“My movies rise below vulgarity,” Mel Brooks quipped back in the salad days of his career. And if you imagine Brooks cutely rasping that quip in his thickly Brooklyn, “don’t be stoopid, be a smawty, come and join the Nawtzie pawty” patois, you’ve got a pretty good handle on just how vulgar his collective work is not. To be blunt as Froderick Frahnkensteen, the forced irony of “rising above” vulgarity is about as flattening an oxymoron as one could imagine. If flatulence be the fuel of brazen, rule-breaking comedy, Brooks’s (and, for that matter, Blazing Saddles’) gases seem more and more inert with each passing year. His films indeed lack dignity, but they don’t replace any of the deliberately lost face with cheek.
Brooks claims impudence, but his films so clearly aim to please that only the threat of offense ever enters into the question. Hold Brooks’s most cantankerous films—of which there is arguably only one, the unsurprisingly neglected Life Stinks—against even the most domesticated work of his satirical contemporaries like John Waters or Paul Morrissey. When a torture victim in History of the World, Part I’s extended “Spanish Inquisition” musical number—probably the best sequence Brooks ever wrote or directed, the centerpiece of the only underrated film in a predominately overrated catalog—kvetches about Torquemada’s burly henchmen and mincing monks shoving a red hot poker up his ass, the punchline his companion sings about making his “privates public for a game” (“Oy, the agony! Oy, the shame!”) forms a pretty neat mission statement for Brooks’s films. (If not Brooksfilms: the production company Brooks formed to fund more prestigious offerings like Lynch’s Elephant Man and Cronenberg’s The Fly.)
Brooks’s counter-mod revival of Borscht Belt vaudeville redesigned low culture into a middlebrow guilty pleasure—blockbuster satire for those who didn’t know or even care what closed on Saturday night. He turned camp from the next big ethos of homosexuals and their cultural studies egghead diva heroes into a style more likely to be deified by frat boys and dirty old men. He embodied ’70s Hollywood’s extended bout of Golden Era nostalgia even as he mercilessly deconstructed it. In his eagerness to share the vocabulary of “shtup” and “shvanz” into the Catholic-Protestant lexicon, he was like the Uncle Tom of New York Jew comedians to Woody Allen’s Uncle Vanya—that is, before the former regressed into Uncle Buck. Three Brooks films didn’t land in the top 15 slots of the AFI’s 100 greatest comedies list, nor did three performances in his films get nominated for Oscars (the award that ought to just stick a tragedy mask over that blankly golden face and be done with it), by deeply offending the sensibilities of the status quo.
But I’m not being fair to the poor schlub at all. It’s hardly his fault that the lines of bad taste have been drawn so much further than he could’ve imagined when he turned the lights out on Madeline Kahn examining Cleavon Little’s anatomy and gushing “It’s twue!” The reason that even Brooks’s lamest films have appeared to endure when almost every other comic writer-director of his time drifts in and out of fashion is that Brooks’s irreverent geniality—the real paradox at the center of his filmography—is perpetually out of fashion. There’s nary a trace of cynicism in any of his worthy films—flaming faggots are mocked but never slapped, women are invariably objectified but at least their characters are well-rounded in addition to being curvaceous, and bigotry just sounds so gosh-durn cute coming from the mouths of old hunchbacked prairie bitches—and, consequently, any nagging sense that one’s outgrown Brooks’s films is already taken care of after the first viewing. Of course you’ve outgrown him. Movies themselves have outgrown him. Case in point and the most redundant feature in Brooks’s career: his 1983 remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Third Reich screwball comedy To Be or Not to Be (not actually directed by Brooks, per se, but rather his stock choreographer Alan Johnson, maybe because Brooks simply couldn’t stomach putting his signature on a real remake). Not only had Brooks effectively shat in the face of Der Führer’s spectre with Roger De Bris’s “turn, turn, kick, turn” production of Springtime for Hitler, but so had Lubitsch…while the War was still going on!
To Be or Not to Be—which, taken separate from the inevitable comparisons to what we’ve designated as its essential predecessor, is a light and harmless bit of chewy nougat—is the sunset on Brooks’s relevant period in the same way that the Broadway production of The Producers is his encore (with the film of the Broadway version serving as his self-serving, 20-minute curtain call and the impending Young Frankenstein musical undoubtedly emerging as the his encore musical remake of said curtain call). No one seems to have taken notice, but Brooks hasn’t made a film in over a decade, and even that most recent one—Dracula, Dead and Loving It, until the last couple of years the only movie I ever walked out of—smacked of sub-ZAZ slumming. Maybe he’s run out of genres? Or maybe he hasn’t yukked it up recently enough with his stalwart queen bit-player Andréas “I hate people I don’t like” Voutsinas in the back row of shul.
Though all of the films are advertised as coming with anamorphic transfers (all are 1.85:1 aspect ratio with the exception of the panoramic History of the World, Part I), the two crown jewels of the set don't exactly live up to that reputation. The included disc for Blazing Saddles is not the recent "30th Anniversary" reissue, but the previous version with what used to be Warner Bros.' standard flipper policy of putting the widescreen presentation on one side and pan-and-scan on the other. But even that is preferable to Young Frankenstein. The only thing anamorphic on that disc are the menus. The rest is presented hard-matted and non-anamorphic. The rest of the discs are technically all right, though the Twelve Chairs print seems a little washed out, the solid bold colors behind Silent Movie's credits reveal severe blocking, and I can't comment on High Anxiety at all since my screener copy came with a disc for Redneck Comedy Round-Up 2.
Aside from the massive load of special features that come with the recycled Young Frankenstein disc (commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, documentary-a whole enchilada you've probably already eaten once), the HBO special on Robin Hood and Blazing Saddles' long interview with Mel Brooks (but, again, nothing else from the packed "Anniversary" edition), each disc comes with nothing more than trailers for the other films in the collection, so you can get super excited to watch the Brooks film you don't have in the player, I guess.
Fox’s Mel Brooks boxed set is haphazard, slapped together, meat and no potatoes. All of the above apply to the films as well.