Posted by gregferrara on July 24, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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