American Masters: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
premieres on THIRTEEN Monday, May 20 at 9pm (rebroadcasts Sunday, May 26 at 9:30pm).
Mel Brooks' legendary filmography includes not only the funniest films ever made, but a few surprising landmarks in cinema history. The staff of THIRTEEN picks the thirteen best movies directed or produced by Mel.
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13) Robin Hood: Men in Tights
This parody of Robin Hood films misses no opportunities to target one film in particular – 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
, which starred Kevin Costner. In one memorable scene, Robin Hood (played by Cary Elwes) remarks, "Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent!" — a direct reference to Costner’s inability to do so convincingly.
We also find clear nods to Young Frankenstein
and History of the World: Part I
. The most obvious shout-out came at the film’s end when Ahchoo (played by Dave Chappelle in his first major film role) is appointed Sherriff of Rottingham. Following the crowd’s apprehension at a black sheriff, Chappelle remarks, “It worked in Blazing Saddles
.” Indeed it did.
12) To Be Or Not To Be
Brooks starred in this 1983 comic-drama remake of a 1942 film about Polish stage actors during the Nazi invasion of Warsaw. The film co-stars his wife Anne Bancroft. The two met on the set of The Perry Como Show in 1961. In American Masters: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
, Bancroft shares how they met: “A guy from way over on the other side of the theater said, ‘Hey Anne Bancroft, I'm Mel Brooks.’” To her surprise, “This aggressive voice came out from the dark, and I thought it would be a combination of Clark Gable and Robert Taylor, and Robert Redford. Turned out to be Mel Brooks.” Brooks and Bancroft were married for 41 years until her death in 2005 from cancer.
11) My Favorite Year
In 1982, Brooks produced this wonderful valentine to television's golden age. The story centers around a live TV show starring Stan Kaiser (loosely based on Sid Caesar) and one of his writers, Benjy Stone (loosely based on Mel himself) who's tasked to watch over unpredictable thespian Alan Swann (loosely based on Errol Flynn). The film would've been a fine comedy if the characters were invented out of whole cloth, but knowing the real-life counterparts enriches the experience tenfold. And don't miss the classic scene when a gangster (brilliantly played by Cameron Mitchell) confronts Kaiser, who responds to death threats with open mockery. That mixture of wit and physical comedy is what keeps My Favorite Year's
100% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes
10) Silent Movie
In this comic tribute to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the silent film era, Brooks discusses in American Masters: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
fights he had with the studio. Coming on the heels of his black and white movie, Young Frankenstein
, one studio boss said, “You take away color [in Young Frankenstein
], and now you're coming to me and you say you want to make a movie [Silent Movie
], and you want to take away sound.” Mel Brooks was challenging the movie norms of the time… and succeeding. While technically a “silent film,” Marcel Marceau, the famous mime, has the only speaking line: "Non!" (when refusing a role in the silent film).
At the end of History of the World: Part I
, fans are teased with a trailer for Part II, including a look at the rousing musical number “Jews in Space.” While Spaceballs
(1987) didn’t turn out to be a musical, it had all the flair expected from a Mel Brooks film.
Bill Pullman and John Candy star as Hans Solo-esque space rogue Lone Star and his half man/half dog sidekick, Barf. The two are hired by King Roland of Druidia (Dick van Patten) to rescue his daughter Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) from the clutches of the evil, yet lovable Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis). Things take a turn for the annoying when they encounter the high-maintenance monarch they’re rescuing. As Lone Star sighed, “Just what we needed…a Druish princess.”
8) High Anxiety
Brooks directed and starred in this 1977 parody of classic Alfred Hitchcock’s films like Vertigo
, The Birds
, North by Northwest
and Dial M for Murder
. He plays Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, who runs the The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, VERY
Nervous. Brooks reports in American Masters: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
that he showed an early cut to Hitchcock, who pointed out that the spoof of Psycho’s infamous shower scene got one thing wrong. “Shower rings, you have 13. We only had ten.”
7) History of the World: Part I
This hilarious 1981 film was one giant comic parody of world history and “historic spectacular” epics like The Ten Commandments
. Who can forget Brooks playing Moses, carrying three stone tablets after receiving the Law from God (the voice of his best friend Carl Reiner), proclaiming, “The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen...” (he drops and shatters one tablet) “Oy... ten! TEN Commandments! For all to obey!” And the Spanish Inquisition played out as a spectacular Busby Berkeley number is devine. For Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the king.”
6) The Critic
"This is cute. This is nice. WHAT THE HELL IS IT?"
This 1963 Academy Award-winning short, directed by Ernest Pintoff, looks like a pleasant arthouse piece: abstract shapes dance along with a harpsichord music by Johann Sebastian Bach. But that's not the only thing on the soundtrack: we also hear running commentary by a yammering 70 year old man in the audience (played by Mel) who's struggling to understand what's happening onscreen. His meandering interpretations of the film's symbolism are hilarious, especially when he finds the geometric animation to be pornographic. (Watch a clip from American Masters: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
where Mel explains how the film came about.)
5) Young FrankensteinYoung Frankenstein
, Brooks’ 1974 parody of classic Universal horror films, is widely considered one of his most polished films. In a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times
, Brooks says, “I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of Blazing Saddles
…and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein
. I said not another – we've had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don't need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, ‘That's funny.’”
4) The Producers
Dustin Hoffman was slated to play Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-crazy ex-Nazi-turned-playwright in Brooks’ 1968 film The Producers
, but Brooks kindly allowed him to audition for another film: Mike Nichols’ The Graduate
, which catapulted him to stardom and featured Brooks’ wife as his lover. Brooks adapted the film into the 2001 Broadway musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick that won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. Lane and Broderick reprised their roles in the 2005 film adaptation of the musical, with Will Ferrell in the Franz Liebkind role.
3) The Elephant Man / The Fly (Tie)
Many people are surprised to learn about Mel's serious contributions to cinema. His company, Brooksfilms, produced classics such as 1986's The Fly
and 1980's The Elephant Man
. The studio's running theme, according to Brooks, was that "all our characters are outside the normal mainstream of civilized activity. They're all oddballs, but incredibly human." This affection for misfits not only applies to the films' protagonists — John Merrick in The Elephant Man
and Seth Brundle in The Fly
— but also to the films' creators — David Lynch and David Cronenberg — whose bold, avant-garde styles would never fit into the Hollywood system, but were given a voice all the same.
2) Twelve Chairs
With its lush cinematography and somber tone, The Twelve Chairs
may not be your typical Mel Brooks comedy — but its madcap look at 1920s Soviet Russia is unmistakably Mel. "It's the most simple and beautiful plot for a movie," Brooks said about the story. "It's that wonderful, incredible mixture of history, heart, and bizarre comedy."
The 1970 film covers a lot of serious ground: the nature of greed, the foibles of communism, and, yes, the true meaning of friendship. But Mel's hilarious turn as a drunken simpleton and Frank Langella's role as a charismatic swindler make this film a joy to behold. "Hope for the best, expect the worst," says the movie's opening credits. Luckily, you don't have to do that here.
1) Blazing Saddles
Of the many films that comprise the Western genre of American cinema, we’re pretty sure there’s only one that features a Yiddish-speaking Native American chief (played by Mel Brooks, naturally).
In Blazing Saddles
(1974) we follow the adventures of Bart, a Black sheriff in the all-white (and significantly racist) town of Rock Ridge. Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the script, was originally cast for the lead role before his drug and alcohol use prompted a switch, propelling Cleavon Little to an unforgettable performance.
Rounding out an incredible array of characters were Alex Karras as Mongo, Madeline Kahn as Lily von Shtupp, and, of course, Harvey Korman as Hedy (that’s Hedley!) Lamarr.
What do you think? Tell us about your favorite Mel Brooks film. Share your thoughts using the comment form below.
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American Masters: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
premieres on THIRTEEN at 9 PM on May 20th. Watch a preview.
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