Today (well, tonight) is ROSH HASHANAH 2019, so let me wish a Happy New Year to all of my favorite Chosen People!
First, let me just tell you that while doing a little research for this post yesterday, I just discovered that Mel co-created the classic TV sitcom GET SMART!
It’s crazy, that show was in heavy rotation in reruns when I was a young boy, I watched it all the time, yet all these decades later I never heard this before. It just seems odd that he’s not identified with this show more. But then after creating it he only wrote three episodes in the first season and then stepped away from the show to do other things.
As for films, it’s also a little surprising to see that he only actually directed 11 feature films altogether, all of which he also wrote or co-wrote. I tend to primarily think of him as a filmmaker, I guess you could say that’s because most of the films that he made were so culturally impactful. But overall he’s done a lot more work in television as a writer. But any way you slice it the man is a comedic genius, so here is my top 5 of his films:
5/ BLAZING SADDLES
Written with Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger
Released February 7, 1974
Box Office: $119.6 million
Alright, I can heard certain critics heads exploding. Number 5?!? Blazing Saddles is only number 5 on your list?!?
Well, yes, I know this is considered by most to be one of the greatest comedies ever, and obviously I also think it’s hilarious, but I just always felt it was a tad (just a TAD) overrated, in that I think Mel has made some even funnier films. Hence, it’s placement on MY list. A western film, where a Black sheriff is appointed to an all-White town as part of larger criminal scheme, this film has a lot of humor that would probably not play too well today, but which was groundbreaking at the time. The best part is probably it’s inventive fourth-wall-breaking ending.
The greatest tragedy of this film is that co-writer Richard Pryor was not allowed to star as Sheriff Bart. I can only imagine how even better he could have made it. Not that Cleavon Little didn’t do an excellent job. And it’s also a tragedy that this film didn’t launch Little into super-stardom, but Hollywood was much more restrictive for Black actors at the time.
4/ LIFE STINKS
Written with Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, and Steve Haberman
Released July 26, 1991
Box Office: $4.1 million
His most underrated film, in my opinion. A critical and commercial bomb, but I effin’ love it. Brooks starts Goddard Bolt, a greedy billionaire businessman who is planning to buy up a large parcel of land in downtown L.A. and renovate it into a luxurious tract of high-rises, at the expense of all the poor people currently living there. Jeffrey Tambor is brilliant as a rival billionaire who also wants to buy that property, with a similar lack of regard for the current inhabitants. The two men make a deal, Bolt must survive on the streets of the neighborhood for 30 days, without any of his resources or telling anyone who he is, and if he can do so he gets the property. What follows are several hilarious misadventures as Bolt encounters various homeless people, including Lesley Ann Warren as Molly, who becomes his love interest. The thing is, underneath all of the humor about sleeping on the streets and eating out of trashcans, there’s a rather poignant message about homelessness, and what can drive people into those circumstances. By being funny and thought-provoking, this film is very satisfying to watch. More people need to check this out.
3/ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN
Written with Gene Wilder
Released December 15, 1974
Box Office: $86.2 million
I grew up loving all the old classic black and white Universal horror films, including Frankenstein, and this is a delightful parody of them. Gene Wilder stars as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the American-born grandson of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who, despite his shame at his grandfather’s legacy (he, hilariously, insists his last name is pronounced differently), nevertheless travels to Transylvania after he inherits the family estate and finds himself compelled to repeat Victor’s experiment in reanimating a dead body. Hilarity ensues. Along with a great cast of characters, including Madeline Khan, Terri Garr, Marty Feldman (as the hunchbacked Igor, pronounced “Eye-gore”) and Peter Boyle as the new “Frankenstien’s Monster”, this is a true classic for the ages, whether you’re a horror fan or not.
I’ve learned that in recent years Mel Brooks has gone to adapt the film into a musical stage play.
Written with Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan
Released June 24, 1987
Box Office: $38.1 million
A Star Wars parody, with Rick Moranis as the villainous “Dark Helmet.” Do I even need to say more? With a steady string of witty one-liners and visual gags this is one of those films that you can watch a dozen times and always notice something new in it. I think my favorite cast member may be the Late Joan Rivers as the voice of the robot Dot Matrix. Brooks himself plays duel roles as parodies of the Emperor and Yoda. While not a critical or huge commercial success at the time (although it did earn a profit), it has rightfully gone on to become a cult classic. While there have been various talks of a possible sequel over the years, I’m actually glad that, to date, one has not been made. I feel like there’s just no way to recapture lightning in a bottle, and any attempt will just cheapen the original.
While researching this I was surprised to learn that in 2008 Brooks produced an animated TV series based on the film, which lasted 13 episode, and doesn’t appear to have made much of an impact.
1/ HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I
Released June 12, 1981
Box Office: $31.7 million
This is another of his film that I’m surprised to learn was not considered a huge success (although profitable) when it was released. I love it to death, saw it the first time as a young boy and have rewatched a bajillion times in the decades since. And the great thing is that, as I was younger, there were many jokes in the film that I didn’t “get”, because they were over my head (especially a lot of the cruder sexual jokes, or even references to things like circumcision), which is what has helped this film remain enjoyable over the years as I got older. That also includes the fact that I was not as well-informed about historical events at the time, so while finding it funny at the time, segments like the French Revolution became even more funny as I grew up and learned of the actual French Revolution.
Written entirely by himself, this film is portrayed like an anthology, broken into five segments featuring different historical periods, with Brooks playing different characters in most of them. It starts off a bit slow with the THE STONE AGE, starring Sid Ceaser as a caveman, followed by OLD TESTAMENT, with Brooks as Moses. But it picks up with THE ROMAN EMPIRE, one of the two longest segments, in which Brooks plays Comicus, a “stand up philosopher” whose manager (Ron Carey) gets him a job performing in front of the Emporor and Empress (Dom Deluis and Madeline Khan). Comicus inadvertantly ends up insulting the Emporer and his condemned to fit a slave named Josephus, whom Comicus had earlier befriended and saved (played by Gregory Hines, although I learned that this role was originally written for Richard Pryor, who unfortunately had a little accident before he could begin filming, that’s another huge missed opportunity to see Pryor and Brooks together). Together with the help of a Vestal Virgin, played by Mary-Margaret Humes, the group escapes and goes on the run. Eventually landing in a small town where Comicus ends up as a waiter serving Jesus Christ (John Hurt) and his disciples during the Last Supper.
THE SPANISH INQUISTION is a large musical number, with Brooks as Torquemada. This is another sequence that I appreciated even more when I got older and actually learned about the Spanish Inquistion. I really love the balls of Brooks to take such a dark time in history and make it so entertaining.
And then the final segment is the aforementioned FRENCH REVOLUTION with Brooks playing the dual roles of King Louis XVI and of a lowly castle-worker (a “piss-boy”, whose job is to walk around the castle carrying a large bucket for the king the nobles to piss into), who is chosen to impersonate the King while the King sneaks out of the castle as the mob arrives. This and the Roman Empire segment are the two best parts of the film.
The film ended with fake previews for segments from a Part II, including “Hitler on Ice”. As a kid I remember wondering when it would finally come out, not realizing that it was meant to be a job. But this is one film where I do think a sequel could have worked just as well, if one had been made. But alas, it was not to be.
At 93 years old Mel Brooks is still going strong, in recent years he’s been doing voice acting in various animated films. The man is one of a kind and a true icon.