parody films afterwards, from Silent Movie and High Anxiety to History of the World, Part I and Spaceballs, all have moments that make me laugh but none of them keep me interested from start to finish.  I guess, in many ways, the earlier works felt like complete movies rather than filmed jokes.  That’s a distinction I cannot defend, mind you, I say it only to reference how I feel about the movies.  The Producers feels like an original film with real characters and a story I’m interested in.  History of the World, Part I feels like a series of jokes with stock types there to deliver the punchlines.  Same with High Anxiety and Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  They’re simply organized skits about Hitchcock movies, Star Wars movies and Robin Hood movies stitched together into a full length movie.  And you know, there’s nothing wrong with that but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Hot and cold, in other words.

In the end, Mel Brooks had a lot more talent than the parodies ever allowed him to show.  His work on Young Frankenstein is a pretty impressive feat of mood and style, not just as a carbon copy of the original works, but a blending of genuine Gothic atmosphere with high comedy.   I love so much of his work in parodies, especially Young Frankestein, but I sometimes wish The Twelve Chairs hadn’t been a failure, both critically and commercially, so he would’ve had the confidence to do more original comedies not dependent upon a set type of joke to fit within the framework of a parody.  Nonetheless, I’m happy with the work we have and Brooks remains, in my estimation, one of the great comedians of tv and cinema.  If only for The Critic, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein, he deserves a tribute.  Fortunately, he gave us so much more.

16 Responses Mel Brooks: Restrain Yourself
Posted By swac44 : July 24, 2013 12:41 pm

Then there’s his odd film out, a remake of To Be or Not to Be with wife Anne Bancroft in the Carol Lombard role. To be honest, I’ve never seen it, and why should I when the original is so utterly perfect?

Posted By swac44 : July 24, 2013 12:54 pm

Oops, just realized that Brooks didn’t direct or write that Lubitsch remake, Alan Johnson (whose first screen credit is for choreography on The Producers) was the man behind the camera.

In other Brooks news, glad to hear that his first Robin Hood spoof, the 1975 TV series When Things Were Rotten is finally going to show up on DVD. I have an old VHS tape with three episodes, and I’m glad I’ll have the chance to see more.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 24, 2013 12:55 pm

I actually liked it when I saw it, back when it came out. Haven’t seen it since so I couldn’t say if the memory’s a false one or not. Technically, he just acts in it so it’s not really a Mel Brooks film although I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Buster Keaton in “The Good Old Summertime”, he didn’t help out, so to speak.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 24, 2013 12:58 pm

We overlapped there. Given Alan Johnson’s meager credits as director, I’d place this in the Nyby/Hawks, Foster/Welles, Hooper/Spielberg category of big name directors not technically listed as the director but probably kind of are.

Posted By Doug : July 24, 2013 4:37 pm

Love Mel Brooks. He did break away from the parodies every once in a while-”Life Stinks” had elements of Cary Grant’s “The Amazing Adventure” and also social commentary without punchlines.
It was considered a flop because it wasn’t a parody, but it is watchable.
Swac44, I liked the remake “To Be Or Not to Be”, but as we know, opinions differ. I didn’t judge it against the original, but against the other films of Brooks, and it is better than some.
The theater in the film is on Kubelsky Avenue, as a tribute to Jack Benny. I see the movie more as a love letter to Mel’s wife Anne, who (I’m saying this charitably) wasn’t ‘right’ for the Lombard role. I think they loved the original so much that they wanted to do their version as a tribute. I encourage you to give it a try.

Posted By Doug : July 24, 2013 5:08 pm

Swac44, thanks for mentioning it-I now have “When Things Were Rotten” Amazoning it’s way to me.

Posted By Gene : July 24, 2013 8:57 pm

I would never defend High Anxiety as being a masterwork, but it is the Mel Brooks film I watch over and over. Kind of odd because I can be quite critical of a film’s imperfections, especially comedies. Napoleon Dynamite is much beloved by friends, but I can show little more than disdain for it. Of course, Mel Brooks at his worst would be revelatory in comparison. I’ll have to revisit Young Frankenstein. I went to see the Broadway production several years ago and loved it. I think the thrill of seeing it on stage overshadowed my first viewing of the film. Megan Mullally can’t compare to Madeline Kahn, but she did a great job anyway.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 25, 2013 9:48 pm

I understand what you are saying about Mel Brooks’s films when you used the phrase “hot and cold.” I have always felt the same way, but in the past few years, what passes for movie comedy is so badly timed, ill-constructed, and ego-driven that I prefer Mel Brooks, even at his coldest.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 25, 2013 11:35 pm

Doug, I can’t remember anything about LIFE STINKS now. I have to see it again. I saw it on cable years ago and that was my one and only experience with it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 25, 2013 11:39 pm

Gene, here’s the thing with a lot of Mel Brooks movies: Even if I don’t like the movie as a whole, each one has at least two or three jokes that work so well for me, I can simply revisit them in my mind for the movie. With High Anxiety I love the under the coffee table camera, the camera through the French doors accident and, frankly, as stupid as it is, that opening shot of everyone looking out the airplane windows with smiling, happy faces until we get to Brooks who is so over-the-top freaked out it makes me laugh every time.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 25, 2013 11:40 pm

I have always felt the same way, but in the past few years, what passes for movie comedy is so badly timed, ill-constructed, and ego-driven that I prefer Mel Brooks, even at his coldest.

Amen to that! I find the same thing among a lot of thrillers and horror movies. Ones that I thought were only okay years ago look really good compared to some of the crap I see now.

Posted By Tommy Gibbons : July 27, 2013 6:48 pm

His “Get Smart” that he created for television with Buck Henry is a riot (not so much the later episodes). Today’s low-brow humor both in television and motion pictures is a sad shadow of the work Mel produced. Remember the pathos and gut-busting laughs Jaime the robot spy generated?

Posted By robbushblog : July 31, 2013 12:16 pm

You are so right about Brooks being “hot and cold”. While I love The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, the rest of his movies are just not quite as good, at differing levels, of course, I personally really like Spaceballs because of its Star Wars origins and some really funny lines that get repeated among my friends. Since I am of a younger generation, many of my friends really like Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but I think it was weak and not up to the standards of the first three films I mentioned.

I didn’t know he won an Oscar before The Producers. It wasn’t mentioned in his American Masters documentary that recently aired on PBS.

Posted By Doug : July 31, 2013 5:13 pm

swac44, thanks again for mentioning-”When Things Were Rotten” arrived today, and I must be off to watch it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2013 1:11 pm

Rob, here’s the link on The Critic at Wikipedia. Now, there’s no question it won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, but I believe it was the producer listed, Ernest Pintoff, who actually got the Oscar. So I should correct that in the piece.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2013 1:15 pm

Aaaaand… corrected.

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