A Rare EGOT
Mel Brooks is one of the most influential comedy directors in history. The man is a rare EGOT winner - Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. His films are considered classics, with memorable characters and endlessly quotable lines. But how does his own work rank against each other? Here's my rank of each film from worst to best.
This is limited only to films he directed so To Be or Not to Be and the 2005 Producers remake will not be on this list.
The temptation is to say bad reviews write themselves for this one: Life Stinks stinks. But that’s not fair. If anything, it’s a testament to how awesome Brooks was as a director that his weakest (“weakest," not “worst”) film is at least watchable to an extent. This is a rare example of Brooks making a film that is not a parody. Instead, it focuses on a selfish rich man who tries to live 30 days as a homeless man. Brooks himself has satirized rich people not caring about poor people several times up to this point, making some of the gags feel like an old hat. Plus, there were attempts to blend comedy with drama. While Mel Brooks clearly had a flair for storytelling, the dramatic and funny scenes don’t completely gel. Still, Life Stinks is not a total wash. There are funny moments to be found for sure, and Brooks shows his knack for creating characters. So, anyone who wants to be a Brooks completionist should still be able to stomach this one.
Dracula - Dead and Loving It
I feel bad ranking one of Brooks’ most underrated films so low. But I have to call ‘em like I see ‘em. Alas, compared to his heyday, this film is relatively hit and miss. Not all of the specific movie parodies work, and some of the potty humor whiffs it. One positive is that the rapid-fire humor is fast enough that the bad jokes tend to be over quickly enough. And there are more hits than misses. Good parodies tend to play “what if” with famous moments, and one hilarious scene features Leslie Nielsen’s Dracula accidentally hypnotizing two people at once. So he has to manage the person he wants under his spell with someone he doesn't. The moment people tend to remember from this film is the blood-bath staking. The scene is not only hilarious, but Steven Weber’s reactions are priceless. Not to mention the casting. Brooks fills the supporting cast with many of his usual suspects and other funny character actors. But the highlight is Peter MacNichol as Renfield. MacNichol is an underrated character actor who feels like Dwight Frye reincarnated in the 90s.
It was only Mel Brooks’ second film and the only one to be a direct adaption of a novel as opposed to a parody. Based on the Russian novel, an ex-aristocrat is on the hunt for one of 12 chairs that contains the last of his family fortune. However, he’s teaming with a charismatic con man and battling a looney priest. This is a different side of Brooks. It’s a little slower-paced and quieter than your average Mel Brooks film, but it still brings the funny. Okay, maybe it’s not as laugh-out-loud or laugh-a-minute funny as some of the other films on this list, but it is a good story. Brooks is able to absorb the film in the atmosphere, and there are laughs to be found in the extreme lengths these characters resort to trying to find the riches. While this film comes recommended, Brooks’ next film was Blazing Saddles and the rest was history.
This was Mel Brooks’ take on Hitchcock films. Mel Brooks proved he actually had storytelling chops, but this was one case where the plot was mainly a clothesline to cram as many Hitchcock spoofs as possible. That's also a point against this one. It feels like so many scenes and moments are only there to set up these spoofs. And some of the spoofs just feel a little too obvious. Still, it brings the funny. Without giving anything away, the best gag in the movie revolves around the excruciating lengths Brooks’ character goes to in order to prove his innocence in a crime. While this isn’t the man’s A-game, it’s still Brooks.
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Robin Hood: Men in Tights
After Prince of Thieves, Men in Tights is a rare example of the parody outshining the original. This extends to the casting as well. The film pokes fun at this, but Elwes’s comic Robin Hood vanishes Costner’s maligned performance. Brooks cast a lot of people that were new to him – including Richard Lewis, Roger Rees and even gave Dave Chapelle his first film role. Roger Rees is another actor that could have fit into a serious film. But he demonstrates great comedic skill such as a scene where he has to present bad news as good news. There’s a spectacular swordfight mid-way through the film including a great visual gag about knocking over a team of guards like dominoes. But this film has a few shortcomings. A few of the specific parodies feel dated. I imagine younger audiences enjoying this film's wacky, colorful humor. But I’d like to ask how many of them laughed at jokes like Chappelle pumping up Reebocks or the random Malcolm X spoof. Some fourth wall jokes overstay their welcome. The callbacks to Brooks’ previous films are hit and miss. The best is the callback to History of the World Part 1. Again, the few bad jokes are over quickly enough and the film piles on such a charm offensive I smile even during the meh jokes.
History of the World Part I
History is a pretty popular subject for comedy. After all, not everybody sees every movie, but surely people know basic history. Brooks resorts to an obvious joke here and there, but like most Brooks films, more jokes deliver than not. Even some of the obvious jokes have a certain charm to them. In addition to being funny, History of the World gave us one iconic line: “It’s good to be king.” Brooks also knew how to make this film feel big. He recruited Orson Wells to narrate the film. Even if Wells was for sale at the time, his deep, booming voice adds some class, only making the pee and sex jokes that much funnier. As an anthology film, History of the World has a weird structure. There are two main segments and a whole lot of skits. Still, that’s kind of cool – it’s like we have two mini-movies as the main entrée and a bunch of segments as side dishes. Also, it is fun to see how some of the segments do tie together, giving the film cohesion instead of just feeling like a random collection of segments with a motif.
If I had to pick the most underrated Mel Brooks film, this would be it. Proof of how ambitious the man was, Brooks made a movie about trying to make a silent film as a silent film. That may be why this film tends to get lost in the shuffle – a Brooks film that isn’t endlessly quotable feels like a handicap. But it’s the nature of the beast. I feel like comparisons to The Artist are inevitable. Both films were tributes to silent films made as silent films. While The Artist took place in the era, Brooks actually attempts to answer what if a silent film were made in (a-hem) modern times? This movie goes much deeper than being a contemporaneous silent film in color. The film is replete with gags and stunts that would make Buster Keaton proud. Brooks is known for his irreverence and biting satire. However, here he makes a film that is both hilarious and an affectionate tribute to old-school Hollywood. While Men in Tights and History of the World technically had bigger laughs, Silent Movie is so joyous and charming in its delivery that it’s an overall treat to watch. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the film is known for having only one spoken line. But it’s also way too funny to give away.
I have a lot of respect for Roger Ebert, but I think one of his biggest gaffes was predicting that Spaceballs would seem dated eventually. Not only has Star Wars remained popular, but Spaceballs is one of the rare parodies that has taken on a life of its own. Yeah, there are a lot of spoofs of popular sci-fi films – like Alien and Star Wars. And gags like the dancing chestburster hold up. Who could forget the endless slew of Spaceballs merchandise? I still want Spaceballs: The Flamethrower! Stuff like that would make this a great comedy, but what elevates Spaceballs to legendary status is that Brooks actually built a world. The joke that the Darth Vader stand-in is revealed to be Rick Moranis already sounds funny. But Dark Helmet ends up being a funny character with his own personality. The worlds and characters may use parodies as a base but feel fleshed out. Bill Pullman later became a dashing Hollywood lead, and he has that feel instead of just being a gag character as Lone Star. In fact, the few serious scenes between him and Princess Vespa feel legit, with chemistry between them.
Since Mel Brooks didn’t direct it, the 2005 remake will not be on this list. While that’s a solid remake, the original is the way to go. So many people have attempted similar premises and jokes to this film that it’s almost become easy to forget how daring and creative Mel Brooks was. The premise of a producer deliberately tanking so can embezzle money sounds promising and Brooks delivers on every idea – picking a terrible pro-Nazi book, hiring an insane (obviously flamboyantly gay) director, a looney beatnik to play Hitler. And the payoff is priceless. A beatnik character may sound dated (probably why the character was excised from the Broadway show and remake). But the over-the-top performance by underappreciated character actor Dick Shawn is brilliant. Plus Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder play off each other perfectly. Mostel is the selfish once-great producer who now resorts to “entertaining” old ladies to fund his plays. Wilder scored an Oscar nomination as the twitchy, neurotic, blanket-obsessed accountant. If I had one complaint about this movie, the third act lacks a little. The plot to try and blow up the theater just feels like a letdown – one of the few battles the remake wins. Brooks won an Oscar for this film’s screenplay, and for good reason.
“You can’t make Blazing Saddles today” has become the battle cry of edge lords. Despite growing tired of hearing this, I’m still glad this movie was made because Blazing Saddles is hilarious. Yeah, the movie is filled to the brim with politically incorrect humor. But it’s a biting satire that your average edge lord can’t capture. Five people are credited with writing the screenplay and they all brought so many things to the table. Comedy god Richard Pryor contributed much of my favorite character Mongo. Mongo is a beast of a man who produces some truly hilarious visual gags and his share of funny lines. Madeline Kahn scored an Oscar nomination for her performance as a German temptress show girl. Gene Wilder is a little more subdued in his role as a worn-out gunslinger. Lead actor Cleavon Little did (a-hem) little after this film, which is a shame because the man oozes charisma. Nearly every line is quotable (“That’s Headley Lamar!”). The finale is a spectacular, fourth-wall-breaking brawl, and there are some catchy tunes. Suffice to say, the humor is a lot deeper than just saying the N-word.
It’s rare to come across a film that is truly perfect. Anyone who watches Young Frankenstein the first time will probably appreciate that it’s a laugh-a-minute comedy. Along with Ghostbusters and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, it’s good to watch around Halloween. But repeat viewings will reveal just how deep and clever this film actually is. For one, Gene Wilder gives a career performance as Victor Frankenstein. (That's "Frahnk-en-steen") He can change on a dime between frantic and reserved, but still give every volume in between. Wilder co-wrote the film, and his passion for Frankenstein is evident. The film is filled with hilarious send-ups of the Frankenstein movies. But even without seeing Son or Bride of Frankenstein, Kenneth Mars’s inspector and Gene Hackman’s blind man are quite funny. But there’s still a good story to be found. Frankenstein has to come to terms with his family history. Every role is perfectly cast, but Peter Boyle is magnificent as the Monster. It’s not just a spoof of Karloff. Boyle’s monster has a personality of his own, as a brutish beast who just wants to be understood. Also, who could forget “Puttin’ on the Ritz”?