Mel Brooks is undeniably one of the most famous, some would say infamous, men in the world of comedy. In a career extending over fifty years, Brooks has won awards for his work as a stand-up comedian, stage actor, theatre producer/director and television writer, but it is in the arena of film that he has achieved international acclaim.
Childhood And The US Army
Brooks was born to parents of Russian Jewish origin in Brooklyn, New York on June 28th 1926. His birth name was Melvin Kaminsky. He was a small and often sickly child who overcame his physical limitations with his talent for humour.
His family moved to Brighton Beach while he was still young. Their new next door neighbour, the drummer Buddy Rich, would befriend Mel Brooks and teach him how to play. He attended Eastern District High School.
Brooks joined the US army during World War Two and became a combat engineer. He was involved in operations to clear German mines after the Battle of the Bulge, and it was in the army that Brooks' would develop the traits that would serve him so well in the years to come. He organised shows for the US troops and when the German army began transmitting propaganda over loudspeakers Brooks is said to have replied with a version of Al Jolson's "Toot-toot-tootsie."
Stand-Up, Acting And TV
When Brooks returned to America after his tour of duty, he began to work as what he felt most comfortable, a stand-up comedian. He toured the Borscht Belt, a number of resorts in the Catskill mountains, with his own blend of one-liners and fast anecdotes. When the act did not go well Brooks was known for jumping, fully clothed, into the swimming pool. The money wasn't very good, but he found the work satisfying.
Brooks' first acting role was on stage in the play Golden Boy. Unlike the comedy for which Brooks became famous this was a serious acting role. He did not remain on the stage for long, but this would give him a taste for it and he would return later in the expanded roles of producer and director.
Over the next few years Brooks would be occupied writing for TV shows alongside many great comedians, including a young Woody Allen before he became famous as a stand-up act and film-maker. Brooks' greatest TV achievement would be winning an Emmy Award for writing a television special. This would be towards the end of his flirtation with TV writing; though he was involved in the production of spy-themed TV comedy which ran between 1965 and 1970 before his film career took off.
The Plays And The Very Old Man
Brooks was a successful producer and director of stage plays. Over a few years he produced three separate productions and was awarded Director of the Year Award. Despite this his income fell from the $2500 a week he was earning as a TV writer to a low of $8000 a year at his worst. This would instil in Brooks the belief that any success he enjoyed would inevitably lead to failure.
Abandoning the theatre, Brooks returned to stand-up comedy; co-writing the famous "2000-year-old man" routine with a colleague from his days of TV writing. The routine would merit him many guest appearance on TV and a recording of it was produced which enjoyed massive commercial success and won Brooks three Grammy Awards.
Anne Bancroft: Mrs. Mel Brooks
In 1964 Brooks married Anne Bancroft. Brooks, the son of Russian Jews, had chosen as his wife a Catholic Italian. The relationship between Bancroft and Mrs. Kaminsky was, at best, strained. Bancroft summed it up by saying, "When Mel Brooks told his mother that he was marrying an Italian girl, she said, 'Bring her over. I'll be in the kitchen - with my head in the oven.'" Nevertheless the relationship between Bancroft and Brooks was always strong and for some time it was Bancroft's earnings that kept them afloat.
The First Film: The Critic
It was inevitable that Brooks would eventually turn his attention towards the film industry. His first effort, The Critic, which many fans (including the writer of this article) have never seen, won the Oscar for Best Short Film. It was to be the first of several Oscars and nominations that Brooks would receive.
The Producers - 1968
His first full length feature film, The Producers was about a dishonest theatre producer (it is not know if the work is autobiographical) who attempts to exploit a loophole in tax policy to make a fortune. By over-financing a certain flop the producers Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) could keep the extra money they did not need to produce the play without fear of investigation by the IRS.
The film was originally slated by critics and enjoyed little box office success, but has since become regarded as one of the greatest satires of all time. Recently a stage musical version of the Brooks classic hit broadway, starring Nathan Lane (Mousehunt) as Bialystock and Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as Bloom, and won twelve Tony Awards. The hilarious dance number "Springtime For Hitler" is one of Brooks' favourite scenes from all the movies he has made. Brooks co-wrote and directed this film, as well as over-dubbing the "Springtime For Hitler" number with his own voice.
This film is particularly notable for the starring role of Gene Wilder. Wilder would feature in almost all of Brooks' earlier films and the partnership between actor and writer/director always worked well, despite rumours that during the filming of The Producers, Brooks behaved like a maniac.
The Twelve Chairs - 1970
Perhaps the least famous of all Brooks' films, and probably deservedly. This story about a fortune hidden in one of (guess) twelve chairs is a satire about Russia, greed and religion. It flopped at the box office and would leave Brooks in the wilderness for several years.
This film however does set the tone for later Brooks films, as the writer and director now takes a starring role. This was the format that Brooks was most comfortable with - though critics were to slate his performance many times. Dom DeLuise appears for the first time in a Brooks film and he will be another who appears regularly throughout Brooks' early career, before he became stuck in a Celebrity Square.
Filmed in Yugoslavia, The Twelve Chairs was problematic for Brooks and he did not enjoy the process. He later said, "Never shoot a film in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The Whole Town is illuminated by a twenty-watt night-light and there's nothing you can do. You can't even go for a drive. Tito is always using the car."
Blazing Saddles - 1974
For many people this is Brooks' best film. The West's first black sheriff and his deputy, The Waco Kid (Wilder), are pitted against the villainous Hedley Lamarr, his numerous assorted goons and indifference of town full of Johnsons. Brooks appears as the bewildered, womanising Governor Lepetomane (in addition to two cameos as a Jewish Native American Indian chief and a biker) and the whole film is filled with jokes you'll still be laughing at the fifth time you watch it.
Blazing Saddles was the box office hit Brooks had been waiting for. It brought him back to mainstream public attention and gave him the funds he needed to pursue other projects.
Blazing Saddles brought together a pairing of actors that would go on to make several films together: Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn. Kahn would be another Brooks favourite for many years, but is today generally forgotten despite being one of the best comic character actresses of all time and a not bad singer. Kahn received an Oscar nomination for her role in Blazing Saddles.
Young Frankenstein - 1974
Following on from the success of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein was released in the same year and enjoyed similar success. This film again used both Wilder (Frankenstein) and Kahn (Elizabeth), but Brooks chose not to appear on screen, making only a voice cameo as a cat hit with a dart off-screen.
Young Frankenstein was Brooks' parody tribute to the original Frankenstein film of 1910. It used the same set and the same props as the original and followed roughly the same plot - make monster, lose control of monster, etc.
The cast of Wilder, Kahn and Marty Feldman (Igor) was the same combination as in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother.
Silent Movie - 1976
Like many film-makers of his generation, Brooks has a certain fascination with silent movies. This was his attempt at the genre with the only speech in the whole film being made by the great mime Marcel Marceau (the projectionist). Despite being star-filled, with appearances from Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli and Brooks' wife Anne Bancroft, the film was just so-so and audiences long used to sound were less than interested in this arty piece. It's a parody of the movie industry which leaves you wondering if this just might be another autobiographical Brooks film.
High Anxiety - 1977
Just as Blazing Saddles was a western spoof and Young Frankenstein was a horror spoof, High Anxiety is a spoof of several Hitchcock films. This film saw Brooks as star, director, writer and producer, which gave Brooks ultimate freedom, but may have made the end result less palatable.
In this film Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Brooks), the man in charge at the asylum for the Very, Very Nervous, is framed for murder. The dark silhouette of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, is supposed to have sent Brooks a good luck bottle of champagne during the filming. There are bits of Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and a few other Hitchcock classics in here which Brooks does some degree of justice to. By this point in his career critics were already saying that Brooks had lost the plot and that his work, especially the jokes, was becoming repetitive.
History Of The World, Part 1 - 1981
A brilliant idea, this film has some real shining moments. Brooks turns the history of the world on its head and shows how things should have been rather than how they actually were. This is in part a parody of everything biblical and it could be viewed as Life of Brian from an American Jewish perspective. The problem is the good bits are never really developed and it's not nearly as a complete a history as it could have been. This film is basically about half a dozen extended jokes long; so much more could have been done. Critics, and perhaps even Brooks himself, realised this and he would not produce another film for six years.
Space Balls: The Movie - 1987
Brooks' return to film-making was triumphant. Although it would never achieve the acclaim of his earlier films, Space Balls was a consummate parody that demonstrated Brooks' complete mastery of the art form. In many ways it was a better parody as it combined the skill of Blazing Saddles with identifiable images like those used in High Anxiety. Brooks plays President Skroob (Brooks backwards) and the Schwartz master Yoghurt while the rest of the cast hams it up to the hilt with absurd costumes and dialogue that would give George Lucas a stroke.
A report exists on h2g2 already relating to Space Balls. Read this for more details about the film which has become just as much a cult piece as the films it parodies.
Life Stinks - 1991
Easily the most moralising of all Brooks' films, Life Stinks centres around the life of multi-multi-millionaire Goddart Bolt (Brooks - who also directed, produced and co-wrote). Bolt, who has always been rich, is challenged by the came-from-nothing businessman Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor) to spend a month on the streets; unable to access his wealth or disclose who he is. After many trials and tribulations Bolt actually succeeds, but Crasswell isn't going to play fair and Bolt must recapture his wealth while retaining the homeless woman he has come to love.
A nice film, nothing special, not a blockbuster, but funny in parts and certainly not the worst film Brooks has ever made. This film is a departure from all the old Brooks film casts, no one from any of the previous films appears in a major role in this one.
Robin Hood: Men In Tights - 1993
This is Brooks' take on the Robin Hood myth and a parody of several films which were cult in the early 1990's including White Men Can't Jump and, obviously, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Tackled with the typical Brooks approach, though this time featuring Brooks in a smaller acting role, this film has the same style of jokes from all his films, most of which you've heard before, done better. Nevertheless this film has acquired cult status and part of it was actually parodied by Shrek, the Mike Myers film.
There are a couple of absolutely brilliant lines in this film though. One in particular has Robin's (Cary Elwes) blind servant Blinkin (Mark Blankfield) confusing Robin for a copy of the Venus de Milo - "Master Robin, you've lost your arms, but you've grown a crackin' set of boobs." The film is worth it just for that one line.
Dracula: Dead And Loving It - 1995
By the time Brooks came to make this film Leslie Nielsen (Dracula) was really showing his age. There was very little for the immortal Naked Gun actor to "get his teeth into" (oh, come on, you knew that was coming) in the script and even if there had been it has long since become possible to spot a Leslie Nielsen gag five seconds in advance of delivery, which makes for a rather bland comedy. It sucked.
Brooks appears as Van Helsing, Bancroft is there (probably because no other actress would take a part in this dire "comedy") and Peter "Ally McBeal" MacNicol plays Renfield, bringing his role from Ghostbusters 2 back from the dead - it wasn't very good then and didn't improve with age. Brooks' stake in this film was large as ever; he directed, produced and co-wrote again. It SUCKED! Laugh, damn you.
Mel Brooks' production company Brooksfilms has been responsible for more than just Brooks' irregular offerings. Brooks has produced several non-comedic films including the Elephant Man, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards. It is probably as a producer that Brooks has earned greatest respect from the industry, although his contribution in this area is broadly unrecognised by the public.
Mel Brooks is now in his seventies, but it never pays to write-off anybody from old school Hollywood. Brooks has acted throughout his career and has made countless appearances in other people's films and on TV including a guest spot on the Simpsons. The stage production of the Producers is a huge success. Perhaps spurred on by this, it is entirely possible that Brooks already has another film in the pipeline and even if he doesn't, his back catalogue will keep the world laughing for years to come.