Joey Sack, ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Mel Brooks: few comedy filmmakers have stood the test of time better than the director of such classics as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs, among others. Though many of his films contain controversial material, there is no denying that Mel Brooks’s films are among the funniest films ever viewed on the silver screen, employing a brand of satire that puts most satire films of today to shame. As Mr. Brooks celebrated his 90th birthday on June 28th, it makes sense to look back to see which of his movies you can skip and which ones stand the test of time as instant comedy classics. So, without further ado, here are the films of Mel Brooks, ranked from worst to best.
12. Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
This 1995 sendup to the Dracula tale was meant to be a film cut from the same cloth as Brooks’s 1974 hit, Young Frankenstein, but ultimately feels tired and somewhat lazy in its attempts at humor. Where Young Frankenstein told a story that was meant to be a continuation of the original Frankenstein story, much of Dracula: Dead and Loving It was almost a scene-for-scene remake of the original 1931 Dracula film, with some interesting new scenes thrown in for comedic purposes. As of this writing, this is the last feature film Brooks has directed, and it’s definitely not reflective of the rest of his career. Dracula: Dead and Loving It, despite having some funny Brooks-esque moments, is sadly Dead on arrival, and we’re certainly not Loving it.
11. Life Stinks (1991)
Life Stinks is of a rare breed in the Mel Brooks canon, in that it’s not a parody of another film or genre; it’s a wholly original film in terms of its plot. The film stars Brooks as Goddard Bolt, a rich CEO who has little regard for those less fortunate than him, and agrees to try and live in a Los Angeles slum for 30 days in order to buy it for practically nothing from one of his rivals, played by Jeffrey Tambor. Along the way, Bolt falls in love with a homeless woman named Molly, played by Lesley Ann Warren, and he learns the importance of humility and of caring for others. Hijinks abound in this movie, but not as many as in other Brooks films, which is one of the things that detracts from the experience. However, one of this film’s saving graces is the fact that it allows Brooks to play a slightly more dramatic role as opposed to his wholly comedic characters. If you like Brooks’s satires more than anything else, you can probably skip this one. But if you are a die-hard Mel Brooks fan, you may find some enjoyment in Life Stinks, which doesn’t stink quite as badly as you might think.
10. To Be Or Not To Be (1983)
A remake of a 1942 film, To Be or Not To Be is the first and only Mel Brooks film to star Brooks alongside his wife, the late Anne Bancroft. In the film, Brooks and Bancroft star as the husband-and-wife co-owners and leading performers at a Polish theatre at the start of World War II. After the Nazis take over, they must work with the rest of their theatre company, as well as a British secret agent, to flee Poland and escape to England. Part of this film involves Brooks dressing up as various Nazi officials, including Hitler, in order to get out of various situations, and his comedic portrayals of these vile individuals are classic Mel Brooks comedy. It’s also a real treat to see Brooks perform opposite his wife, Anne Bancroft, and the chemistry between them is enjoyable. That being said, this movie does suffer from being a tad dated, and some of the situations in this movie are a bit uncomfortable, especially on the subject of groups like homosexuels and Jews being rounded up by the Nazis. By no means a bad film, To Be or Not To Be is important viewing for Brooks fans for its showcasing of Brooks in multiple roles, as well as seeing him work with Bancroft.
9. The Twelve Chairs (1970)
Based on a 1928 Russian novel of the same name, The Twelve Chairs follows Ippolit (Ron Moody), a former aristocrat, and Ostap Bender (Frank Langella, in his screen debut), a con artist, as they travel around the Soviet Union in search of a set of twelve dining room chairs, one of which contains the jewels of the noble’s late mother-in-law. Also looking for the chairs is a scheming priest, played by Dom DeLuise, who learns of the jewels from the mother-in-law’s confession. This film features lovely shots of Yugoslavia, where much of the filming took place, the three main characters offer up comedic and dramatic moments, and Brooks himself has a brief but hilarious role as the noble’s former servant, but for people looking for Mel Brooks’s brand of satire, it might seem a bit light in that regard. The most lasting element of this film is its main song, “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” which is both dramatic in its sound darkly comedic in its lyrics. An interesting film in Brooks’s career, The Twelve Chairs is definitely worth a watch for Brooks fans looking for something with more of a balance between the dramatic and the comedic.
8. Silent Movie (1976)
Brooks’s appreciation of past comedians is well known, and his film Silent Movie is a tribute to performers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Featuring no sound save for one line of dialogue and the music, Silent Movie stars Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise, and Marty Feldman, who are trying to get a silent movie made in order to save a production studio from being bought up. The lack of any audible dialogue is a nice throwback to the early days of Hollywood, and any fans of slapstick will find plenty of it in this movie. The three main actors in this movie work well together, and Brooks, often a very vocal actor, does a commendable job employing physical humor to bring his character to life. Definitely check out Silent Movie; it’s a barrel of laughs that definitely won’t be silent.
7. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
One of the first Mel Brooks films to be both a financial and critical disappointment, Robin Hood: Men in Tights has gained a cult following over the years as one of Brooks’s funnier movies. A humorous retelling of the Robin Hood story, this film stars Cary Elwes as Robin Hood, Amy Yasbeck as Maid Marian, Richard Lewis as Prince John, Roger Rees as the Sheriff of Rottingham, and Tracy Ullman as Latrine, along with a large ensemble cast. Tracy Ullman’s Latrine and Roger Rees’s portrayal of the Sheriff provide notable high points of the film’s comedy. Various sight gags, callbacks to previous Brooks films, and a tongue in cheek feel to some key moments of the film, all lend themselves to a fun late installment in Brooks’s film career.
6. Spaceballs (1987)
A lampoon of such films as Star Wars and Star Trek, and including elements of other science fiction works, Spaceballs is the Mel Brooks cult classic that has become his most successful film in terms of DVD sales. The film features Star Wars esque characters such as Dark Helmet, played by Rick Moranis, Yogurt, played by Mel Brooks, Lone Star, played by Bill Pullman, and princess Vespa, played by Daphne Zuniga, among others. The changes made to the typical science fiction film are greatly appreciated, and the film’s commentary on the merchandising industry that flourished thanks to Star Wars make for some hilarious scenes; as Yogurt says in this movie, “Merchandising! Merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made!” Moranis as the main villain Dark Helmet is so incompetent that he becomes one of the funnier villains in a comedy film, while also managing to pull off a few corny villain moments. Spaceballs will entertain anyone who enjoys science fiction movies, so go out and buy the DVD; it’s where the real money from this movie is made.
5. The Producers (1968)
Brooks’s directorial debut, and the film that earned him an Academy Award (against such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Battle of Algiers), The Producers set the groundwork for Brooks’s style of filmmaking. The film follows Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as theatre producer Max Bialystock and accountant Leo Bloom, respectively, as they hatch a scheme to get rich quick. Realizing that a play that flops could be more profitable than one that is a hit, they produce a play they deem to be the worst play ever written: Springtime for Hitler. They make horrible choices in terms of the play, the director, and finally, the actor to play Hitler himself, all in the hopes of offending people so much, that the show closes on its opening night. When the play suddenly becomes a success, they are in a lot of trouble, to say the least. The chemistry between Mostel and Wilder carries much of this film, as the older Mostel’s Bialystock corrupts Wilder’s Bloom in order to make the scheme a success. Wilder, in particular, has a crazy and engaging energy that sucks audiences in, so much so that Brooks, while accepting his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 41st Academy Awards, said “I’d also like to thank Zero Mostel … I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder … I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder … I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder,” signifying how important the young actor was to the film’s success (Wilder was nominated that same year for Best Supporting Actor). While critics at the time of the film’s release took some issue with the subject material, particularly the references to Nazi Germany and Hitler’s Third Reich, it can now be seen as some of the best comedy made at the expense of the Nazis ever put to film. The Producers is a must see for any fan of Mel Brooks to see how his filmmaking style came to be.
4. History of the World: Part I (1981)
While people are waiting on the second part of this movie (kidding!), they can enjoy History of the World: Part I, a parity of historical epic films such as Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and other films of that genre. Set during several eras, from prehistoric times to the French revolution, this film pokes fun at different clichés of historical films. The high points in this movie come when Mel Brooks, in several roles, is able to display his knack for performing, particularly his stand-up comedy, singing, and dancing abilities, the latter two being out in full force during the Spanish Inquisition segment. This film is also notable for Mel Brooks’s line “It’s good to be the king,” when he portrayed the French king Louis the 16th; this line would later be referenced in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and became the title of Brooks’s biography. Ultimately, History of the World: Part I serves as a love letter from Brooks to history, and creates historical hilarity along the way.
3. High Anxiety (1977)
Mel Brooks actually became good friends with Alfred Hitchcock while working on his tribute to and parody of the Master of Suspense, High Anxiety. The film stars Brooks as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, who suffers from a paralyzing fear of heights (referred to in the film as “High Anxiety”), and who has become the new head psychologist at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. But there is a conspiracy afoot, as very few patients ever make a full recovery, and at the center of the mystery are the foreboding Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman), and Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), the daughter of a patient at the Institute. What follows is a loving tribute to Hitchcock’s filmography, which playfully mocks story elements, camera techniques, and even musical cues. For fans of Hitchcockian suspense films, High Anxiety should be high on your list of must-see comedies.
2. Blazing Saddles (1974)
A movie that would have no chance of being made today due to its liberal use of racial slurs, as well as several other elements, Blazing Saddles tells the story of Bart (Cleavon Little), a black railroad worker in 1874 who is made the sheriff of the all-white (and incredibly inbred) town of Rock Ridge, as part of Hedley Lamarr’s (Harvey Korman) plot to drive the townspeople out, buy up the land, and sell it back to the government when the railroad runs through it. Helping Bart keep the peace is Jim (Gene Wilder), a former gunslinger turned alcoholic who ends up becoming one of Bart’s closest friends and allies. This film was a satire of Western films, mocking the clichéd moments, actions, and characters of the genre. Perhaps the most notable of these parodies came with the infamous campfire scene, which showed cowboys eating beans, and passing gas wildly. Many film critics point to this as a turning point in the use of such toilet humor in movies, but was originally only meant as a lampoon of such scenes in other movies; all these guys, sitting around eating so many beans, will produce a certain result: flatulence, and lots of it. Moreover, Blazing Saddles was a jab at the racism surrounding such films, as many Hollywood films did not accurately represent the people of the era. Not only was this film another brilliant team-up between Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, but it also produced a charismatic and entertaining performance from Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart. While some people may have trouble with the use of racial slurs in this movie, including the n-word and a few others, the comedy that this movie contains is too good to pass up.
1. Young Frankenstein (1974)
One of the most fruitful collaborations between Brooks and Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein is, without a doubt, Mel Brooks’s cinematic magnum opus. Brooks and Wilder wrote the script together, based on an idea that Wilder was working on while filming Blazing Saddles, and took inspiration from experiences that Brooks and Wilder both had as children: of being afraid of old monster movies, like Frankenstein (1931), and seeing the humor in such films’ corny aspects years later. The film follows the grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”), played by Gene Wilder, who has tried to distance himself from his family’s infamous reputation. However, when he inherits the Frankenstein castle and stumbles on his grandfather’s research, Frederick is inspired to continue his family’s work by bringing a creature, played by Peter Boyle, to life. This film is the epitome of Brooks’s style of satire: to paraphrase Brooks, he tries to keep the aesthetics of a film, and then shift the focus or angle a little to the left or right; this, he claims, gives you all the comedy you need. Young Frankenstein is the perfect representation of this sentiment. This film is shot in black and white (a bold move in 1974), uses the laboratory equipment from the original 1931 film, and even employs various filmmaking techniques common to horror films, all while poking fun at various elements of the Frankenstein films and others like it. From Gene Wilder’s Frankenstein and Marty Feldman’s Igor to Teri Garr’s Inga, Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher, and Peter Boyle’s portrayal of the Monster, every member of this cast has their comedic moments to shine, along with supporting actors who populate this film’s world. A perfect satire and a downright hilarious film, Young Frankenstein truly is the greatest cinematic achievement in Mel Brooks’s catalog.