Mel Brooks’s films can help get you through the midterm season.
Mel Brooks would do just about anything for a laugh.
His career began with The Producers (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1970), two stories he penned the scripts for and then filmed. The high point of his career was essentially the first half of it, during which he made movies that poked fun at the monster genre of the thirties, westerns, suspense thrillers, silent films, etc.
The Producers was the first movie he made, and it still stands today as one of the funniest films ever put to celluloid. It stood out especially upon its initial release because of its over-the-top, in-your-face style. However, one can appreciate how carefully controlled the material and acting are. The plot involves a failing theatre producer who seduces little old ladies to help raise funds for his productions. The fact that that alone made its way past censors in 1968 is astounding, but Brooks had a zeal for seeing his projects through.
Following the moderate success of his first feature, he then adapted the 1928 Russian satirical novel The Twelve Chairs. In this film, the style he directed his actors to portray began to emerge. This involved anything from abnormal facial twitches, mispronouncing certain words, and other very simple forms of whimsy that would churn out at least a few big laughs and a lot of smaller ones.
In 1974, Brooks somehow managed to release both Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. The former is a satire of the old horror genre, made with obvious affection for the genre itself. The latter pokes good fun at westerns. Apart from great sight-gags and his signature willingness to go anywhere for a laugh, these movies work so well because of how appropriate their targets are.
Conversely, there were times when Brooks aimed his satire at less appropriate targets, and his efforts turned out only mediocre results. High Anxiety (1977) attempts satire of suspense movies, Hitchcock’s works in particular. Here, the director’s own ideas are funnier and more impressive than the points of satire: a long tracking shot is interrupted by breaking through a wall of glass, which is always memorable and warrants a good chuckle. But take a scene that directly mocks a famous Hitchcock sequence: the shower scene in Psycho (1960). The original scene includes wit, circumstance, and narrative audacity. The satire tries to poke fun by having a bellboy delivering a newspaper to a persistent guest by ‘stabbing’ the guest, likening the paper’s ink running down the shower drain to blood. Because it’s more or less thrown into the movie, it loses an entire dimension of Hitchcock’s signature craftiness.
Brooks’s earliest films are worth watching, especially as a means to break any lingering exam stress. When selecting a movie intended as a study break, we often tend toward ones we can ‘shut off’ our minds to. One of the things that makes Mel Brooks’s best films immortal is that they don’t demand that we pay intensely close attention, yet they are still of the highest echelon of comic quality.