Filmmaker Retrospective: The Parody Cinema of Mel Brooks
6. High Anxiety (1977)
In Mel Brooks first movie as lead actor, producer and director, he made a thrilling homage to the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock. Brooks specifically referenced Spellbound, Vertigo and The Birds. The movie is dedicated to Hitchcock who worked with Brooks on the screenplay. Veteran Brooks ensemble members Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn all appear in the film.
High Anxiety follows Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Mel Brooks), the newly appointed director of the Psychoneurotic Institute of the Very, Very Nervous. A series of mysterious events occur and several colleagues including militant Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) accuse him of murder. Thorndyke tries to clear his name while battling the condition known as “high anxiety”.
There are several direct homages to Hitchcock scattered throughout the film. The shower scene references Psycho. the bird droppings refer to The Birds, and Nurse Diesel is a caricature of Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. Those are just a few examples of the homage to Hitchcock in the film.The film was somewhat well received and Hitchcock sent Brooks several cases of wine as a token of his gratitude.
7. History of the World Part I: “It’s Good to Be King” (1981)
Human history is traced through a series of vignettes from the Stone Age to a preview of coming attractions in this film. Brooks directed, wrote, produced and starred in five roles, Moses, Comicus, Tomas de Torquemada, Louis XVI of France and Jacques le Garon de Pisse. Brooks regulars Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, and Dom DeLuise are among the cast members.
Beginning with cavemen being struck by their own amazement, the story then switches to Moses receiving the 15 commandments and Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) presiding over Rome with wife, Nympho (Madeline Kahn). The Spanish Inquisition softens repression with song and dance, and a few centuries later Madame Defarge (Cloris Leachman) is fomenting revolution in France. Then there are the coming attractions, which features a teaser trailer for History of the World Part II, which has never be released. This trailer featured Hitler on ice, Jews in Space, which is a parody of Star Wars, which was used later, and a Viking funeral.
One of the lasting legacies of this film is the phrase “It’s good to be king” which is used repeatedly during the French Revolution section of the film. Brooks as King Louis XVI says this into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, in order to justify his behavior. The line was later used in his films Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights .
8. Spaceballs (1987)
This is a rich parody of Star Wars trilogy and other sci-fi franchises including Star Trek, Alien and The Planet of the Apes. This cult comedy classic was co-written, directed by, and starred Mel Brooks. The film initially received mixed reviews, many commenting on the fact of a Star Wars parody ten years after the start of the original trilogy seemed pointless. However, the film has gained a cult following and has grown into one of Brooks best known works.
Brooks plays President Skroob, the leader of the Planet Spaceball which has depleted its air supply. President Skroob orders the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) to capture Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the oxygen-rich planet Druidia in exchange for air. Help arrives for the princess by way of renegade space pilot Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his half-dog sidekick Barf (John Candy). The film also featuring regulars Dom DeLuise and Rudy DeLuca in cameo roles, as well the voice of Joan Rivers as Dot Matrix.
Brooks wanted his parody to be as close to the original as possible so he made a deal with George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. The deal allowed Brooks to do as he wished as long as no Spaceballs action figures were made. Brooks also had Lucas’s company handle post-production to make sure that the film was approved by Lucas and his team. They, like many others after them, loved it.
9. Life Stinks (1991)
Directed, co-written and starring Brooks, this departure from his normal work was not a success. The film is not a parody of anything and does not break the fourth wall, a rarity in the Brooks cannon. The film was a critical and commercial failure, unable to recoup its cost and receiving mostly poor reviews.
Brooks plays Goddard Bolt, an affluent and arrogant business man who bets his business rival Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor) that he has the wits and street smarts to survive on the streets of L.A for 30 days. Bolt has an awakening when he realizes he can’t handle it but finds a silver lining in his romance with a Broadway dancer who has fallen on tough times (Lesley Ann Warren).
If there is a silver lining to this project, it is that the film has gained a cult following for this experimental film by Brooks.
10. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Mel Brooks returned to parody with this version of the classic Robin Hood tale. Produced, co-written and directed by Brooks, the film stars Cary Elwes as Robin Hood and includes plenty of references to past Robin Hood films, such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves upon which the film is loosely based, Disney’s version of Robin Hood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. It also features Brooks in a minor role, being the first time since Young Frankenstein in which he acted in one of his own films and did not receive top billing or play a leading role.
The plot is similar to most Robin Hood stories but with a few tweaks. Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes), escapes from prison and returns home to find that evil Prince John (Richard Lewis) has confiscated his estate and is abusing the citizens. Robin enlists blind attendant Blinkin, his friend Will Scarlett O’Hara and Little John to help him rectify the situation. Robin also wants to woo Maid Marian, but her chastity belt gets in the way.
The film received mixed reviews, with many noting that the film lacked as high a quotient of comic scenes as were present in Brooks previous works. It was also not one of Brook’s highest grossing film at the box office. However, the film, like Spaceballs, has developed a cult following, especially on DVD.
11. Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
The most recent film to date that Brooks has directed, this 1995 release is a parody of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and some of the films the novel has inspired. Brooks co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Haberman and Rudy De Luca and stars as Dr. Van Helsing. Leslie Nielsen stars as the titular character while Brooks regulars Harvey Korman, and Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft have roles as well.
Similar to the classic 1931 Dracula, the plot deviates from the novel. The film follows Count Dracula as he relocates from Transylvania to London in search of new blood with his slavish assistant Renfield. He finds blood in two young attractive women. When one of the woman’s fiancees notices his future bride’s odd behavior he calls his mentor, vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing, to investigate.
A bomb critically and commercially, Dracula: Dead and Loving It is the low point of Brook’s career and may be the reason he has not directed another film to date. One bright spot is that the film, like other Brooks films, has gained a cult following.
Author Bio: Ryan Anderson is a sophomore at Miami University in Oxford Ohio, where he is studying Zoology and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies. His love of classic cinema and film history keeps his love for film strong and ever-present in his life.
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