It's rather OK to be a fan of the king
The Story So Far...
DVDTalk has a review of the Blazing Saddles: 30th Anniversary Special Edition
The Box Set
Fox has pulled together eight Mel Brooks films (including one from the Warner Brothers library) for this, "The Mel Brooks Collection." (Why they couldn't get their hands on a few important titles from MGM to make this truly complete, is a question worth asking.) The previously released discs have been given new printings, and clear ThinPak cases with nice interior art, to match the packaging for the new discs, while the set is housed in a relatively sturdy cardboard slipcase with spot-UV coating. There are no bonuses for the overall set.
Once Bart, with the help of the town drunk, Jim The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), turns down the volume on the towns' blatant racism and earns a sliver of their respect, he helps formulate a plan to protect the people from the machinations of Hedley Lemarr (Harvey Korman) his dim-witted pal, Governor LePetomaine (Mel Brooks) and their arm of bad guys, including Slim Pickens and Alex Karras, as the infamous Mongo. The plan lead to one of the more ridiculous endings seen in a Brooks film, as well as one of the funniest.
The jokes, written by a committee including Brooks and Richard Pryor, come fast and furious, ranging in sophistication from clever word play to kindergarten fart jokes. By keeping it all moving and varied, they make the experience accessible to everyone. It's all held together by a talented cast, lead by the incredible likable on-screen duo of Little and Wilder. Little's ability to deliver a line with just the right level of smart-ass attitude combines perfectly with Wilder's intelligent, laid-back style, making them instant heroes in a movie world of morons.
Though Little and Wilder are obviously the stars, Madeline Kahn steals quite a few scenes as the sexy German songbird Lily Von Shtupp. Armed with a ridiculous accent and the kind of beauty that makes it shocking that she's so funny, she makes every scene she's in worth watching. The same goes for Brooks, who lets it all hang out as the corrupt leader of the state. Sticking to the fringes of the film, popping in to deliver a flurry of comedy jabs, he acts as a humorous spice Just thinking about him presiding over his governmental meetings is enough to incite giggles.
One of the more interesting aspects of this film, and one that's only come out with time, is how politically incorrect the movie is. Thinking of the many quotable lines, so many arise out of situations involving racism, like the first meeting in the jail between Bart and Jim, which hinges on skin color. Of course, in the hands of Brooks, Pryor, Little and Wilder, it never becomes aggressive or insulting; instead playing as simply true and funny. It's one of the clearest examples of how Brooks' comedy was able to avoid being mean-spirited while remaining hilarious.
The audio, a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, features an extremely simple mono mix, with good dialogue and music that doesn't interfere with the experience. There's nothing at all dynamic about the sound though, which makes it fall far short of the special edition disc.
Brooks plays Richard Thorndike, a respected psychiatrist charged with taking over an asylum when the head doctor dies suddenly. Strange things are afoot at the asylum, centering around the creepy Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) and the horrifying Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman). Their plans for the asylum are interrupted by Richard's arrival, but they are not going to stand idly by while he makes changes.
Richard's got more pressing matters to deal with though, when he meets Victoria (Madeline Kahn), whose father is being kept at the asylum against his will. Having fallen for her, Richard is more than willing to help, but he runs into some trouble with the law that keeps him preoccupied. With so many plotlines up in the air, it's the perfect chance for an action-packed Hitchcock-like finale.
Though not regarded by fans as one of the best Brooks films, it has plenty going for it, including great performances by Kahn and Leachman, and a good use of Ron Carey as Brooks' sidekick Brophy. The first meeting between Richard and Victoria is one of the finest comedic moments in this entire set, as Kahn's manic delivery and Brooks' physical reactions make for on-screen gold. The cute gags about the mechanics of suspense films, especially the music ones, are inspired bits as well.
If nothing else, this is the movie that gave us the classic line "Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup." If only for that, this is one of the greats.
The audio, delivered in an English 2.0 track, is a front and center affair with crisp dialogue and some strong music, which is key for this film. There's nothing much to complain about here.
HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I
Starting with the prehistoric, moving to the Roman Empire, then the Spanish Inquisition before moving on to the French Revolution, the film's focus is relatively narrow, and gives the most time to the Roman segment. Not that this is a documentary or anything: It's about the jokes, not the history. Thus, it's a great thing that there are more jokes in this film than any of the other Brooks offerings.
The biggest of the bunch has to be the Spanish Inquisition section, which takes the form of a massive musical number by Torquemada (Brooks), as he sings about converting the Jews. As good as any musical number from film's golden age, this singing and dancing spectacular is more fun than anything about the Crusades should be.
There are so many singular moments of hilarity here that it's hard to pick a few good ones, especially from the Roman Empire, where Brooks, Gregory Hines, Dom DeLuise and Madeline Kahn all have a chance to shine. While Hines and Brooks are terrific, once again Kahn, as Empress Nympho, raises the stakes with her delivery, following up ridiculous puns with reactions that sell the joke better than anyone could. Anyone who can watch her select her guard with a straight face is probably dead... or a eunuch.
While the Roman era is the most fun, the French Revolution provided the world with Brooks' trademark line, "It's good to be the king," as a part of the ridiculous world of King Louis XVI. From a human chess match-cum-orgy to the fun Cloris Leachman-led French peasants, to an ending that could only happen in this movie, this section puts a fitting cap onto a great time.
Presented as a Stereo track, the sound here is very good as well, sounding wonderfully clear and strong, especially during the Spanish Inquisition. It may all be coming from the front, without much dynamic sound, but it complements the picture well.
ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS
The story sticks closely to the plot of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, as the Sheriff of Rotingham (Roger Rees), under the command of the evil Prince John (Richard Lewis), tries to stop Robin Hood, Achoo (Dave Chappelle, in his first-ever film) and the rest of the Merry Men from stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Along the way, Robin falls for the lovely Maid Marian, but the Sheriff has his own designs for her.
Though quite funny, the film is filled with remnants from other Brooks efforts, including cameras smashing through windows on zooms (High Anxiety), overprotective virginity guards (Spaceballs), musical numbers (any number of films) and even characters like Robert Ridgely's Hangman (Blazing Saddles) and direct references to the other movies. Whether this was the work of Brooks or his screenwriting partners isn't known, but it's obviously not original.
The acting is solid across the board, starting with Elwes, the first English actor to play the British Robin Hood. Though he's got the right swagger and charm to play a serious hero, he's got the chops to get laughs. As the female lead, Yasbeck is a fine stand-in for Madeline Kahn, bringing similar qualities to the part, including beauty and a willingness to look stupid. But, like Bernadette Peters, she can't stack up to the Mistress of Comedy. On the other hand, Chappelle makes an impressive debut, jumping right into the fray and proving to be an effective sidekick. Even Lewis is cast well, bringing an appropriate whiny, neurotic persona to the role.
This isn't the best Brooks film in the collection, and is probably not even in the top five. But it's absolutely enjoyable and the kind of movie you can watch any time, as a sort of "best of" for Brooks fans.
The English 4.0 Dolby Surround soundtrack is very clean, but it hardly takes advantage of the rear or side speakers, with the exception of some slight atmospheric sound. The dialogue and sound effects don't suffer from any distortion, and the music mixes well.
Also included are the theatrical trailer for this movie, as well as for High Anxiety, Silent Movie, To Be or Not to Be and Young Frankenstein
Mel Funn (Brooks) and his compadres, Marty Eggs (Feldman) and Dom Bell (DeLuise), have a plan to get Funn back on top, after alcoholism robbed him of his directing career. The big plan is to make a silent movie, but the studio won't make it without big stars attached, so it's up to the guys to convince top-name talent to sign on. In a series of absolutely ridiculous slapstick moments, Funn convinces Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Anne Bancroft and Paul Newman to join the show. Another big name turns them down, in one of the more inspired choices in the film.
While Funn tries to put together his last chance, the corporate raiders at Engulf and Devour are trying to take over the movie studio. If Funn succeeds, it will enable the studio to resist, so they send Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) to try and distract Funn from his efforts. In a role that seems made for Madeline Kahn, Peters does well, and is certainly distracting, but she makes it obvious how good Kahn truly was.
When they aren't trying to make the movie, the film tries to fill dead air with smaller gags, as seen when the guys' car is stuck in traffic, and they watch people shop. While some of these moments don't quite work, others, like DeLuise's troubles with a soda machine, are great fun thanks to the old-school slapstick on display. If it wasn't Brooks, DeLuise and Feldman in these roles, it might not have worked, as all three act with such physical expression, especially Feldman, who was a walking sight gag, in addition to actually being funny.
Overall, Silent Movie hits more than it misses, and the more obvious jokes easily make a viewer laugh, though the gimmick of being a silent movie comes close to wearing out its welcome. Fortunately for the movie, it gets good mileage out of its dialogue card jokes and silent-film gags before needing Brooks' uncanny ability to make you love him to keep the production moving forward.
Obviously, the sound, which is presented in a stereo track, doesn't have much in the way of dialogue to deal with, but the music and sound effects are rather strong, and on my system were spread out to the rear speakers, making for a quality experience.
THE TWELVE CHAIRS
The story is pretty simple: Ippolit (Ron Moody), a former aristocrat, has been reduced to a file clerk in the new Russian government, and he's none too happy with that state of affairs. So when he finds out that his dying mother hid a cache of jewels in the cushion of a dining-room chair before the revolution, he becomes obsessed with reclaiming this wealth and his former way of life.
As with any good hunt for hidden treasure, he's not the only one interested in this prize, as his priest (Dom DeLuise) and a smooth con-man (Frank Langella) take up the quest for themselves, the man of the cloth on his own, and the con-man alongside Ippolit. The problem is, the jewels were hidden in a chair that's part of a set of 12, which is apparently as common in Russia as cinder blocks in a dorm room. Thus, there are many promising leads that turn into dead ends.
Though Brooks shows up for a small part as Ippolit's former servant, the film's only real comedy comes from DeLuise, who earns laughs with just about every appearance as a man of God with more earthly concerns on his mind. Outside of his silly moments, the film is overly dramatic in telling the story of a man who is simply not worth cheering for. Langella's slick vagabond is infinitely more interesting, but he doesn't get to do much more than act as an instigator to Ippolit and set up a few humorous moments.
It's admirable that Brooks attempted to spread his creative wings with this film, but it just doesn't work. Sandwiching brief, classic Brooks-style moments in between lengthy stretches of distinctly un-Brooks-like melodrama just makes for a confusing, and often boring film that meanders towards a resolution that is best described as a spastic grab at a conclusion. Perhaps it's presence among the truly great laugh-out-loud Brooks comedies puts it at a handicap, looking less impressive by comparison, but it's not the kind of movie you'll quote to a friend, reminding you to pop it in your DVD player once again.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack emanates from the center channel, and is clean, an important aspect considering some of the accents used in this movie. It's not going to blow anyone away, but it's a quality mix that serves the abundant dialogue well.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
Together, Brooks and Bancroft are Frederick and Anna Bronski, stage performers who are world famous in Poland for their delightful shows, including "Naughty Nazis." The problem is, when the Nazis invade Poland, their anti-Hitler stance isn't viewed too favorably, and they are shut down, inadvertently turning them into members of the resistance, as they get caught up in a convoluted plot to stop an undercover agent of the Third Reich from handing over names of the resistance to the Gestapo.
This certainly doesn't sound like a comedy, but it certainly is one, and a hilarious one at that. Placing the story in the improbably comedic setting of occupied Poland gives the film free reign to ridicule the Nazis, portraying them as unorganized buffoons. It's a lot easier to laugh about genocide when it's being committed by the likes of Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon and Christopher Lloyd. Part of the fun is realizing exactly what it is you're laughing at, getting over the guilt, and laughing harder because Brooks and company are so funny.
Though the film oozes comedy, there are some poignant moments, one with Sasha, the gay costume manager, and one with the troupe's serious actor's monologue from The Merchant of Venice. But here, unlike in The Twelve Chairs, the serious moments are tempered with comedy, making them flow with the rest of the film instead of sticking out like sore thumbs. That balanced mixture carries the entire film, as it combined WW II spy intrigue with pure silliness.
Though the plot relies a lot on the classic comedy concepts of mistaken identities and exaggerated situations, there's nothing that feels recycled or old, which is impressive considering it is a remake. Directed by Alan Johnson, the choreographer on most of Brooks' films, this production does a good job of maintaining the Brooks style of filming, though the film isn't nearly as ambitious as what the master would attempt. That's fine, as Johnson brings his dance experience to a movie about the stage and does a fine job of making it all come together and gets quality performances from he cast. If you had no idea, you couldn't easily pick it out as a non-Brooks film.
The stereo presentation is good, with clean dialogue, strong music and well-reproduced sound effects. The musical scenes don't suffer from the solely center focused presentation, as they are delivered with enough heft.
The disc also has a selection of trailers, including the theatrical and Portuguese trailers for To Be, and previews of High Anxiety, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Silent Movie, and Young Frankenstein.
An esteemed neurosurgeon, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) isn't very proud of his family name and the scientific legacy attached to it, and even corrects people who say his name the way we all would. So it's no surprise that he's not very excited to visit his grandfather's castle, which he recently inherited. But once he does, and discovers just what his grandpa was working on, he becomes obsessed with following through on the research.
Assisted by his father's faithful staff, including the beautiful assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and the off-kilter hunchback Igor (Marty Feldman), Frederick succeeds in creating the monster (Peter Boyle), and, as the story goes, all hell breaks loose. Of course, hell is tremendously funny in the hands of Mel Brooks, as the big brute's travails in the original film are lampooned wonderfully, and expanded upon to even include a musical number that parodies King Kong.
The jokes in this movie are some of the best in Brooks' career, and benefit from having an established storyline that lets the film focus more on being funny than telling the tale. The comedy that's drawn from Garr's voluptuous airhead, Feldman's mentally deficient Igor and the creepy housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), is filled with broad word play and sight gags, but it never feels forced, as it usually serves to advance the story. If it doesn't, it's there because it's purely funny, like Frederick's request for a sedative.
Just as she did in Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn is able to take a relatively small part that rides mainly on her looks, here playing Frankenstein's fiancee, and turn it into a comic showcase. The way she delivers even the smallest line is hilarious, while her performance in the latter half of the film is a tour de force of understated comedy.
If Kahn's good though, Wilder is incredible. The way he moves between dignified doctor and raving madman is part of why this role is a work of genius. The birth of the monster unleashes him, allowing him to be completely nutty, while his interactions with Inga lets him play the leading man to great effect. There's not a moment in this movie that he doesn't entertain.
The audio is a simple mono track, presented in Dolby 2.0, and delivers a clear, distortion-free experience, with crisp dialogue and good sound effects. There's nothing dynamic about the presentation, but it sounds good.
The 36-minute featurette "Making FrankenSense of Young Frankenstein" is made up of 10 parts, and includes interviews with Gene Wilder and several members of the crew. The absence of Brooks and the rest of the cast is disappointing, but it's a pretty good look behind the scenes, and combined with Brooks' commentary, the disc gives a relatively complete view of the movie.
Seven deleted scenes are presented individually and in full-frame, and though they don't add much to the movie, they are interesting to see, including the unusual "Actors' Parade." A reel of outtakes are more entertaining, especially the ones with Feldman and Kahn.
The most unusual extras are a pair of interviews, one with Feldman and one with Wilder and Leachman, conducted by a Mexican TV personality. There's nothing about the interviews that stands out very much, but the whole thing is a bit odd, and it's inclusion here is even more unusual.
The disc wraps up with a selection of five trailers that have that special Brooks touch, three TV commercials, and a gallery of 19 photos.
The Bottom Line
If you think Fox will eventually release these titles separately, it may be worth waiting to cherry pick your favorites, but considering that six of the DVDs are either new or improved discs, a Brooks fan can feel comfortable in upgrading their collection, as long as they have a copy of the new Blazing Saddles to make it all better.