Filmmaker Retrospective: The Parody Cinema of Mel Brooks

best mel brooks movies

Mel Brooks’s comedic talent and gift for parody has given the world some of the funniest movie ever created, making fun of various subjects, some serious and others who had it coming, Brooks gave a comedy a twist of absurdity which was welcomed and needed.

His filmography is full of classics cult favorites though he has had a few setbacks and flops. He has made a name in the comedy genre as a genius who can make fun of anything and do it well. Though most of Brooks’s films are parodies, each has its own quirks and themes which separates it and makes the Brooks filmography similar but varied at the same time.

Mel Brooks’s career has been full of success, mostly due to his films. From the 1960s up until the present, Brooks has kept audiences laughing. His films have spawned two musical adaptations, catchphrases, and many quotable lines. All of this has made Brooks an important comedy figure of the 20th and 21st centuries.


1. The Producers (1967)

The Producers

“Springtime for Hitler and Germany!”, This is what the dancing SS officers sing in Brook’s first comedic masterpiece. The Producers has become a cultural mainstay, inspiring a Tony winning musical and maintaining its legacy as a comedy classic. It tells the story of producer Max Bialystok and accountant Leo Bloom who want to produce a Broadway flop and run off with everyone’s money.

However, the film did not start off that as a success, and its release was held up since Embassy pictures did not want to release a film considered to be in poor taste. It was actor Peter Sellers who saw the film and placed an ad in Variety begging for it to be released. The film subsequently had a small release in a limited number of theaters.

When the film was released, the reviews were mixed. Some praised it as the funniest movie in years. Others, especially in New York, saw it as “amateurishly crude” as Pauline Kael put it. There was just something distressing  about two Jews conspiring to cheat investors by making a comedic musical about Hitler.

However, even with  mixed reviews the film was successful in the awards department. Brooks won an Academy Award for best original screenplay and Gene Wilder, who would come to work with Brooks often, was nominated for best supporting actor for his performance as Leo Bloom. Throughout the years, the film has become a classic, and is featured on many best comedy lists. It was inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation in 1996.


2. The Twelve Chairs (1970)

The Twelve Chairs

Mel Brooks followed The Producers with an adaptation of a 1928 Russian novel of the same name by Ilf and Petrov. This film  is one of the 20 known adaptations of that novel. The picture features Frank Langella in his film debut, along with Ron Moody and Dom DeLuise, in his first of many  Brooks films in which he appeared. It flopped badly.

This somewhat less known film follows the exploits of Count Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) who has been reduced to a clerk in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. Just prior to dying his mother-in-law right  reveals to him and Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise) that the family jewels are hidden in one of 12 chairs that once adorned the family mansion. The count works with local hood Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) to find the jewels before the Father.

In Brook’s career, this is an important film for one reason above others. His teaming with Dom DeLuise, would encompass 5 other films including Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie and Spaceballs.


3. Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing Saddles
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Mel Brooks and his writing team turned a western spoof into a revolutionary satire of race relations. The film is set in the Old West town of Rock Ridge, which has been targeted as the site the upcoming railroad expansion. A corrupt politician who wants Rock Ridge for himself places Bart, a black man, and the only one in town, as the new sheriff. The town, to say the least,  is unwelcoming.  Bart befriends local legend The Waco Kid, played by Brook’s favorite Gene Wilder, and they protect the town from corruption.

As with The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles received mixed reviews upon release. Despite this fact, the film was nominated for three Oscars, becoming a cult favorite and, eventually, a bonafide comedy classic.

Blazing Saddles addressed the issue of a black hero in a film aimed at white audiences. The film sided with the black protagonist and laughed at the white people who got in his way. The n-word is used many times in the film, but used by bad characters who don’t know any better and never for shock value.

Blazing Saddles tackled racism by having both the white humor from Brooks, and the African-American humor from Richard Pryor, who was involved in the project at an early stage (he was originally to have played Bart). The jokes from Pryor, who could joke about white people and make white people laugh about themselves, involved in the writing process, the film’s race jokes were all encompassing and effective.

Blazing Saddles is really the perfect example of a well written “anything goes” film. It features race jokes, silly characters, anachronisms that are sprinkled into the plot, wild sight gags, scatology, cheerful vulgarity and much more.


4. Young Frankenstein (1974)

Young Frankenstein

On the set of Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder pitched an idea to Mel Brooks about doing a comic version of Frankenstein, one concerning a descendent of the original doctor who wanted nothing to do with his wacko family. Brooks thought the idea was funny and the result is movie history.

Young Frankenstein is a light hearted parody of the classic horror film genre of the 1930s. Brooks decided to film it with that same style. It was shot in  black and white, which as rare in the 1970s, contained opening titles created in the style of 1930s films, wipes, fades to black and other stylistic accoutrements from 30s films.

Gene Wilder stars as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced “Fronkensteen”. He has distanced himself from his famous, crazy grandfather. He learns that he has inherited his grandfather’s mansion in Transylvania. Upon arriving he begins to recreate his grandfather’s experiments with the help of humped servant Igor (Marty Feldman), the bosom beauty Inga (Teri Garr), and the fearsome Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), whose name is always followed by a horse whinny. He wants to create his own monster (Peter Boyle), and everything becomes complicated with the arrival of his fiancee Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn).

Unusual for a Brooks film, Young Frankenstein was a critical hit from its opening, receiving two Oscar nominations and plenty of positive reviews and just like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein is noted by some as one of the funniest films ever made.  Like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein has been granted a place in the National Film Registry and was transformed into a Broadway musical production like The Producers.


5. Silent Movie (1976)

Silent Movie

Non, the French word for no is the only spoken word of dialogue in Brook’s mostly silent parody of the silent movies. There was no reply to the word spoken by a very unlikely source, world famous mime Marcel Marceau. The film is a throwback to an earlier era, even though it used color and effects common in the 1970s.

The story pokes fun at the Hollywood system and how films are made. It follows film director Mel Funn, played by Mel Brooks, who travels to Big Pictures Studios to pitch his idea for a comeback film, the first silent movie in years. The studio chief (Sid Caesar) gives Funn and his cronies Eggs and Bell, played by Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, the go-ahead to make the film, but only if they get big celebrities to appear in it.

The film uses plenty of visual gags, some within the inter-titles. Many of the jokes rely on the perfect timing of action and a sound effect, which the film balances expertly. Silent Movie was a critical success and the “lack” of sound just shows the depth of Brooks and company’s comedic talent.