To be crowned king of the parody film genre is a satisfying feeling.
“The worst thing that could have happened was that I sliced off a piece of my finger. When you die in an open sewer, it’s a comedy “is a great mindset for a comic, who is willing to do anything to make people laugh. The EGOT-winning Mel Brooks, whose broad slapstick taps into the depths of human misery to uncover the humor inherent in gloom, is a prime example of this phenomenon. Brooks’ films range from funny, irreverent, and profane to snarky and sarcastic. It’s Brooks’ unwavering devotion to making people laugh that unites all of his works; for a single belly laugh, he’ll rip apart the universes he inhabits. The rules are the absence of rules. Also, it’s because of his anarchic demeanor that his filmography is so enjoyable to watch.
1. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Frederick (pronounced Fronk-en-steen) Frankenstein, the grandson of legendary scientist Victor Frankenstein, is seen in Young Frankenstein to be sliding into the same bad habits as his reanimator grandfather. It’s all in the small things, from the harsh black-and-white photography to the screeching, discordant music (composed by longtime Brooks collaborator John Morris) that sends shivers down the spine. It all comes down to the cinematography. This is a genuine live-action horror film. Frederick Frankenstein, one of Gene Wilder’s most memorable roles, serves as a constant reminder of the boundary between dread and funny. And while it may not be Brooks’ funniest film, Marty Feldman’s quasi-Quasimodo character Igor has one of the funniest performances of any Brooks film (Madeline Khan as the ditzy Inga is up there, too). With equal parts comedy, horror, and heart in Young Frankenstein, this is Brooks’ finest masterpiece.
2. Blazing Saddles (1974)
I think Blazing Saddles is the funniest film in Brooks’ whole oeuvre. Goofy, vulgar, and without any regard for taste, class or structure – that’s what it’s all about. But that’s what makes the movie a hit. Tossed it a good 50 yards away in a parody of the art form’s current limit. Brooks’ career may be argued to have been shaped by Saddles. The Silver Age parody film’s granddaddy, Brooks’ follow-up to Saddles, sits in the shadows as a result. As a comedy, it’s impossible not to feel that Saddles is the pinnacle of what Brooks could have hoped to achieve with this bawdy, irreverent film.
3. To Be or Not to Be (1983)
Even more surprising for Brooks’ canon, this movie isn’t an original work; it’s an updated version of a 1942 Polish film about an acting troupe against the Nazis in war-torn Poland. Additionally, Brooks was not the film’s writer or director (though he produced, and essentially would direct the actors from the sidelines, as recounted by co-star Tim Matheson). As a final point, aside from Brooks’ Hitler-stache impersonation, the film is a wartime drama, not a comedy. That being said, the picture works well as an upbeat drama with a few lighthearted moments. As Anne Bancroft, the Oscar-winning actress who was married to Brooks in real life, she deserves praise for her gravity and passion in her portrayal of Brooks’s wife, the character of a theater actor. Frederick Bronski, a despised actor who saves the day with his acting prowess, is a particularly poignant character in Brooks’ film. In the end, it’s Brooks’ most heartfelt tribute to the entertainment industry ever. Moreover, it is his most underappreciated work.
4. Silent Movie (1976)
Brooks is a satirist who has a deep appreciation for the films and genres he parodies. Silent Movie, a moving homage to the medium and early comedy giants like Buster Keaton, stands out as the most joyfully jubilant. An attempt to gain star status is made by a director and his two buddies (played by Brooks, Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) for the director’s comeback project: a silent picture… in 1976. Brooks’ own picture went through a similar process, with executives only agreeing to Brooks’ plan if the actor cameo lineup included Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, and Liza Minelli, all of whom appear in uncredited roles. Slapstick and physical humour abound in this light-hearted flick. When we see the Engulf and Devour megacorp’s deceitful machinations (a clever reference to Paramount’s then-owner Gulf and Western), the movie also criticizes the movie business as a group of dumb, greedy executives.
5. Spaceballs (1987)
I like it because it’s large, loud, stupid, and a little bit humorous. This is Mel Brooks’s take on Star Wars, and given how easy the franchise’s setting and characters can be parodied, it makes perfect sense. When it comes to the iconic Millennium Falcon’s luxurious interior, we’re instead given an RV with carpeting and Princess Leia is relegated to a caricature of the Jewish American Princess archetype. Meanwhile, Darth Vader is transformed into a geeky manchild who can’t do anything properly. It’s hard to describe this one in terms that don’t sound like a cartoonist’s fever dream. While High Anxiety’s mimicry of a humorist was a problem, the source material for Spaceballs plays it straight, and it’s perhaps a little more satisfying to puncture a hole in George Lucas’s fervently-held mythology than Hitchcock, whose humor probably charts darker territory than Brooks and his ilk. As a result, Spaceballs is perhaps the most poisonous of Brooks’ parodies; the film’s central theme is a satire of excessive commercialization, including towels, tablecloths, and lunchboxes.
6. The Producers (1967)
Mel Brooks’ debut feature picture as a director, which was controversial when it was released, has the atmosphere of a play. While the two main characters Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Bloom (Gene Wilder) debate their plan to build a theatrical bomb that will win them (fraudulent) profits, the film’s plot is largely driven by their conversation. Both Mostel and Wilder are a joy to see on screen together, as their chemistry is infectious and they constantly push each other to the limit of craziness. “Springtime for Hitler” is one of the film’s finest sequences, but the performance is the real star. Mostel and Wilder are two of the film’s prominent characters, but the film’s madcap pace doesn’t convert to a unified humorous momentum; rather, it’s a succession of notable vignettes. In 1967, this was a film unlike any other.
7. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
With one-liners and humor that seem to fly by at a mile a minute, this Brooks picture may be his fastest ever. When you’re bludgeoned over the head with a hammer, you give in to the rabbis who perform circumcisions and arrows that bend gravity. As a matter of fact. Jokes are a mixed bag, but the cast, featuring Cary Elwes as the eponymous swashbuckler, and Richard Lewis as the neurotic King John, works well together, with each character being used to its fullest potential in the film. So much fun can be had watching a tag-team of men fight monarchs and sheriffs in Rottingham, even though this one is the most ridiculous and low-calorie of the bunch.
8. High Anxiety (1977)
Adapted from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous thrillers, this film tells the story of an acrophobic doctor (Brooks, of course) who oversees the weird Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Nervous, a place where patients are subjected to hypnosis and other mind-altering treatments. There is a problem with the film because the very parodies themselves don’t feel rebellious or particularly stinging. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Hitchcock himself enjoyed humor and irony and used them liberally in his films; how else can one lampoon a friendly target? Even yet, the movie features some of Brooks’ greatest jokes, like the creepy, S&M-loving Nurse Diesel played by Cloris Leachman and the vengeful bellhop played by co-writer Barry Levinson. The film was adored by Hitchcock himself. His own spoof of The Birds is no surprise; he came up with the idea himself.
9. History of the World, Part 1 (1981)
Theater sketch comedy, in which parts represent cavemen, Moses, and the Old Testament; a Roman Empire gone berserk; the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution. For all it has to offer, the movie’s lack of structure or framework would have made it a lot more enjoyable. Most of the film’s running length is spent in Rome, where Dom DeLuise as Nero and Gregory Hines as Josephus feel most like Brooks’ past works in their anachronisms and characters you cheer for. There may be no other instance in film history where iron maiden puns and hot-poker torture are paired with a cheerful Vegas showman routine and Busby Berkeley-esque dance. Anyone who has ever wished for a “Who’s On First?” routine with Jesus Christ as Lou Costello should see this movie. It’s a superb film for history buffs and comedy fans both.
10. The Twelve Chairs (1970)
Two conmen (Ron Moody and Frank Langella) attempt to find a chair with jewels hidden in its stitching in Brooks’ second picture, which follows the model of The Producers. Many films have been made from the 1928 Russian novel that inspired Brooks’ film, which follows the men as they trip across Soviet-era Russia from towns to Moscow in search of the coveted seat. There are several sight gags based on Russian and Jewish orthodoxy that may be overlooked by viewers due to the dryness of the source material, which is perhaps due to the constraints of the source material. In spite of this, Dom DeLuise’s carnally greedy Father Fyodor, the film’s standout, is here in abundance. Moody also shines as Vorobyaninov, the jittery Russian. It’s a shame that, despite all this and the beautiful Yugoslavian countryside, the film is let down by a disappointing second half that only repeats what the viewer has already seen: travel, a comic misadventure, and no jewels. In spite of the fact that The Twelve Chairs is a non-parody, drama-laden vehicle in Brooks’ filmography; it’s a pity.