This week, comedy genius Mel Brooks was awarded the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors coinciding with the release next week of some of his most memorable films. Starting his career on Your Show of Shows with other comedy legends, Brooks honed his comedic stylings with the likes of other staff writers such as Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon. Where Woody and Neil started their film careers with broad and silly premises and eventually matured into more urban comedies, Mel seemed content writing and producing content at the seventh grade level.
Though probably most well-known for Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, some of Brooks’s finest work is some of his earliest. Included in the collection is the highly overlooked The Twelve Chairs, involving a wildly hysterical chase for a fortune of jewels hidden in a chair, which is a part of a set of twelve.
Oddly missing from the collection is his famously wicked The Producers, which starred a young Gene Wilder (who he would later collaborate on Young Frankenstein). The latter, which holds up quite well on Blu-ray, utilizes one of Brooks’s favorite jokes, “Walk this way” (which he would reuse again in History of the World, Part 1, proving that comedy is a recyclable energy).
Silent Movie, which, at the time, was an incredible risk for the writer-director-star, manages to milk out laughs without a single line of dialogue. Look for a particularly amusing cameo from Burt Reynolds in the shower.
High Anxiety had Brooks tackle Hitchcock in the only way possible — by lampooning as many Hitchcock classics, including Psycho, Vertigo and The Birds. Watching Brooks run through a park while flocks of crows descend upon him with bird droppings is quintessential Brooks. A true lover of low-brow and pure shtick, no matter how goofy.
Take the memorable scene in History of the World, Part 1, where Madeline Kahn plays a Roman princess hand-picking half-naked gladiators by pointing to their genitalia with a sing-song rhapsody, “No, yes, yes, no, yes, no, no…”
Another overlooked gem in the collection was a remake of a ’30s comedy starring Jack Benny, titled To Be or Not to Be. It’s here Brooks is surprisingly tame and well mannered, perhaps because his co-star, Ann Bancroft, is also his wife.
Spaceballs, a Star Wars parody that came about a decade too late, nevertheless has moments of previous genius, including stand-out performances from John Candy, Rick Moranis and Daphne Zuniga playing a Druish Princess. “Funny, you don’t look Druish,” comes a mile away, but at this point in his career, the audience expects it.
The only lackluster film in the group was another parody-come-too-late, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Pretty much laugh-free, Brooks would have been better served either coming up with a better story or simply following History of the World with a sequel.
For Mel Brooks enthusiasts, this collection also includes a 120-page hardcover book titled It’s Good to Be the King (a line from History of the World, Part I), as well as seven featurettes which include commentaries, interviews and documentaries.
The Mel Brooks Collection comes out December 15th from Twentieth Century Fox, just in time for Christmas.