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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Director's Report Card: Mel Brooks (1968-1974)

So, here's some older reviews I've been sitting on for a while, debating wither or not I should rewrite them to be more up to snuff with my current quality or just be lazy and post them as they are.

Well, today I decided to be lazy. Here's the first part of the Mel Brooks Director's Report Card.

1. The Producers
Perhaps what makes this film work more then anything else is Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Wilder is a nervous, twitching wreck while Mostel is trying to swindle everyone. The two play off each other nicely.

The central premise of the film is hilarious stuff. Not just purposely creating a flop to get rich, but making a musical about Hitler. It’s this kind of thinking that makes (Or made?) Mel Brooks the comic genius he is (Was?), taking something nobody would think of as absurd, and making it so. This kind of tactic could just be offensive. Luckily Brooks is a really funny guy. Some of the skit here are just side splittingly funny, the Nazi playwright, the beatnik lead in the play, the flamboyantly gay stage director. These are just really great comic moments and there really isn’t any more to say about it, other then perhaps I’ve never really liked the stage musical version of this. [Grade: A]

2. The Twelve Chairs
When you think about Mel Brooks’ films today, it’s surprising to watch his first two features. While “The Twelve Chairs” and “The Producers” certainly aren’t short on zaniness, compared to the gag-driven parody films that dominate his career, they are more character based and even somewhat restrained.

All the best humor here comes from the interaction of the three very strongly rendered lead characters. There is plenty of physical humor, I mean, this is basically a chase film after all, and while a good deal of it is funny, some of it very funny; it can’t compare with the barbs the leads trade.

Ron Moody is quite good as the short-fused and usually nervous Ippolit Vorobyaninov. Frank Langella, back when he was still a heart-throb, brings a great deal of wry slyness to his part. And, even though I know it’s hard to believe, Dom DeLuise was actually funny once. He fully commits himself to the goofiness of his part, never stopping once for the sake of personal dignity. Mel Brooks himself also gives one of his best performance in a small supporting role as the simple and often drunk man-servant Tikon. The very catchy opening song, “Hope for the Best (Expect the Worst)” also deserves mention.

The story does drag a bit in the middle and I don’t think it would have hurt the movie any if some of the gags related to the theater trope was cut. The occasional use of sped-up footage doesn’t work either. Mostly forgotten today, “The Twelve Chairs” has plenty of laughs in it and, though not the director’s funniest film, is one of his better written. [Grade: B]

3. Blazing Saddles
It’s sad to say that this movie would probably never get made today. It’s so rare that a film tackles a serious subject, one like racism, with humor. And it’s not like Mel Brooks’ humor is exactly subtle either. Basically, “Blazing Saddles” is a knee-slapping funny film, not beyond fart jokes and silly sight gags, but still has a brain about it. Somehow the two methods blend and we are presented with what I’ll call smart stupid humor. The movie makes points with gags. That is such a simple concept but works so incredibly well.

The cast is excellent, with the supporting parts being the most memorable. Not to say Cleavon Little is bad in the lead, he’s good, with his constant state of bemusement at everything. But the likes of Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Alex Karras, and Slim Pickings easily walk away with the show. And how about the ending when the movie explodes out into full fledged goofiness? Comedy gold.

Its mixture of astute, if blunt, social commentary, sublime silliness, and an occasional naughty streak makes “Blazing Saddles” the director’s best film and one of the funniest comedies ever made. [Grade: A]

4. Young Frankenstein
This is probably better appreciated by horror fans then by most other people. Sure, “Young Frankenstein” works great as a gag comedy, full of wonderfully funny actors being wonderfully funny, as well as a very interesting melancholy undertone; but there are so many subtle nods and riffs on scenes from just about every one of the classic Universal Frankenstein films. Yes, the bogermeister with the wooden arm or the dart throwing gag, are great, but if you know where they come from, they are better. I known because I remember watching the film years before I became a big horror geek and laughing a lot, but I remember laughing more watching it more recently.

Of course the cast is great, with only Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman being some of the great performances here. Though not as smart as “The Producers” or “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” certainly stands as one of Mel Brooks’ best films. [Grade: A-]

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