The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Mel Brooks
Last week, we took a look at the career of Russell Crowe, an actor whose presence or gravitas is unmatched. This week’s subject has his own kind of gravitas, albeit if you compared the two they couldn’t be more different. One thrills us while this week’s guy makes us laugh until it hurts.
Nobody makes me laugh like Mel Brooks. A living legend, Brooks has been cracking people up since his early days in the 1950's as a writer on Sid Caesar's “Your Show of Shows” - a kind of comedy all-stars training ground where he wrote alongside life-long friend Carl Reiner (with whom he did the famous “2000 Year Old Man” routine), Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) and others. Following that he went on to co-create the classic “Get Smart” 007-TV spoof, before finally breaking into films as the writer-director of the brilliant (and ahead of its time) THE PRODUCERS, which introduced the public to the great Gene Wilder.
In the forty-five years since, Brooks has done more for American film comedy than just about anyone else. His BLAZING SADDLES to SPACEBALLS run brought us classic after classic, most of which pushed the boundaries for what was considered acceptable on the big-screen in terms of comedy. He delighted in pushing people's buttons, but he did it in such a heartfelt way that despite the gleeful tastelessness of his movies, no one could ever accuse him of not having the best intentions and a kind streak a mile long. Even at his most outrageous, with the “n-word” used no less than seventeen times in BLAZING SADDLES, I doubt anyone would ever call Brooks insensitive. There's an intellect to his comedy that puts him more in league with someone like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor (who co-wrote BLAZING SADDLES) than it does many of his stodgier contemporaries, making his work feel vital generations later.
Granted, not every Brooks film is BLAZING SADDLES. SPACEBALLS was probably his last really effective comedy (and that was undeniably toned down compared to his earlier work), although even later entries like LIFE STINKS and ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS have their moments. Around the time DRACULA: DEAD & LOVING IT came out, it looked like Brooks was going to retire, and while he hasn't directed a film since, he turned his attention elsewhere with his monumentally successful Broadway adaptation of THE PRODUCERS, which made him one of a handful of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners. Truly, no one deserves it more. I should also mention that in the mid-eighties, Brooks launched a production shingle that put out some amazing films, including THE ELEPHANT MAN and THE FLY (as well as SOLARBABIES but hey, it was the eighties. “Post apocalyptic roller-skating movie” probably looked good on paper). So not only is Brooks funny, but he's also responsible from breaking David Lynch (who he memorably called “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”) and David Cronenberg into the mainstream.
For days, I've been agonizing over whether to choose BLAZING SADDLES or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as Brooks' finest work. While YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is more sophisticated, the edge has to go to BLAZING SADDLES, not only for its envelope pushing but for the fact that it remains the single funniest film I've ever seen. If any of you out there haven't had the pleasure of seeing the late Cleavon Little team up with Gene Wilder as Sheriff Bart and The Waco Kid, and take on Harvey Korman's Hedy (that's HEDLEY!!!) Lamarr and his gang of ruffians, stop everything you're doing and watch it. Now! It's a comedic masterpiece, with jokes that never ever get old. And remember, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
My listing of the big-screen version of Broadway's THE PRODUCERS comes with a strong caveat. For one thing, Mel Brooks did not direct this. Second, I've never seen the show on the stage, and I've heard the film, despite everyone's best intentions, was simply unable to recapture the magic of a live show. Nevertheless, only basing my knowledge of THE PRODUCERS musical phenomenon on this film, I'm puzzled by its enduring popularity. The original 1968 film is a masterpiece, and it rubs me the wrong way that people, when they think of THE PRODUCERS, only picture Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, rather than the late, great Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Again though, I've never seen it performed live.
I have to give longtime JoBlo.com reader Eric Charbonneau (@RicCoalwater) credit for suggesting HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART 1 as Brooks' most underrated film. I was tempted to pick SILENT MOVIE or HIGH ANXIETY, both of which have their moments, but HISTORY is a riot from beginning to end. Whether it's a musical number about the Spanish Inquisition (“hey Torquemada, whaddaya say!”) to the magic joint (“so what do you think about the decline of the Roman Empire? Aw f**k it!”) to the famous “it's good to be the king” line, HISTORY is Brooks' lost masterpiece. It's not BLAZING SADDLES or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but it's close.
What else could I choose here but the infamous campfire scene from BLAZING SADDLES? That said, Gene Hackman's brilliant YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN cameo as “the old blind man” (“wait! I was gonna make espresso!”) was a contender.
At eighty-seven, Brooks is mostly retired these days, although he's often interviewed on TV, and maintains a Twitter account (@MelBrooks). Meanwhile, his son Max wrote the amazing WORLD WAR Z, and is growing into something of an icon in his own right.