This may simply be humble opinion, but Mel Brooks is a comic genius. Then again, this cannot be a singular thought by one simple person, as the American Film Institute presented him, just this past June, with their AFI Life Achievement Award. And, despite such a high honor, there are those of a more recent generation who have not seen his lovely, hilarious movies. For just such readers, here are the five films by Mr. Brooks that make a wonderful starting point.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It
Just in time for Halloween, this is Mel Brooks’s parody of the novel and several of the films that it has spawned over the years, such as the Keanu Reeves/Gary Oldman Dracula film that came out in 1992, three years earlier to this one. And while Reeves’s acting as Harker is less than stellar, Steven Weber-of Broadway and Wings fame-makes a fantastic Jonathan Harker. Full of great visual gags, the movie is a laugh riot from the moment that Renfield appears on the screen in a bouncy carriage on his way to Dracula’s castle. The movie follows the trip of Count Dracula to England, and the gags are non-stop from a stormy ship-ride that sends Dracula’s coffin sliding back and forth without stop, Renfield ending up in an asylum for his bug-eating habit, and the word-war between Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing. A definite must-see for both vampire and Brooks’s fans alike.
History of the World: Part I
Another movie full of great visual gags, this film follows the creation of the world, to Moses receiving the fifteen (cough), Ten Commandments, to Caesar, to the Inquisition, all the way to the French Revolution. However, unlike Dracula: Dead and Loving It, there is a bit more of an intelligent comedy here, drawing upon history to make several jokes-including a very funny one-liner concerning Oedipus. It also includes a great musical number! Brooks himself plays several major roles within the film, but this only serves to add to the hilarity.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights
Starring Cary Elwes, Amy Yasbeck, and Dave Chappelle (which was his first film), this is a parody of any and all versions of the Robin Hood story, with the closest references being to the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which released in 1991, two years prior to this film. Clear shots are taken at actors who have previously played Robin Hood, as well as the wardrobe of the earlier films-hence the title. There are a few references to things that may be a bit dated now, but definitely not enough to detract from the overall humor of the piece. Also featuring a musical number-as so many Brooks’s films do-the jokes that really make this film are almost too numerous to mention. However, the chastity belt joke and the wordplay are ones to look out for. Not to mention, the very funny blind man, Blinkin, who is always in the background for a good laugh.
A look back at racism has never been so funny in this movie about a black man who ends up sheriff in an all-white, western town. An older film, to be sure, and you don’t have to be a fan of serious westerns to find this one side-splittingly hilarious. Honestly, it is hard to tell which actor has the funnier parts-Cleavon Little as Bart, the new Sheriff, Gene Wilder as Jim the Waco Kid, or Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr. Each actor does a fabulous job of bringing the laughs (from the sheriff who threatens himself with his own gun to get away from the blood-thirsty townsfolk who are made so upon realizing that their new sheriff is not white to the drunk Waco Kid who tells his sad story with an unsteady hand). And, of course, the brief scene with Froggy and Lamarr is to die for. Can Bart the Sheriff win the love of the townsfolk and stop Lamarr from destroy the place to build his railroad? You should certainly watch this film and find out!
If you watch any film on this list, let it be this one. A black-and-white genius parody (even the black and white is part of the parody, as this film released in ’74) of all the old Frankenstein films. Featuring an all-star cast of Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman as Dr. Frankenstein (“It’s Fronkensteen”) and Igor (“No, it’s pronounced I-gor”) respectively, this film plays up the visual gags unlike any of Brooks’ other films. From a horse that neighs every time the maid’s name is uttered, to an unintelligible monster hunter, to the exploration of the castle, and even the uppity fiancée, played by the wonderful Madeline Kahn, this film is a laugh riot from start to finish. Dr. Fredrick Frankenstein will stop at nothing to live down his great-grandfather’s legacy of trying to reanimate the dead, and all the while those around him-and you, the audience-know it’s only a matter of time before he gives in and the laughs really amp up. The gag that is not to miss in this Brooks masterpiece is most certainly Wilder’s and Peter Boyle’s (as the monster) performance of Putin’ on the Ritz.