“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die”This is a great ethos for comedians, who are willing to do whatever it takes to have a good time. This is especially true for the unique writer, director, actor, and EGOT recipient. Mel BrooksHis broad slapstick reveals the depth of human despair, but he manages to find the humor in it all. Brooks’ films are witty, funny, and often vulgar. Brooks’ films share one thing in common: his commitment to laughter. Brooks will literally tear apart the worlds that his films inhabit for a single laugh. The rules aren’t there. It’s this anarchic spirit that makes his filmography so fascinating.
Let’s look at and rank the filmography from worst to most of the most prolific American comic director and writer of the 20th century. It’s not as bad as the legendary production of Springtime for Hitler. The Producers….
12. Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).
But we get close. This is Brooks’ last film. It’s a shame that the jokes cannot match the movie’s exceptional production design and costuming, which are remarkable facsimiles of the old Hammer horror films Brooks chooses to satirize in the film. But rather than parodying the conventions in the source material, like in Young Frankenstein? Dracula: Dead and Loving ItIt settles for cheap gags, one-liners, and one-liners that could be done by any parodist. Additionally, while that former film stemmed from a love of old Universal horror, this one doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve; it feels passionless, like it’s merely going through the motions of joke construction. It’s not an abomination, but if even Leslie NielsenFeels like you are wasting your time in your movie?
11. Life is hard! (1991).
Rare comedy auteur that does not parody. It was also rare in that it was a commercial and critical failure. It only made $4 million on a budget of $13 million. This modern treatment of the movie is not a one-minute comedy. How the Other Half LivesIt tells the story about Brooks, a well-off executive, who struggles to find a bet on the streets. The results are more morality story than comedy. Sometimes the film commits too much, with the death in one of the characters being treated too depressingly for a movie that has the silly kind of gags it does. Brooks is a captivating presence on the camera and the supporting actors are equally impressive.Lesley Ann WarrenAnd Theodore Wilsonas fellow derelicts) put in great work. Warren shines in her role as a bag lady who is prone to manic episodes. Brooks’ themes about homelessness and greed weren’t what audiences or critics wanted in 1991. However, it is worth revisiting the movie 30 years later. The comedy is a bit bland and can cause some tonal whiplash.
10. The Twelve Chairs (1970).
This film? Brooks’ second, follows the model of The Producers in examining the morality and relationship between two conmen (Ron Moody, Frank Langella() as they attempt to find a seat with hidden jewels in its stitching. One of many film adaptations based upon the 1928 Russian novel of the same name, Brooks’ film follows the mode of an adventure caper as the men trek across Soviet-era Russia from villages to Moscow in search of the coveted seat. Perhaps due to the confines of the source material, the comedy is drier than Brooks’ generally go-for-broke material; a lot of the jokes are sight gags based on Russian and Jewish orthodoxy, and as such might be missed by the viewer. The big, more-than-life characters are most prominent here. Dom DeLuise’s carnally greedy Father Fyodor, the standout of the film. Moody is also great as Vorobyaninov, a high-strung man. But despite all this and the lush cinematography offered by the Yugoslavic countryside, making the film perhaps Brooks’ most striking to look at, the film gets let down by a disappointing second half that merely retreads what the viewer has already seen: travel, a comedic misadventure, no jewels, then onto the next one. It’s a shame because The Twelve Chairs otherwise offers a unique vehicle — non-parody, drama-laden — in Brooks’ filmography.
9. History of the World Part 1 (1981).
Comedy sketch comedy with sketches that humorously portray cavemen, Moses, and the Old Testament. Also, a Roman Empire gone too far; the Spanish Inquisition; the French Revolution. There are so many laughs to be had in this film, that were it not for the film’s overall lack of framework or structure, it would likely be higher. The Rome segment bears the majority of the film’s runtime, and it — featuring Dom DeLuise as a gluttonous Nero and Gregory Hines as the cool, confident Josephus — feels the most like Brooks’ other works in its anachronisms and characters you root for. The Spanish Inquisition’s catchy musical number may be the first time cinema has paired cheeky puns about iron maidens with hot poker torture with a slick Vegas showman routine, and Busby Berkeley-esque choreography. A movie as wonderful for history aficionados as it is for comedy lovers, it’s highly recommended for anyone who has ever pined for a “Who’s On First?”Routine with Jesus Christ filling the role of Lou Costello.
8. High Anxiety (1977).
Image via 20th Century Fox
This is an ode to the Master of Suspense. Alfred HitchcockA thriller classic is incorporated into a flick that’s based on a thriller film. Psycho? The Birds, and (mostly). VertigoAnd SpellboundIt tells the story of Brooks, an acrophobic psychiatrist who oversees the bizarre Psycho-Neurotic Institute For the Very, Very Nervous. If there’s a problem with the film, it’s that the very parodies themselves don’t feel either transgressive or particularly biting. This may be because Hitchcock loved humor and irony, and filled his films with it. So how can one parody someone who is welcoming? Yet some of Brooks’ funniest gags come through in the movie, with Cloris Leachman’s disturbing, S&M-loving Nurse Diesel stealing the show and co-writer Barry Levinson’s aggrieved bellhop delivering the requisite Psycho parody with aplomb. Hitchcock loved this movie. It’s no wonder; he himself devised the bird-defecation parody of The Birds.
7. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).
Image via 20th Century Fox
Perhaps the fastest-paced of all of Brooks’ films, this one boasts mile-a-minute one-liners and gags. The effect is akin to being bludgeoned over the head with a hammer; eventually, dazed and numb, you acquiesce to the circumcision-performing rabbis and gravity-bending arrows. Or something similar. Fortunately, the jokes have a positive hit/miss ratio. The cast includes a self aware actor. Cary Elwes as the title swashbuckler Richard LewisKing John, the neurotic nemesis and neurotic nemesis — works well together with each character used to great effect. This one may be just about the silliest, most low-calorie of the entire list, but there’s so much fun to be had in watching the tag-team of merry men fight usurping kings and abusive sheriffs in the village of Rottingham.
6. The Producers (1967).
Controversial at the time of its release, Mel Brooks’ first feature film as a director feels fittingly like a play. Many scenes feature the two main characters, Bialystock, a sleazy Broadway producer.Zero Mostel) and nervous accountant Bloom (Gene WilderDiscussing their plan to produce a theatrical explosive that will bring them a (fraudulent!) profit. Mostel and Wilder are a treat to watch on screen together, as they feed off of each other’s energy and keep upping each other to the point of madness. The acting is undoubtedly the film’s best feature, but there are a few standout moments, such as the pull-out, all-the stops show. “Springtime for Hitler,”offensive to anyone with a taste for taste. This film maybe bears the weight of time more than most of Brooks’ other films, as the madcap rhythm of the film doesn’t exactly translate to a coherent comedic momentum; rather, it’s a series of standout vignettes, usually those involving Mostel and Wilder. This film must have been extraordinary in 1967.
5. Spaceballs (1987).
Image via MGM
It’s big, it’s loud, it’s dumb, and it’s pretty funny. SpaceballsMel Brooks is doing what? Star Wars, and it’s natural territory for the comic master with the franchise’s easily spoofable setting and characters. Instead of the extravagant Millennium Falcon, we get an RV with carpeting and Princess Leia.Daphne Zuniga) is churned out as a caricature of the Jewish American Princess archetype while the menacing Darth Vader becomes Darth Helmet (Rick Moranis), a geeky manchild who can’t do anything right. Really, this one is hard to describe in words that don’t sound like the fever dream of an unbalanced pulp cartoonist. Unlike High Anxiety’s problems with mimicking a humorist, Spaceballs can get more mileage out of its zings as its source material plays it straight; and it’s maybe a little more satisfying to puncture a hole in the fervently-followed lore of George LucasHitchcock’s humor is darker than Brooks’, but it is better than Brooks. Plus the movie’s main throughline is a savaging of excessive merchandising — Spaceballs towels, placemats, and lunchboxes are regularly visible in shots — and that makes Spaceballs maybe the most lethal of Brooks’ parodies.
4. Silent Movie (1976)
Brooks is a man who demonstrates a love for the films and genres that he depicts in his photographs. Brooks is a man who is as positive and ebullient than any other. Silent MovieA touching tribute to the medium- and early comedic heavyweights such as Buster Keaton. With a plot as meta as it gets for Brooks? the film’s story follows a directorAnd his two companions (played by Brooks, Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) attempting to attain star power for the director’s comeback project: a silent film… in 1976. Which of course is modeled after the exact trajectory Brooks’ own film underwent, with studio executives only signing off on the idea if Brooks got cameos from some of Hollywood’s biggest players, including Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman and Liza MinelliAll three actors deliver uncredited cameos. The film is a joyous breeze. It moves quickly with lots of slapstick comedy and physical comedy. At its core, the movie also skewers the movie industry as a bunch of clueless, greedy executives when we see the conniving scheming of the Engulf and Devour megacorp (a cheeky nod to Paramount’s then-owner, Gulf and Western).
3. To Be or not to Be (1983).
Interestingly for the Brooks canon, the film is not an original work; it’s a remake of a 1942 film about a troupe of actors in war-torn Poland using their abilities to pull one over their Nazi invaders. Additionally, Brooks didn’t write or direct the film (though he produced, and essentially would direct the actors from the sidelines, as recounted by co-star Tim Matheson. Finally, except for Brooks’ imitation of Hitler-stache, the film focuses mainly on wartime drama and avoids comedy. To Be or Not To Be is a film that can be taken seriously with a few funny moments. Anne Bancroft as Brooks’ theater actor character’s wife — itself mirroring reality, as the Oscar-winning actress was married to Brooks in real life — deserves commendation for just how much gravity and fire she puts into the role. And Brooks’ Frederick Bronski, a mocked actor who manages to save the day with his thespian skills, yields considerable poignance. And at the end of the day, the film may be the most touching ode to show-business in Brooks’ ouveure. It’s also his most underrated film.
2. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Image via Warner Bros.
Blazing Saddles is perhaps the funniest movie in Brooks’ canon. It’s shamelessly goofy, vulgar, and not bound by a modicum of taste, class or structure. But that’s why the movie succeeds. It reached for the limit of parody art form and wound its arm before throwing it 50 yards away. One could feasibly argue that Saddles set the direction for the rest of Brooks’ career, and that every movie thereafter has the unenviable position of sitting in its shadows, the offspring of the Silver Age granddaddy of the parody film. It’s unfair to measure all of these other films against Saddles, but historically speaking, it’s hard not to feel that Brooks achieved everything a comic could dream of with this raunchy, irreverent movie.
1. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Image via Warner Bros.
Concerning famed scientist Victor Frankenstein’s grandson, Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronk-en-steen) falling into the same habits as his reanimator ancestor, Young FrankensteinIt is a parody that can stand out from its peers and falls into the rare category of parody. It’s down to the cinematographic details: filmed in stark black-and-white with a set design that could have been reused from the original 1931 Frankenstein Brooks collaborators often create dissonant, shrieking music John MorrisThis is a terrifying image that sends chills down the spine. It’s a real, live horror picture. Much of it is tethered by the equally amiable and mad Frederick Frankenstein character, one of Gene Wilder’s best performances, as he represents the line between terror and humor. And it’s not Brooks’ funniest movie, but the film boasts what may be the funniest performance of any Brooks movie via Marty Feldman’s quasi-Quasimodo character, Igor (Madeline KhanAs the ditzy Inga is also up there. A film that is equal parts horror, humor, and heart. Young Frankenstein is the finest film of Brooks’ distinguished career.
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About the Author
(5 Articles Published)
Cameron Denler is a freelance features writer at Collider. He is an amateur historian of film and television, as well as a songwriter. He also enjoys playing his acoustic guitar. Cam’s Trax: An Internet Pirate Radio podcast is his weekly Spotify music podcast. It chronicles his passion and challenges him to listen to his favorite deep tracks (mostly Rock) in depth. He lives in Rochester, IL and enjoys reading political thrillers and biking with his 3 cats.