The Mel Brooks Collection – Nine Films, Blu-ray (1970-1993/2009)
The Twelve Chairs
History of the World – Part 1
To Be Or Not To Be
Robin Hood: Men in Tights
Director: Mel Brooks
Actors: Ron Moody, Dom DeLuise, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Gene Hackman, Sid Caesar, Bernadette Peters, Ron Carey, Anne Bancroft, Paul Newman, Cloris Leachman, Charles Durning, Bill Pullman, Rick Moranis, Cary Elves, Tracey Ullman, John Candy, Harold Gould, Peter Boyle, Isaac Hayes, Richard Lewis, Ronny Graham, Cleavon Little, Shecky Green, Jose Ferrer, others
Studio: 20th Century Fox/MGM [Release date: 12/15/09]
Video: 1.85:1 for 16:9 color, except Blazing Saddles 2.40:1, History of the World 2.35:1 and Young Frankenstein B&W – 1080p HD
Audio: Usually English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 & English Mono, French/Spanish/Portuguese track options (some DD 5.1)
Subtitles: Usually English SDH, French, Spanish, Cantonese (more on Spaceballs)
Extras: Some on each film, plus large illustrated color hard-bound book
Rating: ***** on all
Wow! What a package! Comedy fans will go nuts over this lavish collection (SRP: $140) of some some of Brook’s best films, complete with an exclusive book which lovingly highlights his amazing life and unforgettable films. The same content is found in a simultaneous standard DVD release except without the film Spaceballs. Three of the films made the top 20 of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Comedy Films of All Time. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – probably Brooks’ two very best films – are already available on Blu-ray, along with Spaceballs, but for the other six this is their debut on Blu-ray.
I looked thru the 120 page wide-format book first. It’s an impressive read, with fine articles on many aspects of Brooks’ films. There’s a touching chapter on his relationship with his late wife Anne Bancroft, and a documentary on the same subject as one of the extras with To Be Or Not To Be. The color stills from the films are excellent. It’s been a task to get thru all nine films for this review, but at the same time it’s been a ball.
Of course I’m very familiar with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. The hilarious western spoof of 1974 is packed with off-the-wall humor and some of the wildest things in it become understandable when Mel reveals that Richard Pryor was one of the five writers involved in coming up with the script, and was even considered for the lead of the black sheriff (but the studio nixed him). Those involved speak in the extras about how the film probably would never be made today because the studios are too scared and persnickety. Mel tells a hilarious joke about the one line the studio censored at the end of the love scene between the sheriff and German sexpot Madeline Kahn. There is also an extra about the superb comedic art of the late Kahn. My favorite scene in Blazing Saddles is the sheriff riding across the prairie with Count Basie on the soundtrack, and then trotting past the entire Basie Band playing out there! Mel pulls a similar bit in High Anxiety, when a stirring and dramatic orchestral number accompanies a shot of Mel in the back seat of a limo; then looking out the window we see a tour bus passing by containing the LA Philharmonic playing the actual soundtrack music we’re hearing!
What can I say about Young Frankenstein? It makes classic fun of not just Mary Shelley’s original story, but every Frankenstein movie since then. It’s shot in black and white like most of them, with Gene Wilder as the young Dr. Frankenstein, who pronounces his name differently now. Peter Boyle is wonderful as the monster, and his Puttin’ on the Ritz dance with Brooks is a classic. Madeline Kahn has a hilarious scene with the monster that’s not too different from the one she had with the sheriff in Blazing Saddles. It’s full of first rate lunacy that bears watching over and over.
The other seven movies are all worth seeing; I hadn’t seen a couple of them before and enjoyed them greatly. Brook’s first production after The Producers was The 12 Chairs. It’s set in the Soviet Union in 1927 and Brooks couldn’t shoot there so he used Yugoslavia. It makes a convincing stand in, especially the closeups of all the Slavic faces in some sections, which reminded me of visiting the Soviet Union on a student tour in the late 50s. It’s basically a chase across Russia by three characters trying to find a fortune in family jewels that was sewn into one of 12 upholstered chairs at the time the Revolution took over a nobleman’s estate. Since the story paints the nobleman (Ron Moody) as embodying all the worst qualities of the Czarist regime, this film could have been made by the Soviets. But it wouldn’t have been half as funny!
I had also missed To Be Or Not To Be, the first version of which was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. It has more a serious slant than most of the comedies, taking place during the Nazi invasion of Poland, and even using actual B&W footage of that. Brooks and Bancroft are the Bronskis, running a theatrical troupe. But there’s plenty of humor as the troupe thwarts the Gestapo and saves the Polish underground.
We’ve reviewed Spaceballs recently. George Lucas enjoyed the parody of Star Wars, and we learned to put our faith in The Swartz. Silent Movie, of 1976, was a highly original idea, seeing as how no one had made a silent movie in Hollywood since sound had taken over in the late 20s. (Only Charlie Chaplin continued for awhile.) Brooks had only a single word spoken in the entire film – pantomimist Marcel Marceau saying “No.” Brooks plays a Hollywood director trying for a comeback by proposing a silent movie. At first the studio turns it down, but then Brooks convinces them saying he will get some of the top stars in it. Thus begins a chase to round up Paul Newman, Lisa Minelli, Anne Bancroft, etc. Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman are Brooks’ sidekicks in seeking the stars for their movie. When Newman first met Feldman, he said "I’ll bet like me, when people first meet you they ask about your eyes."
High Anxiety was partially shot in San Francisco, with some scenes taking place in the impressive lobby of the Hyatt Regency there, as well as under the Golden Gate Bridge. Many different Alfred Hitchcock films are parodied in this one, Vertigo being just one. Brooks’ version of the shower scene from Psycho is priceless – instead of blood flowing down the drain at the end, it’s ink from the newspaper which the excitable bell boy has thrown at Brooks’ in a fit of pique. Brooks actually showed Hitchcock – whom he met for lunch regularly – the script and got not only approval but additional suggestions of bits to parody. Cloris Leachman as the nurse is 100% more sinister than Nurse Ratchet.
History of the World Part I is an outrageous version of the story of mankind. We learn the "real truth" about the Roman Empire, the French Revolution (where Brooks, in appropriate costume, declares “It’s good to be the king!”) and the Spanish Inquisition. Though seeming a bit like TV sketch comedy, there’s an all-star cast and it’s good fun thruout. Brooks’ takeoff on Robin Hood was his 1993 effort and spoofed another classic story. You won’t be able to resist laughing your head off, as with all of Brook’s films, but this one strikes me as getting just a bit silly at times. I was envisioning Graham Chapman in uniform stopping the Monty Python sketches that he deemed too silly.
The extras include seven featurettes from the DVDs, plus six brand new ones made especially for Blu-ray, four new trivia tracks, five isolated tracks of just the music scores, and selected films boast commentary tracks, interviews, documentaries, stills, and other bonuses. (Not all the extras are in hi-def but they look fine.) All in all this is a terrific collection, beautifully transferred to Blu-ray with improved image and sound, and coming with a glorious hard-bound coffee-table style book that stands on its own and is exclusive with the collection.
— John Sunier