Watching the Fox Mel Brooks Collection on Blu-ray, two things become readily apparent. One is that Mel Brooks loves movies. He doesn’t just like them, he loves them. Sure, you can hold his adaptation of the Ernst Lubitsch film To Be or Not to Be against him, but can you think of another filmmaker who would make a silent film ever, much less in the mid-70’s? His greatest films are movie-centric satires that show a great affection for old Hollywood and when he strays he tends to fall flat. The second part of the equation that is Mel Brooks is presented after the jump.
And that second part of Mel Brooks is this: he started strong and lost his way. Something of a gag writer, when paired with Gene Wilder the two made their best works – on their own Brooks made films with a lot of gags, but none of the warmth or depth, and Wilder also seemed half there. There is a great sense of diminishing returns with Brooks, the comedian, but such is the case with many great artists, and usually comedians. Even Woody Allen isn’t as funny as he once was, and there’s a sense of being there and having done that. And Brooks definitely recycles gags towards the end.
The box set kicks off with The Twelve Chairs. The Producers was last owned by MGM, but was originally an Embassy release, which suggests that the rights could be with anyone, or the source material was too weak for the 1080 treatment. On the positives, the transfer of this film is excellent with the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in English 5.1 DTS-HD and original mono. Extras are limited to bonus trailers.
The film is of the sort social comedy Mel Brooks never really mastered and only tried again once with Life Stinks. A group of Russians are trying to find the jewels of former aristocrats in the new Soviet Union. Ron Moody plays Ippolit Vorobyaninov, one of the former royals happy to chase after his past and past fortunes, while Frank Langella plays Ostap Bender, part of the new Russian order and the master manipulator of the two. They pair in search of the twelve chairs formerly held by Vorobyaninov’s family. Also on the hunt is Father Fyodor (Dom Deluise), who heard about the jewels during last rites. It’s a mad dash across Russia to find the jewels, and there’s a stop for Mel Brooks to show up as an ex-servant, and do some schtick as a the half-there idiot, one of his favorite characters to play.
Langella is charming enough as the con-man, but the film doesn’t have a great sense of build or that many great jokes. There’s a good bit where Moody’s character has to do a stage show, but much of the film plotzes. Brooks seemed to shrink from this sort of filmmaking, and it’s at once sad that he only tried to develop different muscles nearly thirty years later, while fair as he didn’t do so hot with this one. At least as a producer Brooks took chances, but as a director he only strayed twice.
But everything is that much more awesome with Blazing Saddles, and it’s one of the most perfect comedies ever made. Cleavon Little stars as Bart, the sheriff who comes to Rock Ridge to be Sheriff, but the townsfolk are worried about having the first African-American Sherrif, on top of being racists. But Bart is actually good at his job, and gets to be friends with The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), and pisses off Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) and his crew of evil co-horts.
Jesus, I can’t watch five minutes of this film without hitting the giggles, and I can’t watch five minutes and not just watch the rest. Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s a transgressive comedy, and that works to the benefit of the film because it feels a little more dangerous and edgy than anything else Brooks attempted. It’s also one of his rare films to have a number of different comic voices, from Brooks to Andrew Bergman to Richard Pryor to Gene Wilder. And that really makes the film work on repeat viewings. Even though it’s a shotgun comedy (in that the jokes run from the subtle to the over the top) it all works within the context better than the rash of parody films that have since followed, and plays more like a Looney Tunes cartoon than – say – Airplane! Everyone is on their game here, from Harvey Korman to Slim Pickens to Wilder and Little.
Well worn territory for sure, as is the Blu-ray which is one of the earlier Blu-ray releases. The film is presented widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 True-HD. The transfer is excellent, and I could watch this film once a week. The film comes with a commentary by Mel Brooks from the DVD, along with all the other supplements. There’s the making of “Back in the Saddle” (28 min.) with Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Korman and Wilder among others. Then there’s the Blazing Saddles TV show “Black Bart” (24 min.) starring Louis Gossett Jr., Gerrit Graham and Mare Winningham, and then an “Intimate Portrait” Madeline Kahn” (4 min.) excerpt with Brooks, Lily Tomlin and Dom Deluise. There’s deleted scenes (10 min.), which are partly the TV versions of some scenes, and the theatrical trailer.
Also included is Young Frankenstein. My review of that film is here.
Next up is Silent Movie, and this is one of Mel Brooks’s best efforts, if not his most underrated. It stars Brooks as a director looking to relaunch his career with a silent movie, and is partnered with Dom Deluise and Marty Feldman. They go to some of the biggest stars in the world, including Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, James Caan, Anne Bancroft and Marcel Marceau in an attempt to keep his studio from being purchased by Engulf and Devour (a cheap joke on the MGM and Paramount situations at the time).
It is a literal silent movie, and that takes some real steel balls for Mel to pull off, but the film is funny, genial, and it works well for his cohorts, who can mug aplenty. It is also a loving tribute to the artists like Chaplin and Keaton, who paved the way for Brooks as a filmmaker (though his roots are more radio). And there’s a lot of influences here, from Laurel and Hardy to The Three Stooges; it’s a loving thing, and the film manages to use its silence to its benefit. This was Brooks last truly brilliant film.
The film is presented widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. What are you going to do? It looks great, and the soundtrack is robust, sure. “Silent Inspirations” (24 min.) is a making of with coments from Brooks, and Alan Spencer, and Dom Deluise, among others. There’s a trivia track, and trailers ofr this and other Brooks films.
Quality goes down with High Anxiety. Here is where Brooks started to obviously run out of steam and ideas. What can be said of High Anxiety in its favor is that Brooks made a loving tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. Brooks stars as Richard H. Thorndyke (an obvious play on Roger O. Thornhill from North by Northwest), who comes to head up a insane asylum with secrets, serets likely contained by Harvye Korman’s Dr. Charles Montague and Chloris Leachman’s Nurse Diesel. It wouldn’t be a Hitchcock movie without an icy blond, so Madeline Kahn plays Victoria Brisbane, whose father is the key to the whole macguffin.
The film is best summed up by The Birds parody, where Brooks notices a gathering storm of birds who then poop on him. There’s no wit to that at all. Or the Psycho parody, where someone interrupts Brooks’s shower with a stabbing motion, but there’s no real joke to it. Brooks had developed what has come to be the worst instincts of the genre, and if the Friedberg/Seltzer movies had a paternal father, it would be this film. That said, Brooks has a couple moments here and there, and the pairing of Leachman and Korman is inspired, even if their S&M relationship is a bit on the nose. Brooks loved Hitchcock, but he feels toothless with his story and what he’s doing. There’s no there there.
The transfer is excellent however, and the film is presented widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD and in original Mono. This disc comes with “Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master” (30 min.) on the director and the making the movie with Brooks and Leachman, and Dick Van Patten among others. There’s a “Am I Very Nervous Test?” and trivia track that run with the film, an isolated score and theatrical trailers for this and other Brooks films.
Much better is the looser History of the World Part I, which benefits from short form storytelling. There are two main stories, with some sketches as buffers, including some of Brooks’ most famous gags (fifteen commandments, The Spanish Inqusition musical number, Jews in Space). The majority of which is done in the age of Caesar, with Brooks playing a stand up philosopher, who gets a gig playing Caesar’s palace. He meets Josephus (Gregory Hines) and the two become quick friends after both piss off Caeser (Dom Deluise), but both are befriended, somewhat, by Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn) who lives up to her name. Then theres the second half where Brooks plays both a piss boy named Jacques and King Louis XVI, who is a lecherous man only interested in sex. Jacques is made up like the king as they suspect there will be a French revolution, but Jacques just wants to help Mademoiselle Rimbaud (Pamela Stephenson), who is trying to get a pardon for her father.
I think History of the World Part I was the first time I ever saw a pot gag and realized what it was. They tried to hide it in the TV cut, but you couldn’t really. But my parents were progressive so as a kid I watched the Cheech and Chong movies (side note: what the fuck was wrong with my parents?) The film is very loose and though it’s very hit or miss, without having to hem to a structure of established movies, the gags are more hit than miss, and you get such a range of great supporting players, like those mentioned, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman, and some classy help from Orson Welles doing the narration, and Charlton Heston playing God (which is a great joke). The film is very endearing, and Brooks plays raunchy, which I think helps.
The Blu-ray is beautiful with the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD and in original mono. Extras include a featurette on the musical number “Musical Mel: Inventing “The Inquistion,” (10 min.) “Making History: Mel Brooks on Creating The World” (11 min.) with Brooks and Stuart Cornfield among others, an isolated score track, and trailers for this and other Brooks films.
As for 1983’s To Be or Not to Be, remaking Ernst Lubitsch films is one of the surer ways to fail big, and Brooks falls flat of the original by a lot. Lubitsch was the greatest maker of sex comedies, but with 1942’s To Be or Not to Be he had a less nuanced departure. A film about Polish actors under Nazi rule, it was a middle-finger salute to Hilter & Co., an angry but hilarious raspberry meant to mock all that was going wrong in the world at that time. And if it lacked the classic Lubitsch touch, it was because his hand was in a fist. At the time it was considered bad taste, though retrospectively some have accused it of being soft – soft would be making the film long after the war was over, which is what Mel Brooks and friends did in 1983.
Directed by Alan Johnson, the film follows the Lubitsch original beat-for-beat but misses the music. Brooks stars with wife Anne Bancroft as the “world famous in Poland” Fredrick and Anna Bronski. Trouble in their paradise starts when Anna gets an admirer in Lt. Andre Sobinski (Tim Matheson), who goes to visit her during Fredrick’s attempt at Hamlet’s great soliloquy, making Fredrick more and more perturbed. War breaks out and Andre leaves the country, while the Bronskis and their troupe suffer under the Nazi oppression. When Professor Siletski (Jose Ferrer) meets Andre and his gang of fighter pilots, he tells them he’s going back to Poland and offers to get messages to their friends and families. All give him messages, while Andre asks him to say “to be or not to be” to Anna, whom the professor doesn’t know – which reveals him as a Nazi double agent. When the professor hits Poland hoping to meet Col. “Concentration Camp” Erhardt (Charles Durning), he attempts to seduce Anna, but Andre has also returned to Poland to stop Siletski, and so the Bronski troupe is enlisted to fool the Nazis and keep the resistance a secret.
The Brooks version of To Be or Not to Be feels like a family film due to its pairing of Brooks and Bancroft. If seen as a family affair, it explains away some of the movie’s problems, like the fact that Bancroft is lusted over by every man she meets (something a little more believable when Carole Lombard inhabited the role) twenty years past her prime. That noted, the duo have great charm together, and there are laughs throughout, but of course there are – it’s the Lubitsch framework. But the director Alan Johnson shows no great skill (it’s all shot like television). In one great scene, Fredrick pretends to be Siletski and in a bit of actorly ego asks Col. Erhardt if he had seen Fredrick Bronski perform, to which Erhardt says he did and then adds “What he did to Shakespeare, we’re doing to Poland.” This is probably the best line from the original, and it plays here, but better if you don’t know where it came from.
To Be or Not to Be on Blu-ray is widescreen (1.85:1) with both DTS-HD 5.1 and the original 2.0 stereo audio. Extras include a “Books and Bancroft: A Perfect Pair” (15 min.) which gets Brooks, Matheson, Deluise, and Teri Garr, among others, then there’s “How Serious can Mel Brooks get?” (3 min.), profiles of Mel Brooks (2 min.), Anne Bancroft (3 min.) and Charles Durning (2 min.), along with two trailers for this and bonus trailers for other Mel Brooks films, and an isolated score and trivia track.
And here is my review of Spaceballs.
Finally there is the sad case of Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Watching this again, I realized there’s not a lot of good jokes, and that it’s more an homage to the swashbucklers of yore. Alas, Cary Elwes’s Robin Hood, Amy Yasbeck’s maid Marion, Richard Lewis’s Prince John, and even Dave Chappelle’s Achoo are left with warmed over gags from a generation previous. The structure is also closely hewed to one film, and when the film steps out (having Chappelle do Malcolm X) it can gets some points. The other problem is that Elwes has a great look, but he’s not too far removed from Wesley here. Books could be funny, but he had nothing to work with here, and the few laughs are modest at best.
The Blu-ray is gorgeous though, in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD, along with the original Dolby surround. The film also comes with the laserdisc commentary from Brooks, who thinks this movie is hysterical. “Funny Men in Tights: Three generations of Comedy” (13 min.), which talks to the usual suspects about the movie, an HBO making of (26 min.), an isolated score and trivia track, and trailers for this and other Brooks films.
The set also comes with a glossy book about the films included, and Brooks and his career. It’s light reading, but it’s got some good quotes and pictures.