HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I (1981) – Mel Brooks as the million-year-old man


The following is my entry in The Year After Year Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Jan. 4-6, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to movies whose story spans one year or longer!


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

History of the World Part I did middling box-office (as did all Mel Brooks movies from this point on), but for my money, it’s one of Brooks’ funniest. Having cemented his comedic reputation early on with the 2000-Year-Old Man, it seems inevitable that Brooks would eventually take on the spectrum (or sphincter, as he might put it) of world history. And in the age of the Farrelly Brothers, Brooks’ ideas about bad taste seem almost quaint.

It begins with a lot of black-out gags (the first such gag amounting to, Ape Man = Onan) and takes off from there. The first sustained sequence, The Roman Empire, probably goes on a bit too long, and it “introduced” a buxom actress named Mary-Margaret Humes who, justifiably, went right back to obscurity shortly after the film’s release. But there are also many enjoyable moments: Gregory Hines’s mellow film debut, Madeline Kahn’s ecstatic song tribute to her well-endowed male slaves, and most of all, the Last Supper sequence at the end — completely messed up time-wise (it puts Jesus and Leonardo da Vinci in the same shot), but all the more hilarious because of it. (John Hurt plays Jesus, and as in Brooks’ Spaceballs [1987], his straight-faced seriousness just makes the insanity around him that much funnier.)

The next sequence (embedded below) is one of Brooks’s best: The Spanish Inquisition as a Marx Brothers-style musical number, with Mel Brooks as a socko Torquemada, beating out a rhythm on his victims’ shackled knees. This sequence alone justifies Brooks’ existence as a comedy director.

The sequence depicting The French Revolution has two main objectives in mind: show off as much of (1) British comedienne Pamela Stephenson’s bust and (2) Brooks’s wee-wee humor as humanly possible. Nevertheless, it has its moments, with Cloris Leachman as Madame Defarge, and Brooks as a randy king.

The final short sequence, a trailer for Brooks’s non-existent History Part II, is worth the bother just for one of those moments that makes me laugh for no discernible reason: a scene from “Hitler on Ice,” showing Brooks’s favorite nasty German as an Ice Capader. This ersatz trailer is enough to make me wish Brooks had really made a sequel. I doubt it would have turned out any worse than Spaceballs.


THE PRODUCERS (2005) – I’m a prisoner of love…for Mel Brooks



The following is my entry in The Broadway Bound Blogathon, being hosted by Rebecca at her blog Taking Up Room from June 1-3, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Broadway-related movies!

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There are countless groups who are certain to be offended by Mel Brooks’ musical version of The Producers. There are those who didn’t like Brooks’ initial 1968 film, those who thought his Broadway version was a bad idea, and those who will think the 2005 twice-removed film version is even worse.

A pox on all of them.

I’ve been a Brooks fan since Blazing Saddles. But though Brooks is famous for wallowing in excess and bad taste, his more recent movies were downright benign, as if Brooks had turned into the eccentric uncle who tells risque stories at the dinner table. The musical Producers returns Brooks to full-throttle bad taste, and it is all the more hilarious for it.

You probably know the basic story by now: Loser Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his meek accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) scheme to produce the worst show ever, so that it will close in one night and they can keep the investors’ money. They choose to produce “Springtime for Hitler,” written by an unrepentant Nazi (Will Ferrell). And to treat themselves, they hire Ulla (Uma Thurman), a beautiful but ESOL-impaired Swedish secretary.

If you liked Brooks’ 1968 version, you can regard this one as The Producers on steroids, and that’s mostly a compliment. People who seemed like one-joke numbers in the original — Ulla, the Nazi — get to blossom here. Who knew that Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell could sing and dance so well? (As for me, this is the first Ferrell movie performance I’ve actually enjoyed.)

And that’s another of the movie’s surprises: Satiric or not, it’s presented as an honest-to-gosh musical, as if Guys and Dolls had collided with the scatological Brooks. Some of the numbers are straightforward, others are slightly wacko (the tap-dancing ladies with walkers are one for the ages), but they’re all done with old-style panache. For that, kudos to Susan Stroman, who directed the Broadway version as well as this one.

People will complain that it’s all too over-the-top. Of course, any of Brooks’ best work is. They’ll complain that Lane and Broderick are not Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (of the original version). No, they’re not — they’re Lane and Broderick, and they do just fine as such.

Best of all is Brooks’ relentless effort to score laughs, big and small. It’s been a long while since a moviemaker worked so hard for his comedy, and an even longer while since I’ve laughed until I cried. It was worth the wait.


YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) – Like father, like son


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I maintain that, next to the original The ProducersYoung Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ most beautifully realized work.

Why? Because it has heart.

That might sound like a radical statement to those who regarded the movie as simply (simply?) a comedy classic. And yes, there is no shortage of literally breathtaking comedy scenes here — all you have to do is mention them. The Frankenstein monster pounding out “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Coffee and a cigar with a blind man (a superb cameo from Gene Hackman). Horses’ dramatic reaction to the name Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). The list goes on and on.

But you know what? For all of its sublime spoofery, what I take away most from the movie is the oddly touching relationship between scientist Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder at his finest) and his zipper-necked creation (try and do more with a nearly dialogue-less role in a sound movie than Peter Boyle did).

The movie opens by demonstrating how dismissive Frederick is of his ancestor’s supposedly insane past. But Wilder brings gravitas to even this opening scene. Is Frederick truly that dismissive of his heritage, or is he afraid he’ll be drawn to it? There’s subtext beneath the satire.

And when Frederick is trapped in a locked room with his raging creation, he has no choice but to play nice with him. And it’s almost as if, despite his John Barrymore-like presence, Frederick owns up to having as much misfittiness as his erstwhile “son.” Is there another Brooks movie that truly cared about the well-being of its characters as much as this one?

Brooks has perfect pitch here, letting the rest of the cast play their shtick to the fullest in counterpart to the dysfunctional-family stuff. Marty Feldman as pixish “Eye-gor,” Teri Garr as Frederick’s fulsome assistant, Madeline Kahn as his stuffy fiancee, Leachman as the castlekeeper with a past, and Kenneth Mars as the spokesman for the town’s lynch mob, all contribute beautiful grace notes of comedy throughout.

But seriously — are comedy viewers not at least subconsciously touched by the connection that Frederick makes with Ol’ Zipper Neck? If you doubt my theory, note how Brooks never quite hit the comedic heights after this one, and how writer-director Wilder tried a similar take on family Freudianism (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Brother) and never even came close.

A generation of movie makers who were raised on Mel Brooks comedies has long since proven that movie spoofs can concentrate strictly on genre parody and never have to concern themselves with being touching. But Young Frankenstein proved that it certainly doesn’t hurt.



LIFE STINKS (1991) – …and so does this movie


Life Stinks is another chapter in the ongoing question, Whatever happened to Mel Brooks’ sense of comedy? It starts out nicely enough, with Mel as Trump-like mogul Goddard Bolt (“You can call me God”), who accepts a bet that he can’t live on the streets for 30 days. But the moment the movie hits the streets, it turns into a pathos-laden mess, with occasional “funny” bits interjected (Mel sees a black kid break-dancing for money and tries to do a vaudeville buck-and-wing, yuk, yuk).

Leslie Ann Warren is nothing short of wasted. The worst part is this movie’s musical number, in which Brooks and Warren do a silent dance to Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Brooks’s musical parodies are usually the highlights of his movies; here he plays the whole thing straight, like a dancing excerpt from an aging guest star on “The Carol Burnett Show” (on which Rudy DeLuca, this film’s co-writer, began his career).

Go rent Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which covered the same ground 70 years before and did it a lot better.

Some thoughts about BLAZING SADDLES


Last night, I took my 20-year-old son to a theatrical screening of Blazing Saddles; he’d never seen it before. My wife had actually recorded the movie on our TV, but my son (God bless him) insisted that his first viewing of the movie be in an actual theater. (In case you’re wondering, he loved it, and on the way home, he used his phone to re-view clips from the movie on YouTube.)

I’m too lazy to write an actual review today. Plus, there are legendary movies, such as this one, that have had so much written about them, I’m loathe to think I can add anything fresh to the critical summary. (I think the first two Godfather movies are two of the best American films ever made, which is why I’ve always balked at reviewing them.)

Nevertheless, I’d like to share some post-viewing observations of Blazing Saddles. (WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

  • It’s been said that Blazing Saddles paved the way for future cinematic spoofs such as Airplane! But Saddles‘ style remains fresh and unique. It’s well-known that Airplane! is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the 1957 airplane melodrama Zero Hour with some well-placed non sequitor jokes added. That’s not to knock Airplane!, which I adore. But by contrast, Blazing Saddles plays as though someone put a stately Western painting on a wall and then threw everything they could find at the painting. (Even comedy Western-makers would never have conceived of using Count Basie’s music on their soundtrack, much less putting Basie and his orchestra in the middle of a Western desert.)


  • As wacko as this movie’s sensibility is, it’s sobering to realize how much of its racial commentary is (sadly) still so relevant. Here’s a small town that some villains are preparing to wipe off the map, and the citizens are desperate for help — until their help arrives in the form of a charming, well-spoken African-American. And amazingly, said African-American continually keeps his cool, even as the nastiest racial epithets are thrown at him. Replace Sheriff Bart and the local yahoos with Pres. Obama and the far-right Republicans, and you have an allegory for our time that was created four decades ago.


  • Legions of moviegoers have criticized Mel Brooks for his bad taste, which is a bit like criticizing the sky for sometimes being cloudy, since vulgarity is Brooks’ stock-in-trade. Nevertheless, amidst the movie’s frequent exhalations of curse words and flatulence, the one element of the movie that still bothers me is Brooks’ depiction of homosexuals as high-pitched sissy “faggots” (the word used in the movie) who seem stuck somewhere between the male and female genders. (This appears to be a major hang-up of Brooks’; “fag” jokes also loom large in Silent MovieHigh Anxiety, and [Lord knows] The Producers.) It seems strange that a movie so intent on exposing the idiocy of racial bigotry, and that has its own depiction of male bonding (Sheriff Bart and The Waco Kid riding off into the sunset together, albeit in a limousine), has an antiquated view of gayness that was already disintegrating at the time the movie was made. It’s one non sequitor that the movie could easily have done without.

But at the end of the day’s sunset, Blazing Saddles still holds up as a superbly lunatic film. It tosses so much craziness at you that you’re still laughing at its best gags even while some weaker gags are popping up on the screen. If it can truly be considered a Western, it’s one of my favorites.





Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE (1976) – Not Chaplin, but funny enough


The following is my contribution to The Mel Brooks Blogathon, being hosted by The Cinematic Frontier from June 28-30, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies directed by the famous funnyman!


Just about the time you roll your eyes at the hopelessness of the gags in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, a real gem comes along. As when a poster of Bernadette Peters in bosomy vamp mode is revealed, and some men seated at a table make the table rise without touching it. Or the gigantic prop fly that lands smack in the middle of Henny Youngman’s soup, inspiring the greatest one-liner in the history of silent movies.

Of course, the fact that Mel Brooks co-wrote, directed, and stars in this silent-film spoof is enough to tell you whether you’ll enjoy it or not. Surprisingly, this ramshackle farce has its basis in autobiography. At the time of this movie, Mel Brooks had just come off his Blazing Saddles/Young Frankenstein doubleheader, and 20th Century-Fox would probably have let Brooks film a spoof of the Yellow Pages at that point.

Thus comes the storyline of Mel Funn (Brooks), a washed-up movie director who comes up with the brilliant idea of making a silent movie. The studio director (Sid Caesar, who might have done better in Brooks’s role) agrees to the film as long as Funn can provide the appropriate big-name stars as box-office insurance. It doesn’t help that Funn’s studio is being threatened by the conglomerate of Engulf and Devour, and the studio needs a hit to make it back into the black.

Surprisingly enough, the big-name cameos provide some of the movie’s biggest laughs. Burt Reynolds takes a narcissistic shower and finds himself growing extra hands. Paul Newman pokes fun at his offscreen racing hobby by zooming around in a wheelchair. And famed mime Marcel Marceau finds his voice in the movie’s only line of dialogue.

On the other hand, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, who would seem an obvious choice as Mel’s crazy cronies, are a little joke that gets stretched a long way. Yet even when the movie isn’t as hysterical as it thinks it is, it causes you to smile throughout and to wish silent film was still a viable alternative for physical comedians, instead of an occasional novelty put to use by a hit filmmaker who could make any movie he wanted.

Mel Brooks talks about SOLARBABIES


If you haven’t heard of Solarbabies, I won’t hold it against you. It was a strange-sounding apocalyptic sci-fi movie that came out in 1986 and sank without a trace. (I had no interest in seeing it at the time and never have since then.)

The funny thing is that it had all the elements of a hit. It had a notable cast of veteran and upcoming stars including Charles Durning, Lukas Haas, Jami Gertz, and Jason Patric. And it came from the production company of, of all people, Mel Brooks.

A man named Paul Scheer runs a podcast named “How Did This Get Made?” whose subject matter is movies that are so out-there, they make you ask the titular question. Scheer and an associate made it their goal to personally ask that question of Mel Brooks and Solarbabies, and the result is a delightful interview with Brooks, the link for which is embedded below.

The only annoying part of this podcast episode is its first few minutes, wherein the hosts endlessly slap themselves on the back for scoring Brooks as a guest. But as you can imagine, when Brooks-the-storyteller gets going on the making of the movie, there’s no stopping him. Enjoy!