Study Guide

Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks Essay - Critical Essays

Brooks, Mel

Introduction

Mel Brooks 1926–

(Pseudonym of Melvin Kaminsky) American scriptwriter, director, actor, and comedian. Involved for many years in comedy writing for television, Brooks is now best known for directing zany films in which he often acts. His humor is frequently concerned with Jewish subjects and characters. He explains his position in this way: "Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one." Brooks's career took off when he began writing for Sid Caesar's television series "Broadway Revue" and "Your Show of Shows." His first filmscript won him an Academy Award in 1963. It was an animated short, "The Critic," inspired by an old immigrant who sat behind Brooks in the theater, mumbling his negative opinions of an abstract animated film. Brooks asked his friend, Ernie Pintoff, to draw a similar piece and as he viewed it for the first time, he improvised a prejudiced reaction to it, using the comments as the final sound track. Brooks began directing because he considered it his only defense against rewrite experts. Although his first film, The Producers, won the 1968 Academy Award for best original screenplay, it was not a great success, financially or critically. In subsequent years, however, his reputation has soared. He is, at this time, lauded by many critics as one of the best comedy directors in America. His work in films is characterized by his broad humor, which many times borders on slapstick. However, Brooks has noted that the loss of his father when he was two years old gave him an awe and fear of death. This recurs in his work in a variety of ways, such as the desperation to create life (Young Frankenstein) or the denial of mortality (the character of the 2000 Year Old Man). Although not always apparent, such serious comments are an important aspect of his humor, an undercurrent of its surface absurdity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Renata Adler

["The Producers"] is a violently mixed bag. Some of it is shoddy and gross and cruel; the rest is funny in an entirely unexpected way. It has the episodic, revue quality of so much contemporary comedy—not building, laughter, but stringing it together skit after skit, some vile, some boffo….

Strangely enough, the first act of "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden" is the funniest part of this fantastically uneven movie. The Gestapo chorines, the opening number, "Look Out, Here Comes the Master Race"—well, it loses absolutely everything in transcription. But there is just enough talent and energy to keep this blackest of collegiate humors comic. Barely.

Then, the movie makes a terrible and irreversible mistake. It allows the audience onscreen to find the play funny. This turned the real audience in the theater off as though a fuse had blown. Hardly anyone laughed again. Partly, it must be admitted, because "Springtime for Hitler" itself gets less funny at this point…. But mainly, because there is nothing like having your make-believe audience catch on to a joke—and a joke that absolutely capsizes the plans of your leading characters—to make your real audience really hostile to you.

The ending, when all the comic props are supposed to be in motion … goes better than one might think. On the whole, though, "The Producers," leaves one alternately picking up one's coat to leave and sitting back to laugh. (p. 38)

Renata Adler, in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 19, 1968.

Andrew Sarris

[Mel Brooks' "The Producers"] did not make me laugh as much as I had anticipated, and perhaps anticipation is part of the problem. Let us suppose that an acquaintance stops us in the street with the announcement that he is going to tell us the funniest joke ever told. But first, he tells us, he is going to synopsize the joke, describe its high and low points, analyze the style of its telling, compare it with other jokes in the same genre from other eras, and psychoanalyze those listeners who will laugh at it and those who will not. Then and only then does he tell us the joke. Do we laugh? Not likely. The element of surprise is gone because we listen with too many preconceptions. In short, we listen more to the how of style than to the what of content….

The idea that two Jewish producers would engage in a project called "Springtime for Hitler" even as part of a swindle is more a cabaret idea than a movie idea. Even on the Borscht Circuit, a Jewish comedian can assume a Nazi role as a temporarily shocking point of departure to arouse black laughter in his audience…. Cabaret characterizations are entirely hypothetical. If you accept such and such a premise, such and such will occur. Screen characterizations are historical. The characters played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are obviously if not blatantly Jewish, and they carry their pasts around with them while they humor a psychotic Nazi author to the point of singing "Deutschland...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Pauline Kael

Brooks not only isn't a director—he isn't really a writer, either. He's the cutup in the audience whose manic laughter and unrestrained comments stop the show. Essentially, he is the audience; he's the most cynical and the most appreciative of audiences—nobody laughs harder, nobody gets more derisive. He was perfectly cast in the short "The Critic." His humor is a show-business comment on show business. Mel Brooks is in a special position: his criticism has become a branch of show business—he's a critic from the inside. He isn't expected to be orderly or disciplined; he's the irrepressible critic as clown. His comments aren't censored by the usual caution and sentimentality, but his crazy-man irrepressibility makes him lovable; he can be vicious and get away with it because he's Mel Brooks, who isn't expected to be in control. His unique charm is the surreal freedom of his kibitzer's imagination.

The other side of the coin is that he isn't self-critical. And, as his new picture, "Blazing Saddles," once again demonstrates, he doesn't have the controlling vision that a director needs. It's easy to imagine him on the set, doubled up laughing at the performers and not paying any attention to what he's supposed to be there for. Mel Brooks doesn't think like a director; he's not a planner. He doesn't even do any formal, disciplined routines; he's a genius at spontaneous repartee—which the movies have never yet been able to handle, though television can, and that's where Brooks is peerless. Out of nowhere, he says things...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

Mel Brooks has a truly baroque sense of humor, as his new film, Blazing Saddles, demonstrates. Such an eccentric wealth of material comes out of his imagination that this film is usually working full tilt on three different levels at once: social satire, straight, old-fashioned slapstick comedy, and parody of various other Hollywood genres, most notably, of course, the Western…. It is, as the saying goes, a sketch.

Unhappily, that's often all it is: a sketch. It's not enough to make up a whole movie. Despite generating some material that works on all three levels, Brooks doesn't always have what he needs to keep the film going…. Moreover, the multiple levels on which the film is attempting to work don't always enhance each other. At times, in fact, they cancel each other out, especially where Bart is concerned. This is because the social satire and the slapstick comedy make contrary demands on his role.

In Brooks' view the former requires that, as a black man, Bart see through the bigotries, hypocrisies and illusions of the whites. He must be capable of a knowing, almost indulgent reaction to them. For instance, when he first arrives in Rocky Ridge, the town where he's to be sheriff, the entire population draws on him. To escape Bart pulls out his own gun as if he too were getting the drop on himself. Having thus taken himself hostage, he edges himself through the crowd toward the refuge of the jail.

This is a funny bit too, until Bart makes it to safety and at once shrugs off these gullible yokels with an unconcerned air. Before the comedy has successfully run its course, such a gesture of bemusement, repeated at the conclusion of skit after skit, kills the laugh every time. Whatever the gesture might do for the social satire, it is a wet blanket on the slapstick. The mise en scène of slapstick is...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Jay Cocks

Of course [Young Frankenstein's] funny. And of course it's grating, flatulent, desperate—all in the best and the worst manner of Mel Brooks. As comic and as film maker, Brooks wants to knock you cockeyed. For a laugh, he will do anything, try anything. He rains gags. After a Brooks bit, audiences can be exhausted; after a Brooks film, there is the lingering feeling of having been pummeled. Brooks is like a young, slightly skittish fighter whose energy compensates for lack of finesse. He hits out wildly, continuously, hoping that a few punches will land…. The bedrock of all Brooks films is frenzy; the nominal subject of Young Frankenstein—the skyhook for all the madness—is a satirical exhumation...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

The Frankenstein story, as we all know, is about a creature made up entirely of misappropriate and mismatched parts. That's pretty much the way Mel Brooks has made his new film, Young Frankenstein, too. Since all comedy has to be based on some sort of incongruity, this approach works out pretty well for Brooks. Most of the parts he has misappropriated come out of other people's movies. Besides having stolen the whole idea for this movie from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), Brooks has, for instance, stolen the hairdo for one of his stars, Madeline Kahn, from Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). At times, as when Miss Lanchester's streak job is set atop Miss Kahn's head, the...

(The entire section is 361 words.)

Herbert Gold

[Brooks] is the little boy, the youngest son, so beloved by his family and continually tossed in the air that his feet didn't touch the ground till he was 6 years old. He has been resting securely on the wind ever since. He knows he can always get home. He also gives an audience this dreamy assurance: They can wander in fantasy and nightmare, but with Kafka or Lenny Bruce, other Jewish masters of controlled psychosis, they were not sure of getting home from the dream. With Mel Brooks, they are merely up in the air, dandled, comfortable, blowing homeward to familiar hatreds (Germans, creeps, squares) and comfortable nostalgias (food, neighborhood, kids, old folks, Jews, Italians). The 1,000-watt kid is finally shedding...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Jacoba Atlas

[Brooks'] films abound in lovingly precise dialect humor, a near-balletic control of physical comedy, and whirlwind pacing that begins in chaos and ends in sweet lunacy.

Superficially, Brooks' movies … seem less careful than carefree. But Brooks says he does not believe in chance: his films are the result of meticulous construction, especially in the scriptwriting stage….

At their core, his films come surprisingly close to being "male" love stories. You can see it in the sadomasochistic friendship in The Producers (with Zero Mostel as the S., and Gene Wilder as the M.), the love-hate relationship of Frank Langella and Ron Moody in The Twelve Chairs, the easy warmth...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

John Russell Taylor

[Young Frankenstein] is remarkably restrained considering that Brooks made it with the triumphant commercial success of Blazing Saddles under his belt; and that, it seems to me, gets across mainly by taking easy targets and bludgeoning them mercilessly until the last, dullest member of the audience must have seen the joke. The classic horror movie would seem to offer targets just as obvious. But evidently Brooks has more sympathy for it than he does for the Western, and a lot of the sympathy and enjoyment comes through. This time we are dealing with the story of the Baron Frankenstein's grandson, a humble, sane anatomy teacher who just wants to forget his family's reputation—until, that is, he...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Tom Milne

Young Frankenstein begins on a dark and stormy night, with the camera panning lovingly over a torchlit courtyard, zooming slowly in to a dusty window, and dissolving as the clock strikes midnight into a caressing inspection of the Gothic inscription on a coffin reposing within a dank and doomladen crypt. A brilliant pastiche of the horror film's studied quest for atmospherics, the sequence suggests not only that Mel Brooks has added some sort of cinematic style to his bag of tricks, but that he knows his genre and intends to stick to it. An illusion that is dashed all too soon … as one discovers that anything goes even more frantically than it did in Blazing Saddles…. [All] too often Brooks resorts...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

John Coleman

Mel Brooks uses bad taste rather as you and I would pass the salt. The Twelve Chairs is basically an unjustifiable nonsense, done in Yugoslavia on the cheap side …, presumably after The Producers and before Blazing Saddles. Set in a Brooksian notion of post-revolutionary Russia, it agitates itself about fellows chasing up a dozen gilt chairs in the hope of disembowelling the one that contains a tsar's ransom in jewels…. Mr Brooks, who almost wrecks the outing by turning up too successfully in it himself, as a masochistic ex-valet and all-purpose serf …, has thoughtfully written a flabby role which comes over as improvised as silly putty left to its own devices. (pp. 418-19)

...

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Derek Elley

There are frequently sound reasons, both commercial and artistic, why many films remain on the shelf, but [The Twelve Chairs] thankfully falls prey to none of them. It is a genuine discovery in every way, and provides an opportunity to see Brooks working within stricter limitations than his other forays have provided. These take the form of Ilf and Petrov's famous satire on greed and cupidity in post-Revolutionary Russia—well-known within the USSR, perhaps less so elsewhere…. Despite the limitations of working from a literary source, Brooks has nonethless produced a thoroughly personal version, as much impregnated with his brand of Jewish-American humour as anything from The Producers or Blazing...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Jack Kroll

Mel Brooks's "Silent Movie" is a take-off on silent movies, but it also uses the silent movie as a way of getting a fresh angle on today's world. In many ways it's Brooks's best film, less pushy than "Blazing Saddles," less shticky than "Young Frankenstein."… Brooks is one of our few authentic mad comic poets, and his daring to make a movie without spoken dialogue is an audaciously creative act in this bet-hedging time….

The gags as usual vary in quality from gold to zinc, but what makes "Silent Movie" more than a string of gags is the comic sensibility of Brooks. Believe it or not, the master of bad taste becomes almost endearing in this film—as when he pays homage to the good old bump and...

(The entire section is 213 words.)

John Simon

Mel Brooks's comic gift, such as it is, is largely verbal and stands to lose too much in a silent movie; and … what was once done so well was done out of necessity, the need to overcome the limitations of a mute medium. Remove the necessity, which is the mother of invention, and you come up with test-tube babies of scant viability.

In the event, Silent Movie has some quite funny sight gags, though the invention wears progressively thinner; it also has exaggerated sound effects that have good and bad moments….

The scenario is basically no sillier than those of the old silent comedies, but the innocence is gone. Some gags are too elucubrated and esoteric; other are takeoffs...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

[Silent Movie is Brooks's] best picture to date. That's limited praise, surely, still this is his most organic film, the least desperately outrageous. No one sequence stands out like the punching of the horse in Saddles or the monster-doctor vaudeville routine in Frankenstein, but those were highlights amidst messy frenzy. Silent Movie takes a comic line and hews to it fairly consistently, fairly inventively.

Some viewers have assumed that, by making a silent film, Brooks is automatically challenging Chaplin and Keaton, particularly since he also plays the leading role…. [But he] is simply pursuing his parodic way—last time monster pictures, this time silent slapstick,...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

Robert Asahina

I have never been an admirer of Mel Brooks, although I enjoyed Young Frankenstein when it came out a little over a year ago. To be sure, his oeuvre has included some hilarious moments—the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence in The Producers, for example—but these were practically buried beneath an indiscriminate flurry of flat jokes. As Pauline Kael has aptly noted, his films embody the spirit of gagwriting, not screenwriting. They do not work as cinematic comedies because they are essentially extended strings of raucous and vulgar one-liners, better suited to the nightclub floor than to the moviehouse….

Still, since my quarrel is with his style of verbal bombardment, I was...

(The entire section is 947 words.)

Judith Crist

[In Silent Movie] Brooks has concocted a talkie with a gimmick. The gimmickry here involves parodies of silent-movie jokes and simplistic plotting. The absence of realistic sound and speech is complete with the exception of one word—spoken, of course, by the mime Marcel Marceau. Above all, it's an oral comedy, with its verbal humor obvious in signs, names, and title cards. Like Blazing Saddles, the Brooks film this most closely parallels, Silent Movie is clearly the work of gag writers…. It's even more clearly the work of Mel Brooks, not merely as the co-author, director, and leading man, but also as the overall comic persona, replete with his satiric eye, sophisticated social perception, gut...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Tom Allen, S.C.

Mel Brooks, along with Woody Allen, has progressed as a prolific, one-man source of American screen comedy. Both comedians have picked up where Jerry Jewis died off and have actively participated in the writing, acting, producing and directing of their films. Neither has settled for a personal, distinctive style yet, but they are giving the previous, well-defined comic personae, such as W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers, stiff competition. They work in safe ranges well below the level of the great silent comedians; but their comic, sometimes cosmic, daring is far superior to the steady diet of Bob Hope, Red Skelton and other postwar schlemiels.

Mel Brooks's Silent Movie, a consistently funny...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

Lawrence Weschler

You need only be informed that in [High Anxiety] …, Brooks is sending up Alfred Hitchcock, and you will instantly surmise that here, on the last day of the 54-day shoot, he is trying to bury The Birds once and for all. Hitchcock's protagonists suddenly found themselves prey to a swarm of man-pecking birds. In Brooks's version, the psychiatrist-protagonist—"a reincarnation of the classic Hitchcockian hero, the tall, handsome innocent who gradually becomes ensnared in a nefarious plot breaking out all about him," played by Himself—is relaxing on a park bench one afternoon as gradually, one by one, a flock of pigeons convenes on a nearby jungle gym. Gradually, one by one, the birds take off, swoop in...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)

Charles M. Young

High Anxiety could well be Brooks' funniest movie yet. The plot is disarmingly rhythmic, sucking you into suspense-movie clichés and then exploding them with a joke…. The camera and the music are also important characters, contributing to several wonderfully surreal gags. Not every joke works: one dissident doctor dies of a brain hemorrhage from listening to rock & roll (now that's offensive, it's been done-before, and the music should have been by Sick Dick and the Volkswagens). The key, I think, is that High Anxiety transcends schtick enough that you are glad when Brooks wins the fight, gets married to Madeline Kahn and lives happily ever after in the suburbs. That's a Brooks trademark...

(The entire section is 192 words.)