There are certain filmmakers who just seem to be omnipresent for a period of time, usually owing to the sheer volume of work under their belt. Steven Spielberg is a good example of this, having made close to 40 feature films in about as many years (give or take); his name was everywhere. But, for whatever reason, growing up as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, I had that same level of recognition about Mel Brooks, and it still to this day baffles me that the man whose comedic influence is literally everywhere, even today, only directed 11 feature films. He hasn’t directed a movie since 1995. How is that even possible?!
Well, I think permeation is the key. Several of Brooks’ films were in heavy rotation on cable and were often being discovered by people who wouldn’t have been alive to see them initially. This is me. I was 11 when Brooks made his last film, but today they’re still some of the freshest, funniest, and most well-made comedies of all time. Such is the power of Brooks.
Below is actually a pretty easy list for me–the five Mel Brooks films I’ve seen more than any others and the ones I’ll keep watching until movies don’t exist anymore.
5) Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
I was right at the golden age of 9 when this movie came out, which means I got all the silliness but almost none of the sexual innuendo. Watching it more recently, I was fairly shocked at how much of that kind of humor was in it, and how dumb I’d been as a kid not to pick up on it. Like many of Brooks’ best films, this is his version of the old movies he loved, in this case The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938 starring the dashing Errol Flynn, as well as the highly overwrought Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which had only just come out. Here we have Cary Elwes playing it deliciously straight whilst all the incredible zaniness happens around him, especially the cache of having Richard Lewis playing Prince John, but essentially just playing Richard Lewis. And, not for nothing, but who could forget one of Brooks’ most show-stopping musical numbers, one that I still find myself humming at random intervals?
4) The Producers (1968)
This is a movie I did not grow up with, but it’s one that has leapt up my viewing habits (sounds gross) in recent years. Brooks’ first film regained popularity after the Broadway musical, but the movie on its own is ridiculously funny and seems like it’s a musical anyway. The pairing of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as two would-be failed theatre producers is truly heavenly, with each allowing the other to go off the wall when necessary. Like just about all of Brooks’ comedy, and especially in this one, he makes Hitler and the Nazis figures of ridicule instead of visages to fear. A musical entitled Springtime for Hitler SHOULD have been the worst thing on the planet Earth, and pretty much was, but no fraudulent scheme goes unpunished. Excellent use of both Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn as well. Brooks won his only Oscar for the screenplay to this movie, and it was much deserved (though his best work, I think, was yet to come). A couple of years ago, I wrote a big, long essay about The Producers if you’d care to read that as well.
3) Spaceballs (1987)
I think it’s pretty safe to say there was a time in my life when I had seen Spaceballs way more than I’d seen Star Wars, mostly because of how many times it was shown on television. Like a lot of these Saturday afternoon movies (such as John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), I can only remember watching the whole thing from beginning to end in one sitting maybe once, but I know the crap out of it. Hitting every single beat of George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy and having a great deal of fun at the expense of the rather buffoonish Empire, Brooks does what he does best and lays a carefully-woven tapestry of jokes over a firm satirical framework. He plays both the villainous President Skroob and the enterprising guru Yogurt here, which is something very akin to what he did in the second film on the list. He mixed Han Solo and Luke Skywalker into the heroic Lone Star and made Darth Vader the goober he really is, Dark Helmet, with a wonderfully insane performance by Rick Moranis. “I see your Schwartz is as big as mine.”
2) Blazing Saddles (1974)
To my great shame, I have to admit that I only saw this movie for the first time last year, but boy howdy did it make an impression on me. I’ve been quoting it to anyone who’ll listen in the entire interim, from “Somebody’s gotta go back and get a shit-load of dimes!” to “Have you gone berserk?! Can you see that that man is a ni?” It’s so politically incorrect and yet so apropos. One of the writers of the screenplay was Richard Pryor, and Brooks and company definitely benefited from it. I’m a huge fan of westerns, and this one made fun of all the tropes of the American Western, from the needlessly upbeat theme song to the corrupt government officials. It also adds a distinct nod to how racist the old west was which was NEVER in any of these old movies. Brooks also goes way meta at this point (something he’d do a lot in the future) by drawing attention to the artifice of cinema itself, and how movies are just made by people in studios. The story continues even when they know they’re in a movie. Such a genius film, and one half of one of the best years of any director.
1) Young Frankenstein (1974)
Come on! Was it really going to be any other one than this? Brooks was never more pitch-perfect in his parody than with his utterly gorgeous take on James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, and Universal Horror in general. The humor comes not at the expense of the genre, but in the middle of it, shooting on the same sets and even with a lot of the same props as those original films did. Wilder again stars, this time as Dr. Fronkensteen, and he’s paired gloriously with Marty Feldman’s Eye-Gore. Everything in this is just silly and delightfully of the ’70s, but it looks like it could have been made in the 1930s, which is something Brooks fought very hard for. If it hadn’t been shot in black & white,with the attention to detail and the tone being just right, it wouldn’t have been as special. As it is, it’s Brooks’ best film hands down and a confluence of amazing talent, ideas, and vision. And, hey, Peter Boyle as the Creature singing “Puttin’ On the Ritz” now exists because of this movie, so good on ya Mr. Brooks.
And there we have it, folks. Yes, I like History of the World part 1, too, so don’t yell at me.