Mel Brooks Monday: Young Frankenstein

Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when a horror movie spoof seemed novel. Seemingly endless Scary Movie sequels and other efforts such as A Haunted House are about as tired and unfunny as you could imagine. Thankfully, 1974 was that time, and Young Frankenstein was that spoof. But, while Young Frankenstein is very funny, what truly makes it stand out even today is its faithfulness to its source material. Although it is very much a riff on Mary Shelley’s classic monster story, it’s also, ironically, probably the best adaptation of the story ever filmed (even while it’s not really the story at all).

That might sound confusing, but seeing Mel Brooks’ follow-up to Blazing Saddles is believing. Brooks wisely re-casts Gene Wilder, this time as the main character, the titular Dr. Frankenstein. But he is not Victor Frankenstein but rather his grandson, Frederick, a well-respected neuroscientist. Frederick is living in the shadow of his infamous grandfather, who he tells people was a crackpot for believing dead tissue could become living matter and creating an abomination in the process. He attempts to disassociate himself from his troubled legacy by insisting people call him FRONK-EN-STEEN. But, after he inherits his grandad’s Transylvanian estate, he finds himself drawn to Victor’s research and becomes obsessed with recreating his experiments. He enlists the hunchbacked grandson of Igor, Frankenstein’s infamous assistant (Marty Feldman), who insists he be called EYE-GOR and an impossibly attractive “assistant” Inga (Terri Garr).

Young Frankenstein is a great spoof that also doubles as a brilliant adaptation of its source material.

Young Frankenstein is a great spoof that also doubles as a brilliant adaptation of its source material.

More than most Brooks films, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of puns (an infamous knock about “knockers” comes to mind), but thankfully this was a time when Brooks puns were still funny. Really funny. The film’s first half contains so much rapid-fire wordplay that it’s hard to take a breath between jokes. Many of them are courtesy of the brilliant Feldman, who plays Igor as an ultra-literalist who has a tough time understanding double meanings. His trademark enormous eyes are so expressive he gets a laugh just by looking at the camera.

The visuals also stand out here. Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography perfectly matches the style of old monster movies. This is, I suppose, a more professionally made and polished movie than Blazing Saddles, though it never quite reaches that film’s comedic heights. This, along with the quality of the story (kind of a given, considering the original story’s tremendous staying power) probably make this the most accessible of all Brooks’ films, and, therefore, probably the one most widely viewed (it also helps that, as with The Producers, Brooks adapted the movie into a recent Broadway smash musical).

Young Frankenstein’s second half is perhaps less funny, but also more memorable. Although Wilder is brilliant in the title role, the film’s lasting brilliance is primarily due to two performances. The bumbling, Clouseau-style Inspector Kemp, played by Kenneth Mars, gets a lot of laughs with his fake wooden arm. It’s one of the funniest, most physical performances in any Brooks film. Kemp leads the Transylvanian townspeople against Frankenstein when they realize he has created another monster with the potential to further terrorize their small town. Speaking of the monster, Peter Boyle is beyond amazing as the misunderstood creature, who was designed to be a genius but, through a hilarious mix-up, receives an “abnormal” brain instead. He has his moments of rage, but his tender moments, where he is simply seeking to understand and be understood, make him an incredibly sympathetic figure. It would have been easy for Boyle and Brooks to make the monster an extended punchline, but he is instead a flesh-and-blood character (just don’t ask whose flesh or whose blood). In some ways, Boyle is the best actor to every play the infamous monster.

Young Frankenstein is a consistently surprising delight, not because it’s funny (though it certainly is), but because it’s such a well-made adaptation of a classic story. Although it doesn’t follow the plot of the original monster tale, it does share its thought-provoking themes and beating heart. You could put it in any dug-up graveyard corpse and it would beat just as heartily.

Mel Brooks Monday: Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles is the kind of movie you watch in slack-jawed amazement, wondering how it could be this good. Every time I watch it (many times, trust me), I expect to find some part of it lacking, some part of it disappointing compare to my fond nostalgic memories. But I am surprised anew every time; the film always responds with pure comedic perfection. This is one of the funniest, most artistically progressive comedies ever created, and what makes it even more impressive is the fact that it still holds up so well 40 years later.

Mel Brooks’ seminal western spoof follows the exploits of Bart (Cleavon Little), a black man working on a railroad line in the 1870s-era south. Although slavery has been outlawed, he and his fellow black and Asian workers are technically still enslaved in a country that is still incredibly racist. After assaulting one of his white bosses during a tussle, he is sentenced to be hanged.

But Attorney General Headley Lamarr (the late great Harvey Korman) has other plans. He wants his new railroad to go straight through the tow of Rock Ridge, but the town’s stubborn populace is unwilling to vacate. But the city is seeking a new sheriff, and Lamarr thinks that hiring Bart as sheriff might so repulse the backwards townspeople that they would rather leave town for good that be led by a black man. After befriending an enlightened former gunslinger named Jim (Gene Wilder), Bart makes it his goal to win over the townspeople and foil Lamarr’s nefarious plot.

What’s most immediately striking about Blazing Saddles to modern ears is the language. The “n” word is extremely plentiful, but the film is “racist” in the same way Huckleberry Finn is; which is to say, it’s actually very racially progressive. Much of that empowerment comes from Little, who plays Bart as the sly everyman that each audience member can relate to. He’s keenly aware how much the color of his skin matters, but, rather than despair, he’s intent to use it to his advantage in every situation. It’s obvious that Bart is infinitely smarter than the white hicks who count it as some kind of duty to subjugate and demean him.

Blazing Saddles earns its status as a legendary comedy and is well worth multiple viewings.

Blazing Saddles earns its status as a legendary comedy and is well worth multiple viewings.

The film’s racial themes are worth pondering further, but any Mel Brooks review has to get to the jokes, and these are easily some of his best. Inspired more by classic Looney Tunes shorts than any western, this is as madcap, zany and rapid-fire as movie comedies come. The humor is so lowbrow and yet so sophisticated that it should appease almost every viewer in some measure. Brooks riffs on classic skits like “Who’s on First?” There are some killer running puns (It’s HEADLEY!) and great visual gags, often perfectly timed with sound and music (the anachronistic Count Basie orchestra playing in the middle of the desert is my favorite). The jokes fly fast and furious (I still haven’t caught them all), and gags you think are long gone unexpectedly rear their heads again whole scenes later. But my favorite aspect of the film’s humor is the way it breaks the fourth wall left and right, gently letting the audience in on the humor in a rare and special way.

Of course, good jokes don’t go very far without good performances, and Blazing Saddles boasts some of the best in comedy history. Korman is having almost too much fun as the mustache-twirling villain, getting many of the film’s juiciest lines and speeches. Seeing a Shakespearean-quality actor going broke for the sake of a gag is something to behold. Slim Pickens gets some big laughs as his dim-witted assistant (he gets the punchline on the most infamous fart joke in movie history). And then there’s the magnificent Madeline Kahn, who, as the German seductress Lili Von Shtupp (in an Oscar-nominated performance) boasts one of the film’s high points in an extended (and surprisingly dirty) musical sequence. And I’d be remiss to forget Brooks, who plays several roles, most notably randy cross-eyed governor William J. LePetomane

But the emotional anchor of the film is Jim (most people call me…Jim) played with great subtlety and tremendous warmth by Gene Wilder. He’s a much more nuanced, warm presence than in The Producers, and the friendship he develops with Bart is truly affecting. Jim is the first person in the film to see Bart as an actual human being, an equal. We shouldn’t ask for too much subtlety or heart-tugging from a comedic spoof, but Brooks and his teams of writers go the extra mile here, and it shows.

What truly elevates the film from “great” to “legendary” is its climax, which descends into utter chaos and defies all traditional film logic. This is Brooks changing the language of cinema to do something completely new, and it’s absolutely thrilling to watch. You’ll be amazed how far the film is willing to take the greatest fourth-wall joke in movie history.

Blazing Saddles is everything I want in a comedy. It has clever visual gags, hilarious writing and acting, great production design and surprising (yet always subtle) politics. Best of all, it even has a heart. A great big one. Mel Brooks is a passionate filmmaker, and it shows in every framer here. Blazing Saddles re-wrote the movie comedy rulebook, and catapulted Brooks into his most prolific and creative period. Thankfully, there would be more side-splitting classics to come.

Mel Brooks Monday: The Twelve Chairs

Between his breakout hit The Producers and the legendary Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks directed a little film called The Twelve Chairs, based upon a Russian novel. I’ll cop to never having heard of it before doing this series. Thankfully, my lack of expectations paid off, because the movie is an absolute delight, a forgotten gem in the Brooks canon.

The film, set in Russia after the rise of the Soviet Union, follows Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody), a former nobleman whose dying mother-in-law leaves him with a big secret: she has hidden a fortune’s worth in jewels inside one of her old dining room chairs, part of a set of twelve. He quickly runs off in search of the jewels, but there would be no movie if the chairs were where they were supposed to be, or all in one place. Vorobyaninov’s loud, sometimes boorish antics prevent him from keeping a secret very well; soon, a charismatic drifter (a very young Frank Langella) and a greedy priest (Dom DeLuise) are after the jewels as well.

The Twelve Chairs is a hilarious throwback to the madcap slapstick antics of the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.

The Twelve Chairs is a hilarious throwback to the madcap slapstick antics of The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.

This is the sort of film where the plot matters very little. The jewels are a McGuffin that exist to drive forward the madcap antics of our trio of misfits. The film is Brooks’ love letter to beloved slapstick trios like The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers, and their influence covers every inch of the movie. Thankfully, the movie works as more than homage; it is a very funny movie in its own right.

Much of the credit for that must certainly go to the actors. Moody plays Vorobyaninov as a very desperate man, and desperation is funny. We feel for his plight and continued failure at obtaining the jewels that are, after all, rightfully his, but his greed and callousness keep us laughing at his constant misfortune. Those who are more familiar with Frank Langella’s recent dramatic work (he played Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon) might be surprised as his gifted comedic talent even at a young age. His suave street rat is “the smart one” of the trio, and his continual manipulation of his situation (and the other treasure hunters) gets some big laughs.

But the show really belongs to the late great Dom DeLuise, one of the most gifted physical comedians we’ve ever had. If you combined the vaudevillian antics of Buster Keaton with the warmth and amiable goofiness of Bill Murray, you’d come close to an understanding what makes DeLuise so special. His Father Fyodor gets most of the movie’s best visual gags, and DeLuise makes it look as natural as breathing. Two sequences—one set in a museum library and another in Siberia—should be considered all-time slapstick greats, if they aren’t already. They’re just perfection.

But I was equally struck by the quality of Brooks’ filmmaking here. Some of his later films take on an increasingly cheap-looking quality, as parody begins to overshadow coherent story and engaging characters. Here, he experiments with slow and fast motion during several vaudevillian-inspired fistfights, and the movie’s globetrotting locations give it a unique visual style and pacing within the director’s filmography. The cinematography is sometimes breathtaking, as is the Russian-inspired soundtrack. The ending, one of Brooks’ more cynical, is pitch-perfect, both funny and tremendously tragic in a way I wasn’t expecting.

I came into The Twelve Chairs expecting to be underwhelmed, but I’m glad I was wrong. This is brilliant comedic filmmaking all around. It may have laid the groundwork for Brooks’ more popular and enduring works, but it’s a wonderful, hilarious film in its own right. If, like me, you’ve never heard of the film before, it’s definitely a treasure worth seeking out (yes, that was a pun. You may laugh now).

Mel Brooks Monday: The Producers

Along with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, no other filmmaker has had a larger influence on the history of movie comedy than Mel Brooks. Throughout his impressive body of work, Brooks deftly mixed socio-political commentary, pop culture references, slapstick and the kind of deep, guttural belly laughs that can only be produced by a true comedy genius.

I recently came across a complete collection of Brooks’ films, and am curious to see which of his films hold up best. Which of his films deserve the title of “comedy classic,” and which ones are best forgotten? Join me for a (hopefully) hilarious retrospective every week for Mel Brooks Monday!


All of Mel Brooks' 12 films in one convenient collection.

All of Mel Brooks’ 12 films in one convenient collection.

Although Mel Brooks is perhaps best known for his various spoofs and genre parodies, his first film is actually one of the most original comedies of all time. Released in 1968, The Producers is, in some ways, still shocking by today’s standards. It’s the dirtiest, most politically incorrect movie I can imagine being made at that time. Like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, I watch it today and wonder, “how did they get away with that?”

The relatively thin (though not by Mel Brooks standards) story follows Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), a struggling Broadway producer hungry for his next big hit. To make money for his plays, he has taken to (ahem) “entertaining” rich, randy old ladies. Soon, accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who has been hired to do Max’s books, arrives at his doorstep. During a hypothetical ramble, Bloom convinces Max that, through some “creative accounting,” they can make more money with a Broadway flop than a hit. With dollar signs in his eyes, Max coerces Bloom into helping him find the worst play ever written, even though it’s, you know, technically illegal.

Many are probably familiar with this story through the musical re-make starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. The songs are catchy, but the only real version in my mind is the original. That is, in major part, to the brilliant lead performances. Mostel’s gregarious blowhard is perfectly pitted against Wilder’s neurotic, sheltered hypochondriac. These guys have never been better, committing two of the funniest performances ever seen on screen. Wilder is probably best known for playing the warm, gentle Willy Wonka, but I much prefer his edgy, comically uninhibited performance here.

The Producers is a brilliant introduction to the madcap insanity suffused with potent cultural commentary that is the hallmark of Brooks' best work.

The Producers is a brilliant introduction to the madcap insanity suffused with potent cultural commentary that is the hallmark of Brooks’ best work.

The duo’s eventual choice, Springtime for Hitler, is every bit as jaw-droppingly offensive as it sounds (song lyrics include Don’t be Stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party), but I think the very Jewish Brooks realized how therapeutic laughing at Nazis could be, even when the atrocities they committed were only a few decades behind and still very much in the forefront of global consciousness. A roomful of actors (including beach bod Hitler) auditioning for the role of the fuhrer is probably funnier than it has any right to be.

This madcap classic is bolstered by one of the funniest supporting casts in movie history. Kenneth Mars is perfect as Franz Liebkind, the German writer determined to “clear the fuhrer’s name” through his work. Christopher Hewes kills as “eccentric” theater director Roger De Bris, and Dick Shawn as LSD, the play’s “perfect” a.k.a. “worst” Hitler? Well, that’s something I wouldn’t dare ruin for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Several Mel Brooks staples could be seen in his debut film, although some of them would never be used to quite the same success again. His trademark mixture of gleeful subversion and old-fashioned, almost retro fun is in full swing here. The occasionally shocking content never gets in the way of the humor, proving the age-old rule that being offensive is okay—as long as it’s funny. It also gave us a good dose of Brooks’ Shakespearean sophistication, from comical asides to biblical allusions and grand speeches. We can always tell that there is a fiercely intelligent mind underneath the potty humor.

The Producers remains Mel Brooks’ most manically unpredictable movie, maybe because it’s not exactly skewering a genre; there are no jokes we expect, so everything remains a delightful surprise. But the film, thankfully, still has plenty to mock, from the money-hungry world of Broadway production to Nazism to the “high class” clientele that would pay to see a play called Springtime for Hitler in the first place. To say anything else about the plot, characters or jokes would spoil the experience for anyone seeing this true comedy classic for the first time. I say stick to the original and avoid the inferior remake.

Classic Hunter: “Ace in the Hole”

I have a soft spot for classic films. My list of favorite movies often differs greatly from those of people my own age, and I will always find Turner Classic Movies’ host Robert Osborne more of a man than George Clooney and Brad Pitt put together. Here, the classic geek in me reviews classic movies. Sometimes, it will be as I see them for the first time myself; other times, it will be after re-watching one of my favorites. Either way, I hope you’ll check these out, especially if the majority of movies you watch are in color. 


Billy Wilder’s 1951 classic “Ace in the Hole” is a great movie about bad people. Or perhaps it’s a great movie about good people corrupted by the idea of greatness.

Charles Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas, certainly knew greatness once. As a hot-shot journalist in cities likeChicagoandNew York, he ruffled more than a few feathers. But libel lawsuits and Tatum’s notorious alcoholism shot him straight back to the bottom. He shows up at a quaint newspaper in Albuquerque,New Mexico, looking for that one big story that will restart his career and bring him back into the good graces of New York’s media elite.

After spending a year writing about rattlesnake hunts and tornadoes that never showed up, Tatum gets his story when he hears about a local man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who is trapped under rubble in a mountain while digging for ancient Indian artifacts. He sees an opportunity to exploit the story for all it’s worth.

Kirk Douglas made his career off of playing honorable heroes in such films as “Spartacus” and “Paths of Glory,” but there’s none of that here. He’s mostly a snake, and, even his brief moments of humanity are in stark contrast to his actions. He’s not really a character to root for, but, withDouglasthis memorable in the role, he doesn’t have to be. WatchingDouglasis like coming into contact with a terrifying force of nature; the on-screen spectacle he creates is never anything short of mesmerizing.

The campaign to “save” Minosa, led by Tatum, reveals a colorful cast of characters, including the sheriff, who hopes to use the rescue as an opportunity to boost his reelection campaign, and Minosa’s wife, Lorraine (played with icy effectiveness by Jan Sterling), who desires to use her husband’s predicament as an opportunity to split town and make something for herself.

Billy Wilder was one of the first Hollywooddirectors to subvert the traditional archetypes of hero and villain, and one of the first to reject the typical happy ending. Even his comedies, such as the famous “Some Like it Hot, end on a note of apprehension and uncertainty about the future. The same goes here. The only truly “good” characters here are Leo Minosa and Tatum’sAlbuquerque editor, Jacob Q. Boot (Porte Hall); one trapped in a hole and the other facing irrelevance as the sensible “old guard” of journalism is swept away by sensationalism and the desire to be the first rather than the best. In Wilder’s world, the crooked are powerful and the good are often fighting against a system that finds them increasingly useless.

Looking back on the film today, it’s amazing to see how prescient it was about the course of journalism. In an era of increasing sensationalism, Wilder saw honesty as the first thing to go. Indeed, Tatum fabricates story elements in order to give the people “what they want.” In a world of quick-hit online journalism, this idea is more relevant than ever. But, more importantly, Wilder nailed the idea of the reporter as celebrity and active participant rather than impartial observer. Tatum takes an active role in the rescue efforts and does all he can to bolster his public image. In the process, the publicity becomes more about him than the man stuck in the mountain. This was all before the television even came along. It’s not hard to watch someone like Anderson Cooper today and nod in acknowledgement.

Tatum becomes fiercely protective of “his story” as the big city reporters start to move in on his turf. “This is my story,” he tells the sheriff, “and I’m going to make sure it stays mine.” The idea that stories are shared, and that people’s lives are not a commodity, does not cross his mind. Meanwhile, the popularity of the story brings in spectators from all over the country, and a carnival is set up to entertain the guests. It’s not a subtle image, but it is an effective one.

Without giving too much away, hardly anyone gets what they want by the end. And, with a story this cynical, how can they? Wilder desired to reveal the lowest depths human nature has to offer, and he did so splendidly. Despite this, the movie remains a joy to watch, filled with fine performances and particularly good black-and-white cinematography, emphasizing harsh shadows and showcasing the barren desolation of the desert landscapes.

“Ace in the Hole” is a truly great movie, and an oft-forgotten one in the Billy Wilder cannon. And, in today’s increasingly fast-paced and bottom-dollar world of journalism, it’s an important reminder that, when the humanity is taken out of “human interest,” nobody wins. It’s available on Netflix instant until the end of the month.