Monday, Dec. 28, 2009

The Mel Brooks Collection

Something Funny in Hollywood

By David Luhrssen
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The funny thing about "The Mel Brooks Collection" is missing, his hilarious debut film, The Producers (1968). Naturally, the nine-disc Blu-ray collection is full of funny moments, almost too many to count, from Brooks' brilliant satire of greed set in Bolshevik Russia, The Twelve Chairs (1970) through the Hollywood genre parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).

As recounted in the essay included in the elaborate package's hardcover book, Brooks was born into Brooklyn poverty and survived by becoming the street corner clown. He'd do almost anything for a laugh. He had to. From there, it was a stint in the Borscht Belt as a schlep-turned-entertainer, leading to writing gigs for early TV comedians before graduating to his own show, the '60s spy spoof "Get Smart." All of those experiences formed Brooks' shtick long before he directed his first film. He was willing to be lowbrow, broad enough to play to the back of the room, and yet sophistication and even a worldview glimmered just at the surface. Like his most obvious cinematic predecessors, the Marx Brothers, Brooks hated authoritarianism and pomposity in all their forms.

Blazing Saddles (1974) was the movie that set the course for a career of Hollywood parody-tributes. It was in all ways the most outrageous production in his long career, a bare-knuckled satire the worst in American society as reflected (however dimly) in 70 years of motion pictures. No holds were barred. "Come on, how about a good ole' nigger work song," demands the white foreman of a work gang laying tracks in the desert of the Old West. The black laborers respond with Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You." Exposed in almost every scene was the cruelty of racism, especially when the corrupt territorial attorney general appoints America's first black sheriff, fully expecting him to be slain by hostile townsfolk.

Blazing Saddles sends-up nearly every familiar western type and mocks false nostalgia for a past that never existed. With many surreal juxtapositions, it was Duck Soup amped up to a '70s decibel level. And in its climactic finale, when the Blazing Saddles' cast overspills into a neighboring Hollywood soundstage where a musical is being produced, it introduces the Brooks' device of shattering the glass wall of illusion that allows audiences to forget they are watching a movie.

The spoofs never again cut as deeply as Blazing Saddles, but as shown in "The Mel Brooks Collection," they were unfailingly funny parodies of Hollywood. The most sophisticated were High Anxiety (1977), affectionately dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock and drawing from Spellbound and other films from the master of suspense, and Silent Movie (1976), a no-talk slapstick about a ne'er-do-well director making a silent film while fending off his studio's takeover by Engulf and Devour, a nefarious global corporation. Alas, in the years since then, Hollywood has been engulfed and devoured, and no one is making silent movies.

The most outstanding of his later films, To Be or Not to Be (1983), has the honor of being one of the only remakes as good as the original. Brooks admired Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 film, a daring comedy about a theater troop in Nazi-occupied Poland made at a time when victory over Nazism was anything but certain. Respecting the integrity of the original, he nonetheless made the film his own in a story showing that theater (and all the arts) can never be entirely divorced from the large problems of the world.

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