I’m starting a new series called “Icons of…”, in which I’ll shine the spotlight on a hero of two of my favorite genres–comedy and horror. Historically, both genres have given us directors and especially actors whose careers embody all of the things that make those genres so great. Today, I’ll focus on one of comedy’s true titans, Mel Brooks.
Who is Mel Brooks?
Mel Brooks began his career in comedy as a Borscht Belt comedian in the 1940’s. In 1949, his friend and fellow funny man Sid Caesar hired Brooks to write for various NBC shows. He was beloved by his peers, so much so that the character of Buddy Sorell on The Dick Van Dyke Show was based on Brooks.
Brooks then expanded his skills by spending several years writing musicals on Broadway before finally focusing his efforts on the silver screen. In a move that speaks volumes about Brooks, his first feature length film was a musical comedy about Adolf Hitler–The Producers (1968). He was nominated for an Oscar and the die was cast. He has spent the last 40+ years directing, producing, and acting in a dynamic list of comedies.
What is his style?
A large part of what makes Brooks’ comedy so impressive is that it borrows from so many other titans of comedy that preceded him. His writing comes from a very knowledgeable point of view. Chief among these were the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. His one-liners snap and sizzle most similarly to Groucho Marx while his visual antics are more in line with Harpo and, of course, Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Brooks is known for fusing his comedies with elaborate song and dance numbers with outrageous lyrics. These musical pieces allow Brooks to expand his punchline delivery in ways that few other comedic directors and writers can. Probably the best example is Springtime for Hitler from the aforementioned The Producers:
As a comedian, Brooks was fearless. He’d do anything if he thought it would get a laugh. In addition to posthumously needling a monster like Hitler, Brooks also broke the fourth wall time and time again; brought humor to sensitive subjects like race; and took on massively difficult undertakings, like making a silent movie four and a decades after the medium had died.
He had a very specific troupe for a portion of his career, with each member playing significant roles in maximizing the wit. Harvey Korman was the rigid straight-man. Madeline Kahn supplied a sultry sexuality. Marty Feldman brought the visual gags with his unusual appearance and deadpan delivery. Gene Wilder was his right-hand man in writing and supplied Brooks with a leading man. Dom DeLuise was a wild card, providing anything Brooks’ films needed. And Cloris Leachman was his comical villainess.
Last but not least, Brooks’ style is punctuated by satire of classic Hollywood. His features include send-ups of movies about Frankenstein, silent comedy, Hitchcock movies, vampire films, Star Wars, Roman epics, Robin Hood, and Westerns.
What movies did he make?
The complete list of movies that he directed: The Producers (1968); The Twelve Chairs (1970); Blazing Saddles (1974); Young Frankenstein (1974); Silent Movie (1976); High Anxiety (1977); History of the World, Part I (1981); Spaceballs (1987); Life Stinks (1991); Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993); and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). He also appeared as an actor in the fourth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (playing himself) and had a memorable cameo in The Muppet Movie (1979).
His halcyon days were 1968 to 1976–all of his features in that time period have an 89% or higher score on Rotten Tomatoes. Three of his films in the era (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers) rank in the AFI Top 100 Comedies. In fact, all are in the top 15, with Blazing Saddles the highest at #6. You’d be hard-pressed to find another comedy writer/director putting up that much quality over an eight year period. A few have done so but they’re also considered icons of the genre.
And now, some scenes…
Enough with the prattling about his career. How about some scenes that illustrate exactly how funny Mel Brooks movies are?