Judge Ryan Keefer has sat through 12 hours of some of the best comedy from Mel Brooks. Forgive him if he's not in a joking mood.
Our reviews of Blazing Saddles: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (published July 1st, 2004), High Anxiety (Blu-Ray) (published May 17th, 2010), History Of The World: Part I (Blu-Ray) (published May 20th, 2010), The Mel Brooks Collection (Blu-Ray) (published December 21st, 2009), Robin Hood: Men In Tights (Blu-Ray) (published May 26th, 2010), To Be Or Not To Be (published May 9th, 2005), and Young Frankenstein (Blu-Ray) (published January 7th, 2009) are also available.
It's good to be the king.
Simply put, the Mel Brooks films of the '70s and '80s could not be made today. In times of politically correct extremists who boycott and protest everything, Blazing Saddles would never see the light of day in 2006. Many of the jokes in Young Frankenstein would be trimmed or excised altogether, and no one would see a star-laden 90 minute silent movie nowadays. So is this boxed set worth the money?
Facts of the Case
While perhaps not as exhaustive a set as fans of Brooks would like, many of the films in this eight disc set are new to DVD. The titles are (deep breath in and)…
• Blazing Saddles
Released in 1974 during a time that some would say was Brooks' creative summit, the satirical Western recalls the story of Bart (Cleavon Little, Fletch Lives), a black railroad worker who is scheduled to be hung for assaulting his supervisor Taggart (Slim Pickens, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). Meanwhile, the people in the town of Rock Ridge are to be run out of town as part of a land grab and railroad project, helmed by the evil Hedy Lamarr (that's Hedley! Portrayed memorably by Harvey Korman of The Carol Burnett Show). As a way of driving the Rock Ridge people out of town, Bart is appointed sheriff of Rock Ridge, and while he first has to deal with the town's obvious racism ("the Sheriff is a ni-GONG!!!), he wins them over, using the help of a local drunk named Jim (Gene Wilder, Stir Crazy), who was formerly known as The Waco Kid, a cowboy who had the fastest hands in the world. They do what they can to keep the town alive and stop the railroad from coming through town. That's really as much as I want to say about it before I spoil every joke (for the five of you out there who still haven't seen the film) and reveal the rest of the story.
• High Anxiety
Brooks wrote, directed and starred in this Hitchcock tribute film as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, who has just been named head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous. He flies out to California, and we see that not only is he afraid of flying, but he has a rare condition called High Anxiety, which affects one in seven. His promotion is opposed by a fellow doctor named Charles Montague (Harvey Korman, Blazing Saddles) and the senior nurse named Charlotte Diesel (Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show), and they frame Thorndyke for a murder at a medical conference. During this period, he gains the confidence of Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn, A Bug's Life), and they both try to not only prove that Thorndyke didn't commit the murder, but find out who really did.
• History of the World: Part I
This was the last film that Brooks would direct for awhile, before 1987's Spaceballs. History of the World was a Brooks interpretation of various historical periods, from the dawn of time to the French Revolution, using a wide variety of old-school comedians, not to mention the Brooks stock company of actors. Narrated by Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), the film separates itself from the others by eschewing the more linear paths of other Brooks films, in favor of the gut-busting laughs, of which there are tons.
• Robin Hood: Men in Tights
If you were expecting this movie to be Brooks' interpretation of all the Robin Hood films through the years, then you'd be right. Tied more closely to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves than anything else, the film follows Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes, Days of Thunder) as he leaves Africa after fighting in the Crusades and returns home to England, where he finds his homeland egregiously taxed and not as idyllic as it used to be, both declines occurring under the rule of Prince John (Richard Lewis, Wagons East) and the Sheriff of Rotingham (Roger Rees, The Scorpion King). With the help of his friends Ahchoo (Dave Chappelle), Little John (Eric Kramer, True Romance) and Will (Matt Poretta, Kate's Addiction), they do what they can to try and win the town back, along with Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck, Home for the Holidays).
• Silent Movie
The follow-up to Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie is, well, a silent movie, using three creative buddies named Mel (Brooks), Dom (DeLuise) and Marty (Feldman), and they try to revive Mel's failing directorial career and the life of a Hollywood studio, by making the first silent film in over 40 years. It'll never work, says the studio chief of Big Pictures Studios (played by Sid Caesar). Wrong, says Mel, we can hire the top names in Hollywood to do it, then a lot of people will come see it. The studio chief lets them do it, hoping that it will save the studio from being bought out by a New York conglomerate, and the film follows the three as they try to get the movie made.
• The Twelve Chairs
The follow-up to Brooks' 1968 debut The Producers, Brooks takes flight to newly communist Russia, where he appears briefly before turning the show over to an ex-aristocrat named Ippolit (Ron Moody, Oliver!) and a scheming opportunist named Ostap (Frank Langella, Good Night and Good Luck). They search for Ippolit's chairs from the house he was thrown out of, because there's a fortune of jewels hidden in one. Together as part of a reluctant partnership, they go all through Russia to find the chair that holds the loot. They realize early on that they are racing against another aspiring thief, a priest named Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise, Loose Cannons), who is trying to find the jewels and bring them back to "the people."
• To Be or Not To Be
Brooks (in a film he neither wrote nor directed) and his wife Anne Bancroft team up for this film, as they play a husband and wife team of Frederick and Anna Bronski in the Polish theater during World War II, who have to adjust to life now that the Nazis have invaded and taken over their lives. Anna has befriended a Polish pilot who fights in the underground named Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Mathieson, Fletch). She helps to protect him from a Nazi sympathizer named Professor Siletski (Jose Ferrer, The Caine Mutiny) and a high ranking officer (played by Charles Durning, Tootsie).
• Young Frankenstein
If James Whale's films are the gold standard, then Brooks' interpretation of the Mary Shelley characters is a more unspoken, yet outstanding sequel to the original. Wilder brought the idea to Brooks about a man named Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (that's Frahn-ken-steen) who is trying to carve his own niche in the medical field despite his grandfather's large shadow. Given an enticing offer, he goes to Transylvania, with the underlying goal of resuming his father's work. Using a buxom assistant Inga (Teri Garr, Mr. Mom) and a trusty assistant named Igor (pronounced Eye-Gor, by Marty Feldman, Yellowbeard), they build their own creature (played by Peter Boyle, Everybody Loves Raymond), and are forced to deal with the ramifications of this act in and out of town.
What is great about the memorable Brooks films is that there's always another wrinkle that you pick up as you watch them. Take for instance, the name of Little's character in Blazing Saddles. Put that together with Little's appearance and you have a joke that tells you exactly where things will be headed. As Bart, Little (who was cast in the role because the studios did not want to take a chance on a young Richard Pryor and his not-for-young-audiences standup routines) makes the role his own. While the conventional assumption would be to say that Pryor would play Bart better, I think that as we look back on things, Pryor would certainly have transformed the role in a different way. Not better or worse, just different. Besides, Pryor's writing contributions to the film are priceless in and of themselves, elevating a normal comedic parody to something special.
The other casting in the film is inspired. Korman's performance is brilliant as the diabolical and lecherous Lamarr, and seeing Wilder and Kahn (as the teutonic temptress Lilly Von Shtupp) just before their performances in Young Frankenstein is a sight to behold. As Von Shtupp, Kahn blends equal parts Marlene Dietrich with (apparently) Barbara Walters, resulting in some great scenes (and a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, by the way). And the sight of Pickens lampooning himself in this film is also brilliant, as his roles in numerous Westerns through the years make for ripe laughs.
Now allow me to bring it down to a serious note for a second. Blazing Saddles was the first film I saw (and was conscious of) that addressed racial issues. Yeah I know, call me crazy, or say that I lived in a screwed up household (both of which are probably true), but allow me to explain. This film was my first exposure to Mel Brooks, and one of my first Blockbuster rentals back in the day. And up until the point of seeing the Chinese laborer collapse by the side of the railroad, things started to smell like conventional comedy to me. It's when Bart responds to the demands of singing a spiritual work song that two things occurred; not only was this going to be a pretty frickin' funny comedy, but also that Bart and his friends were going to rise above any racial stereotypes and that, quite frankly, they may have been the smartest characters in the movie. How much of that is credited to Pryor or not I don't know, but his overall contributions to the film have been justifiably recognized through the years. The ending of the film breaks down the wall between films and filmmaking not only from a creative point of view, but from a literal one also. Seeing Korman, in character, at the movies trying to get a student discount? Well come on, if that's not the sign of an evil man, nothing is!
At the end of the day, Blazing Saddles is remembered for humor that is hilarious by today's standards, which can only be a compliment. To laugh at the same lines (and find new things to laugh at through the years) reinforces how great a film it is.
Now, while the addition of a Warner Brothers disc to a set that Fox released is a good sign, the fact that it's the older version of the film, and not the recent 30th Anniversary Edition release, is a disappointment. The picture is quite clearly a wreck, full of dirt and objects, and the picture occasionally freezes with some stationary camera shots. The audio is OK, but for a Dolby 2 channel sound mix, one would assume it has to be. Brooks does an interview segment for about an hour during the film which covers everything in the production, and has quite a lot of detail on it, and is worth listening to for fans of the film.
In the early credits of High Anxiety, Mel Brooks clearly indicates that the film is dedicated to Hitchcock's work, and its nods are frequent and liberal for the Hitchcock admirer. Kahn's father in the film is played by Hitchcock's visual effects chief Albert Whitlock. The title for the film and the main concept are borrowed from Vertigo, and there are the obvious references to Psycho and The Birds. The name of Brooks' character is remarkably similar to Cary Grant's in North by Northwest. And so on and so forth.
With the initial charm out of the way, the story isn't really anything more than various references and tributes sewn together by a story that's rather vanilla in nature. The performances are all satisfactory, with the exception of Kahn, who is excellent as usual. A scene where Brooks' character calls her from a payphone before a thug tries to attack him gives Kahn the chance to do so much with very little interaction. It's a great example of what made Kahn a comedic force and a reliable source for inspiration and excellence in Brooks' films. Not seeing Leachman and Korman play off each other before was new, but very welcome, as they also do so much in the scenes they share.
At the end of the day, the film is more about the supporting performances and the nods to Hitchcock films than anything rather concrete or enjoyable. Some may disagree with me on this assessment of High Anxiety, but I found it to be somewhat forgettable in the Brooks filmography.
It's a change of pace to see History of the World when one's been exposed to Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein for so long. The film starts out by illustrating how man evolved from the prehistoric days, and you can't find a better person to help illustrate that than television legend Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows), as he helps show the viewers the first marriage, and in other funnier scenes, the creation of fire and of course, the first critic. Flashing forward to the Roman era, Brooks appears as Comicus, a "stand-up philosopher" who helps rescue a slave named Josephus (Gregory Hines, Running Scared) from execution from Caesar (Dom DeLuise, Cannonball Run), using the help of his wife, Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn, Blazing Saddles). And there's a lot of Romanic-type related jokes to emphasize the mood, like some of the names (like Mucus, for instance), and during the chase through Rome, Comicus arrives at a supper with about a dozen people, including one who answers to the name Jesus (John Hurt, Alien). From there, go forward in time another 1,200 years (give or take) to the Spanish Inquisition, where Torquemada (played by Brooks) is part of an elaborate (but funny, just listen to the lyrics!) musical number to illustrate the Inquisition and its attempts for conversions. Flash forward another half millennium to the French revolution, where Louis XVI (Brooks) plans to ravage Mademoiselle Rimbaud (Pamela Stephenson, Saturday Night Live) as part of a plan to have her father released from jail. While her father does get released, Louis manages to alternate attempts with Count de Monet (Harvey Korman, Blazing Saddles) to "do it" with Rimbaud (the Mademoiselle, of course). However before that plan comes to fruition, the people revolt and led by Madame LeFarge (Cloris Leachman, Spanglish), capture Louis. They attempt to execute him, but Louis is rescued by what can only be described as possibly the oldest deus ex machina on recorded film.
There are a lot of solid performances in the film, and Brooks' playing several roles isn't bad at all, and there are quite a few recognizable people or names in the cast throughout its running time. Along with Caesar, DeLuise, Leachman and Kahn, the comic Shecky Greene plays the Roman general Marcus Vindictus, Pat McCormick plays a Roman plumbing salesman, Jackie Mason plays a tortured Jew, and if you look close enough, there's a young Barry Levinson (Rain Man) as a Roman column salesman. Hines is capable as Josephus, but as the story goes, Richard Pryor was (again) supposed to be cast in a Mel Brooks film, but was unable to do the part because of his burning only months before.
Because there isn't a completely linear story that runs through the film, it's probably a bit more Vaudevillian in flavor or comedic tastes than other Brooks films have, and there are admittedly some jokes that do fall flat (blasphemy I know for more hard-core Brooks fans), but others are quite funny and are just as memorable as those in more recognizable Brooks films. An earlier release of the film had a muddled video presentation, but a new transfer was created for History of the World that looks quite clear and sports a lot of detail. The two-channel Dolby sound option is perfectly suited for this, but this is one of the more memorable Brooks films in the filmography, so where's the extras? No, the dated trailer doesn't count, but how about some old making of featurettes, or even a new commentary track?
Robin Hood: Men in Tights helped fulfill a need for redoing well established movie icons that Hollywood (at the time) was doing, as there was a couple of recent films on Robin Hood that were already in circulation before Brooks did his. Brooks did provide some writing contributions to the story, but overall, it's a mix of jokes (obvious or not) from other Brooks films, along with some references that date the film, as the Reebok "Pump" shoe and Arsenio Hall show are among those that can be identified. The film has several musical numbers in it, including a rap song to start the film, which seemed to be more of an attempt to keep Brooks relevant more than anything else.
Some of the laughs are OK, even with Elwes doing some slapstick countenances that make him look as out of place. The supporting cast does what they can to pick up the pace, but they feel a bit neutered in the film, including a then 20-year old Chappelle. At the end of the day, this film feels like a little bit of a quiet coda to an outstanding career more than anything else.
Silent Movie has the novelty of being a modern silent film going for it, but the thing that makes this film work is the story that it tells. The film opens with a title that says that it's based on a true story, to allow you to get sucked into the concept rather quickly. Now, there are some exaggerated vocal mannerisms early on to let you know that this will be pretty funny despite the lack of sound, but from there, the story slips easily into the triumvirate's attempt to get things going. Early on, the three meet Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli and James Caan, who all agree to do the film, and in Reynolds' case, enjoy poking fun at previously held impressions of themselves. And along with all of them, Brooks' wife Anne Bancroft (The Graduate) joins in the fun as another star playing themselves. As the men press on, the evil corporation named Engulf and Devour, specifically its members Engulf (Harold Gould, The Sting) and Devour (Ron Carey, Johnny Dangerously) try to thwart Mel by using the temptress Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters, Pennies From Heaven) to seduce Mel and stop the filming.
Now with the story being how it is and the lack of dialogue being a little bit of an obstacle, there are quite a few sight gags that you might have to sit through that are a little more prevalent here than in other Brooks films. But the film still kept moving, and the score (written by John Morris) helped to add to the overall enjoyment of things, not to mention the usual Brooks collaborators really doing their best like Caesar and Charlie Callas. There are also a couple of cameos that are cute in Marcel Marceau and Henny Youngman (whose scene really didn't need the card/punchline at the end, but it was still funny). There's also a chase scene involving Paul Newman that hilarious too.
Having never seen Silent Movie before (nor too many silent movies in general, quite frankly), I thoroughly enjoyed this film and appreciate the kind of creative shift that Brooks had to decide on in order to get this vision realized. While it may not have the laugh out loud factor that his previous two films (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) do, it's a movie that keeps you smiling from beginning to end. Sure, there are a couple of scenes that are uniquely Mel Brooks gags (I'll never look the same way at a merry-go-round horse again), but it's nice without being over the top. It even pokes fun at slapstick comedy with Caesar early on to illustrate that too. Now that this is on DVD, hopefully it will be given its proper consideration.
While many people seem to equate this as a "Mel Brooks film," To Be or Not to Be is based on the 1942 film by Ernest Lubitsch (Heaven Can Wait), and is the only one in this set that Brooks did not direct (it was directed by Alan Johnson). It is better to see him focus on acting and getting some laughs in the process. Working with Bancroft and seeing the pair sing, act and dance together is nice to see. And you can't go wrong by playing Nazis as a bunch of clumsy oafs. With capable actors like Christopher Lloyd (Angels in the Outfield) and Charles Durning as Nazi officers, they often times have some of the best laughs in the film.
Because this is not a Brooks production, many of the people in this film had not appeared in other Brooks films, but they still do a good job. Durning was so exceptional that he was even nominated for his performance as Colonel Erhardt. There are a few musical moments in the film, but that's all within the context of the film and to emphasize the stage performances. The members of Brooks' "cast" in this film include George Gaynes (Police Academy) and George Wyner (American Pie 2), and they help compliment the excellent jobs that Bancroft and her hubby turn in.
It's good to finally see this underrated Brooks film appear on DVD, but like most of the other discs in this collection, it's woefully lacking in the way of extras, save for a couple of on-set interviews, but overall, this is a cute film that is similar in terms of feeling to Silent Movie, where you might not laugh out loud too much, but it will definitely keep you smiling as you watch it.
The Twelve Chairs was based on a novel by Russian writers Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, and adapted to the screen (and directed) by Brooks, the film is interesting in concept, but the things that hold it down are the main parts of the project, which are two of the three main stars. DeLuise and Langella simply don't act the roles that they are supposed to play, completely shunning all forms of accent. They are another in an always growing list of people who either don't do an accent in a role that requires it, or they abandon the accent at random points through the film. Witness Jeff Bridges in Blown Away or Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for more recent examples.
Now granted, DeLuise can't be faulted for "mailing it in," because his role in the film is as the comic foil, the one who is designed to get the most laughs, and there are moments that make you smile, but nothing quite as funny as he would do in other Brooks films down the road. And as for Langella, it's hard to empathize with a guy that has played so many bad guys in his career, and even more so when he does a somewhat faux-British accent that apparently everyone in Russia can understand. He was certainly a change of pace from other more appealing male leads in Brooks films over the next decades in the sense that he wasn't a particularly appealing male lead, so the only commendable work was turned in by the British actor Moody, who looks and sounds convincing as the former rich man transformed into a beggar.
Brooks does an adequate job in bringing the story to life, but you can see that some of the jokes that appear in later films, and some of the scenes are simply Benny Hill type chase scenes that are sped up, but the scenes are rather slow, almost to a mind-numbing pace. There's a reason why not many people have heard of or know what this film is, and it's the most identifiable weak link in this set. Trailers for most of the other Brooks films in the DVD set are included as the only extra on this disc.
Young Frankenstein appeared to be made with the greatest care. The film was shot in black and white, many of the props from the original Frankenstein movies were used in this film, and the film is a classic struggle about a man coming to grips with his family's past, even while he finds himself slowly dragged further into it.
OK, so maybe I overstated that last part, but Young Frankenstein picked up comedically where Blazing Saddles had left off earlier in that year, as Brooks, Wilder and Kahn all turn in stellar performances (Brooks as director, of course, he did not appear in the film, aside from providing the voice of the cat that was hit by a dart). Having never seen Marty Feldman up until this film, but he was the perfect foil to a lot of Wilder's antics in this movie. And Wilder's antics are amazing to watch. For all of his soft-spoken modesty in Blazing Saddles, providing the occasional laugh when it was required of him, as Dr. Frankenstein, he gets to let loose with little regard for anyone's safety. Watching him interact with Kahn is great, seeing him give Garr some quality comedy moments is great too, but how he manages (with Feldman's help) to transform the dialogue is exemplary. Seriously, if there was a surname that can only be used in one setting, you know where "Abby Normal" is from and you know when you first saw the film that produced it. That's what you get when you have two great comedy actors with a great script.
Unfortunately, the extras on most of these discs are either non-existent or retreads of earlier discs. Moreover, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer appears to be cropped for whatever reason, not making for a good start to things as it is. A half hour documentary entitled "Making Frankensense" covers the film from the idea to the final production, where Wilder is the main focus of it, recalling the various sets and cast anecdotes. There's also a commentary with Mel Brooks that's not too bad and a nice, leisurely stroll down memory lane with Brooks, as he remembers the cast members that are no longer with us, and likes watching the film here (along with his annual viewing where he learns new things about it), and it's better as an environmental extra than anything really informative. There are some deleted scenes that are OK, along with a couple of outtakes that can break a blank look, with some stills and some interviews with Feldman, Wilder and Leachman for Mexican TV.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why include this old version of Blazing Saddles when a perfectly good (and quite frankly, excellent) special edition was released by Warner 18 months ago? Why include a seemingly recycled version of Young Frankenstein when you can buy the current one at a bargain basement price, never mind the early rumors that this release would include some new bonus material? If one really wants to have the best of Brooks, one could easily get those two titles at a rather inexpensive price and feel satisfied.
Moreover, what's with the absolute lack of extras on this set? Can Brooks be torn away from making musical adaptations of his cinematic gems long enough to spend a day or two on a new retrospective on History of the World, or can Gene Wilder throw in his two cents for how it was to work on Young Frankenstein? Surely these things aren't too much to ask, because waiting for such Brooks classics as To Be or Not to Be or High Anxiety and see them on virtually barebones discs makes Mongo mad!
The good: previously unreleased Mel Brooks gems on digital video discs, most looking pretty good and packaged rather attractively, making for a good time for all.
The bad: the first generation version of Blazing Saddles and an equally old version of Young Frankenstein.
The ugly: If you're a fan of recycled versions of DVDs and trailers for Brooks films, then you'll forgive the lack of extras. It's almost like when this set was released, that you could reasonably expect the King, instead of the piss-boy.
Fox is guilty, guilty, guilty for producing a collection that could have been great, but was just so…hollow. Mr. Lamarr has set them up on the Wednesday special with Boris.
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Perp Profile, The Twelve Chairs
Distinguishing Marks, The Twelve Chairs
Scales of Justice, Blazing Saddles
Perp Profile, Blazing Saddles
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• 55 Minute Interview With Mel Brooks
Scales of Justice, Young Frankenstein
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• Commentary with Mel Brooks
Scales of Justice, Silent Movie
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Scales of Justice, High Anxiety
Perp Profile, High Anxiety
Distinguishing Marks, High Anxiety
Scales of Justice, History Of The World, Part I
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• Making-Of Featurette
Scales of Justice, Robin Hood: Men In Tights
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• HBO Special: "Robin Hood: Men in Tights -- The Legend Had it Coming"
• IMDb: Blazing Saddles
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