The 1970s turned out to be one of the most interesting decades in film. Or at least I think so. Filmmakers of note, like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola started their road to greatness during that decade. Their films and those of several others mirrored a much more cynical audience who – from my point of view – no longer wanted fluff after the turbulent 1960s and sobering happenings of the early 1970s. And while dramas and crime movies took a definitive turn toward a heightened realism so did comedy with vulgarity and tasteless jokes replacing domestic or sophisticated fare. But that does not mean genius was absent from the scene.
By now you know I love several classic film directors, but there are a few modern ones I’m very fond of too. And it turns out those modern movie directors are fans of classic movies themselves. This fact is often illustrated in their work by way of homages that offer clues as to which film, director or genres of days gone by may have influenced them. Scorsese is a great example. He is ever fascinating to listen to because of his deep appreciation for the entire history of motion pictures. Among the tributes Mr. Scorsese has offered to classics in his work includes a recreation of the ‘X’ motif from Howard Hawks’ Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), which he used in The Departed (2006). But as I said Scorsese is not alone in that regard, nor is he the most obvious. That distinction must go to Mel Brooks.
Mel Brooks made his mark as a director with The Producers in 1967, but it was the films he made in the 1970s that made him and his work part of our vernacular. “New” film fans at the time enjoyed Brooks’ films because they were funny as hell. Fans of classics adored his movies even more, if you ask me, because aside from being funny most were nods to classic genres, classic films or classic directors. Of course comedy allows for direct parodies whereas homages in other genres must be carefully woven into the narrative. Nor is it strange that genre films are refashioned in modern times. But Mel Brooks put his own kind of comedy spin on old stories and made new classics in his own right.
When asked about how he chooses the topics for his spoofs Brooks replied, “the genre has to be part of the American cinema fabric. The audience must know what the clichés are.”
Mel Brooks begins his now iconic ode to classic film genres in grand style – with two huge hits released in 1974. The first of these is Blazing Saddles, which was also his first commercial hit. Blazing Saddles spoofs the classic Western.
In Blazing Saddles you have the story of a black sheriff (Cleavon Little) who’s recruited to clean up a white frontier town. Here Brooks uses everything visually recognizable in old Westerns, adds the clichés and a whole lot of inappropriateness to make one of the funniest movies ever made. But evident in Blazing Saddles – on some level – is the star, writer, director’s affection for the Western genre, particularly the low-budget Westerns he grew up watching. As Brooks would say of Blazing Saddles in an interview in the mid-1970s, “it’s a take-off on the run-of-the-mill Westerns, the ones in which you’d see the characters ride past the same tree a million times, the Westerns that cost about ten dollars to make.”
He also mentioned, by the way, that much of the ‘inspiration’ for what we see in Blazing Saddles are just average things that occurred to him while watching the old movies. For instance, “doesn’t anyone ever pass wind in the prairie?”
Blazing Saddles primary cast:
Mel Brooks followed Blazing Saddles with an even bigger hit that same year, his spoof of classic horror, Young Frankenstein. This is still my favorite of Brooks’ films, which he intended as an homage (obviously) to the Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein films directed by James Whale in 1931 and 1935 respectively.
As a fan of the classic Universal horror films Brooks said that he thought these films were both funny and scary and lent themselves – thanks to the genius of Mary Shelley’s original work – to great material for spoofing (paraphrase). While Young Frankenstein is hilarious and features a genius comedic cast it also has at its core a deep fondness for the material it laughs at. Visually this film is as close to the 1930s films as one could fathom aided by the fact that the original laboratory equipment was used in this film rigged (and renewed) by Kenneth Strickfaden who did it all in the original movies. In addition the recreation of the sets was done with extraordinary care to match the look and feel of Whale’s films.
As beloved as the James Whale classics remain among classic movie lovers Mel Brooks managed to make such an impact with Young Frankenstein that it is impossible to watch the 1930s films without inserting Brooks-isms into them. And while these types of horror “spoilers,” if you will would be bothersome coming from almost anyone else, from Brooks they manage to flatter as well as make you laugh. This is fantastic entertainment. Perhaps the best proof of this as Brooks himself has said are all the accolades he received from the horror movie-loving community after Young Frankenstein was released. That’s as passionate a group of film lovers as you can ever encounter and the fact that they too love Brooks’ take on these beloved movies is high praise indeed.
With Young Frankenstein still in theaters and people showing up in droves Mel Brooks was asked if he’d ever consider doing a Dracula spoof and he answered that “Dracula is more fantastical and does not have the philosophical granite on which to base a story (as does the Frankenstein story.)” Despite that, however, Mel did give the Count some love in 1995 with Dracula: Dead and Loving It starring Leslie Nielsen.
Young Frankenstein primary cast:
After two huge successes in a row Mel Brooks could have chosen to do anything he wanted. And he did. He made an homage to silent movies with the first major silent movie made in decades – Silent Movie (1976).
Silent Movie is about a modern-day movie director who tries to persuade the biggest stars in the world to appear in his silent movie. Adding to the fun in this oft-silly, but enjoyable romp are the real-life cameos by some of the biggest stars in the world at the time who Brooks got to appear in the movie. This is strangely ‘life as art as life’ in fact. Among those who agreed to cameos in Silent Movie are Paul Newman, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, Burt Reynolds, Anne Bancroft and adding yet another layer to Brooks’ fondness for classics in this one is the last film appearance of Harry Ritz. Mr. Ritz was one of the Ritz Brothers, a hugely popular comedy act from the 1930s who actually rivaled the Marx Brothers at the height of their fame. Mel Brooks was a huge fan of the Ritz Brothers as a boy.
Silent Movie primary cast:
- Mel Brooks as Mel Funn
- Dom DeLuise as Dom Bell
- Marty Feldman as Marty Eggs
- Bernadette Peters as Vilma Kaplan
- Sid Caesar as the Chief
- Harold Gould as Engulf
- Ron Carey as Devour
If one allows for the expansion of the definition of ‘genre’ to include Alfred Hitchcock films as their own brand of suspense, which is fair in my view, then Mel Brooks pays homage to his favorite director with the Hitchcock genre spoof High Anxiety in 1977. High Anxiety doesn’t come close to my favorite of Brooks’ genre homages, but if you happen to be familiar with Hitchcock movies then the real fun here lies is recognizing all that’s inserted with relation to the master’s work.
High Anxiety‘s main theme is a spoof of Vertigo (1958) with the movie’s main character Richard H. Thorndyke who is hired to run the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous having a severe fear of heights. But you can see the close association of that character’s name with Roger Thornhill, the name of Cary Grant‘s character in North by Northwest (1959). Aside from another noticeable mention of North by Northwest in the movie, High Anxiety also pays tribute to Psycho, The Birds, includes the gist of a favored Hitchcock theme of a wrong man accused of a crime and even features a blonde protagonist played by Madeline Kahn in this case.
One of my favorite Mel Brooks stories is when he recounts the time he screening High Anxiety to Alfred Hitchcock prior to the film’s release. Mel describes his nerves, which weren’t eased when Hitchcock left without saying a word once the movie was finished. Some time later Hitchcock did manage to praise the movie and even suggested a joke to include, which Brooks did.
By the way, the ‘H’ in Brooks’ character’s name in High Anxiety stands for Harpo. Another classic-themed detail.
High Anxiety main cast:
- Mel Brooks as Dr. Richard Harpo Thorndyke
- Madeline Kahn as Victoria Brisbane
- Ron Carey as Brophy
- Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel
- Harvey Korman as Dr. Montague
- Howard Morris as Professor Lilloman
The movie Mel Brooks directed after High Anxiety is an ode to the historical epic, another of his movies I never tire of seeing. With History of the World Part 1 (1981) Brooks manages to disparage eras and players in history with vigor. Hilarity ensues on all levels and no one is spared. This is a compilation of tasteless jokes interwoven with clever takes on history that only the likes of Mel Brooks can manage successfully.
There are so many scenes I adore in History that it’s hard to choose just a few to mention – a caveman art critic, ancient Rome unemployment insurance, Moses dispensing the fifteen commandments, but drops one of the tablets and therefore there were ten. The Last Supper scene where Brooks plays the waiter is hilarious as well. I could go on and on.
History of the World Part 1 main cast:
- Orson Welles as Narrator
- Mel Brooks as Moses, Comicus, Tomas de Torquemada, Louis XVI of France and Jacques le Garçon de Pisse
- Dom DeLuise as Emperor Nero
- Madeline Kahn as Empress Nympho
- Harvey Korman as Count de Monet
- Cloris Leachman as Madame Defarge
- Ron Carey as Swiftus Lazarus
- Gregory Hines as Josephus
I’m stopping at History of the World Part 1 as I am well beyond the cut-off point for the Classic Movie History Project for which this post is intended. But I think paying homage in such a way to one whose work is so admired who in turn has paid homage to our beloved classics is acceptable. I must at least mention, however, that Mel Brooks’ parodies of classics didn’t stop with History. Although he didn’t direct this one he did produce it, a remake of Ernst Lubitsch outstanding 1942 classic, To Be or Not To Be in Brooks co-stars with his wife Anne Bancroft. Although I am steadfast against remakes I make an exception for this one. While it doesn’t compare to Lubitsch’s movie, the 1983 version, which is directed by Alan Johnson is a worthy watch with a great cast that’s obviously meant as yet another homage to an original. By the way Charles Durning gives a particularly memorable performance in the 1983 movie and received an Oscar nod for the effort.
I’ll mention two other Mel Brooks parodies worthy of note – Spaceballs (1987), which is a Sci-Fi adventure parody of Star Wars and in 1993 he made Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which is a blend of adventure with musical comedy as only Mel Brooks would dare to do. He uses that combination in other movies as well, by the way. The well-done, hilarious production number is a staple in several Brooks films.
Finally, although I don’t get into details about most of the cast in the movies I mention in this post it must be noted that at every turn Mel Brooks movies have some of the greatest comedic performers to ever appear in the movies. And that’s taking the ‘classics’ into account as well. Many of them are geniuses in fact, along the lines of Brooks himself.
When I planned this post I didn’t realize I’d publish it on Mel Brooks’ birthday so by way of this homage to him I wish him many, many more. He is one of our treasures.
Source: A bunch of Mel Brooks interviews.