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Mel Brooks

Review: Ten from Your Show of Shows

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Ten from Your Show of Shows is not, strictly speaking, a movie. It is a film reproduction of kinescopic records made of live television performances from some 20 years ago. Comedy writer-director Max Liebman and his technicians have done a fine job of suiting the kinescope prints to the giant screen; and, though the end result never looks like a movie, it is eminently watchable.

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Review: Blazing Saddles

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The first wave of reviews said it was hilarious; the second, that it wasn’t that funny. I caught it on the third wave and it was almost that funny—assuming, that is, that you have a stomach for unrelenting bad taste, dirty jokes, and goodnatured, let’s-be-egalitarian-and-offend-everybody racist references. That wasn’t structured as a putdown—I have one of those stomachs myself. But halfway through Blazing Saddles I suddenly realized I’d guffawed good and hard at quite a few things along the way, but I could call almost none of them to mind. Like Friedkin and Blatty in their department, Mel Brooks tends to shock and run. I’d probably laugh a second time at Slim Pickens’s riding up and demanding “Whut in th’ wide wide world uh sports is goin’ on here?!” because, although it’s a dumb joke, it and Pickens were both funny the first time and Pickens would still be delightful the second. I wouldn’t be caved in a second time when John Hillerman pretentiously invokes Nietzsche and David Huddleston responds, “Ah, blow it out your ass, Howard!” with a ten-gallon scowl, because that gag lacks even the whimsy of “wide wide world of sports” and depends purely on surprise to work at all. Both Hillerman and Huddleston have done fine comic turns in the past (for Bogdanovich in What’s Up, Doc? and Newman-Benton in Bad Company, respectively; and there was also Hillerman’s truly menacing job as the sheriff—and his bootlegger brother—in Paper Moon), but Brooks encourages them to turn in only the broadest, most insubstantial, TV-variety-sketch performances.

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Review: Young Frankenstein

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

If I suggest that Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is more fond than funny, I don’t mean at all to imply that it isn’t funny. It is. But the first response of any devotee of classic horror films, especially the cycle out of Universal Studios in the Thirties and early Forties, must have to do with Brooks’s—and Wilder’s, but especially director Brooks’s—conspicuous scrupulousness about and passionate love for the old films he’s remembering and celebrating. No opportunistic schmuck out to poke facile fun at antique movies is going to bother setting up his camera in such a way that it will observe Frederick (Froedrich?) von Frankenstein carefully framed at his breakfast table by two gracefully curving chairbacks; in such niceties of style even more than the restoration of the “original” laboratory equipment does Brooks reveal himself a true obsédé and an honorable heir to the eerily delicate comic-horror tradition of James Whale.

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Videophiled: ‘Blazing Saddles’ at 40 and ‘Thunderbirds’ are Blu!

BlazingSaddlesBDBlazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray)

Years ago, when singer Frankie Laine was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, he confessed that when he was engaged to record the theme song to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), he was not told that the film (and the song) was a spoof. He simply thought it was a bad song that he gave lines like “He rode a blazing saddle” a gravity that defies the painful lyric. Which was what Brooks wanted all along. It’s my favorite story behind one of the funniest movies ever made (it was in fact voted the sixth funniest movie of all time in an AFI poll) and one of the most audacious satires of racism to come out of Hollywood.

Mel Brooks came to Blazing Saddles on the success of The Producers, a film that also flirted with bad taste close to edge of offensiveness, but for this spoof he charged over the line with a brilliant staff of co-writers, including Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws), Norman Steinberg (My Favorite Year) and Richard Pryor (who was originally cast in the lead by Brooks but nixed by the studio, apparently nervous over the comedian’s reputation). They stirred racial humor into a broad parody of western movies with satirical lampooning, cartoon slapstick and bathroom humor. The sheer energy and anything-goes inventiveness of the film—quick costume changes, exploding candy boxes and a hulking brute named Mongo (Alex Karras)—suggests at times a live action Tex Avery cartoon. It was comic gold and a smash hit for Brooks.

Cleavon Little is a quick-witted railway worker saved from the gallows by corrupt governor’s aide Hedy (“That’s Hedley!”) Lamar (Harvey Korman) only to be offered up for a sure lynching as the sheriff of a conservative western town under siege from the Governor’s own gangsters. Madeline Kahn is a scream as a lisping Dietrich-like entertainer (she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance) and Gene Wilder provides amiable support and crack timing as the alcoholic ex-gunfighter who joins our stalwart hero. Brooks himself co-stars as the Governor and as a kvetching Indian chief in a brief flashback and Frankie Lane indeed sings the brilliant theme song without a trace of camp (it also received an Oscar nomination). Campfire meals have never been the same since. Watch it. You’d do it for Randolph Scott!

It’s been on both Blu-ray and DVD a number of times already but it turns 40 this year and that calls for an anniversary edition. New to this release is the half-hour featurette “Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild, Wild West,” built around a new interview the Brooks and featuring archival interview clips with Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, and a collection of postcard-sized stills with comic-strip bubble lines from the film.

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Review: Silent Movie

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Silent Movie is Mel Brooks’s best film to date, and his first unqualifiedly successful movie. His earlier films, funny as they are, are hampered by unevenness and overemphasis, and by the kind of selfcongratulatory distrust of the audience that makes Brooks hold his shots too long, zoom in insistently on his sight gags, use the same joke again and again under the misapprehension that that makes it a running gag, or—when in doubt—have an unlikely person say “bullshit” or burst into Cole Porter. Silent Movie is a more personal film than the others, and—probably not coincidentally—the first in which Brooks has cast himself in a lead role. In fact, there is a sense in which Silent Movie is Brooks’s 8 1/2: The end title informs us “This was a true story,” and though we are reasonably certain that the man who made Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein didn’t exactly have to go through hell to convince a studio to let him do a silent movie, it must have been a daring and difficult idea to promote. (One wonders whether Alan Pakula, who once confessed an urge to make a contemporary silent film, ever made serious overtures to the studios.)

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Review: High Anxiety

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The consistency of Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie have served to make us forget how embarrassingly unfunny Mel Brooks can be when he’s off his feed. It’s a long, hard road to the first genuinely good laugh in High Anxiety; and, though the film picks up after that, it never gets consistently good. In this heavily promoted Hitchcock sendup, Brooks is on safe ground only when specifically kidding Hitchcock’s camera style—like the low-angle camera that watches two characters through a glass coffee table, but keeps losing them amid a jungle of cups, saucers, and trays; or the overhead shot that ends with everyone suddenly looking straight up at the camera; or the shot-for-shot parody of Psycho’s shower scene. There are a half-dozen or so delicious moments like these in the film; but when Brooks relies on dialogue for laughs he goes juvenile on us, choking off most of the laughs. In attempting to lampoon Hitchcock’s plotting and thematic content, all Brooks is able to do is reduce the elegant, dry wit of the Master of Suspense to pasty, cream-pie level. Typical of the film’s ubiquitous failures is the climactic scene, a fusion of the tower scene from Vertigo with the return of John Ballantine’s memory in Spellbound: the way the scene is shot—with an impossibly blond Madeline Kahn and an impeccably dressed Mel Brooks caught on the ancient stairs—is hilarious; but the dialogue is so absurdly puerile that the comedy is diluted to water-thinness. At its unfunniest, High Anxiety is embarrassingly, even boringly limp; at its funniest, it’s never as funny as Hitchcock’s own work. “A Mister MacGuffin called,” indeed!

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