Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (PBS "American Masters," 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the new documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise on PBS as it premiered nationwide (and fortunately the local affiliate KPBS actually showed it when it was supposed to be introduced instead of relegating it to later in the schedule as they do with so many of their shows), which did as good a job as one could in an hour and 22 minutes of capturing what this relentless funnyman was/is all about. There were a lot of Brooksian stories that didn’t make it into this film, but the ones that did were predictably fascinating. Brooks himself cooperated fully with this film — he never had for a documentary project before — including sitting for interviews at a singularly boring-looking set, simply a desk set up in front of a blue screen with a giant TV monitor nearby that showed whatever was being filmed in real time, creating an odd effect not only for Brooks’s own interview but also for those with collaborator Carl Reiner (they did the famous 2000-Year-Old Man sketches together), Tracey Ullman and other people who were actually being interviewed afresh for the show. (There were quite a lot of archival scenes, too, including some with Brooks’s late wife Anne Bancroft, with whom he finally got to make a film when they did the remake of To Be or Not to Be in 1983.) The film does a good job tracing Brooks from his beginnings as a New York Jew — his birth name was Melvin Kaminsky (by coincidence Danny Kaye’s original last name was also Kaminsky) — his childhood, his beginnings at the Jewish resorts in upstate New York, his stage fright that led him to prefer writing for other people to performing himself (though occasionally he has performed his own material, not only on film but also in public as the 2000-Year-Old Man and some other bits), his early training in the writers’ room for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows — alongside such other comedy geniuses as Reiner, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart! — and his struggles to break into the movie business. One project that isn’t mentioned in the film itself (but is on PBS’s Web site, where there’s a clip of Brooks talking about it) was The Critic, a four-minute short from 1963 directed by Ernest Pintoff and inspired by the experimental movies of Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren. Norman McLaren had pioneered the art of making films without a camera by drawing directly on clear film stock, and while some of the movies he made that way were crude animations of figures, others were abstract patterns of lines, squiggles and dots. What Pintoff had in mind was doing a McLaren-style abstract movie while the soundtrack would feature Brooks playing an old Jewish kvetch who had stumbled into the theatre and was grousing about what he was seeing: “DOTS? I paid two dollahs to see dots?

The film also didn’t mention the story Brooks told to the Los Angeles Times not long ago about how his first feature film as a director, The Producers, got released: it was filmed for Avco Embassy Pictures, whose head, Joseph Levine, was reluctant to release a movie that not only made fun of Nazis but in its initial incarnation was actually titled Springtime for Hitler. So Brooks sneaked a print to Peter Sellers, who showed it in his home theatre for himself and some friends, then loved the movie so much he took out a full-page ad in the trades announcing how much he’d enjoyed Springtime for Hitler and how sad he was that nobody else would get to see it because of the stupid obstinacy of Joseph Levine in refusing to release it. Levine got the message loud and clear, and his only condition for releasing the film at long last was that Brooks take the “H-word” out of the title and call it The Producers. Of course there were clips from The Producers in the documentary — not only from the original film (including the big “Springtime for Hitler” number itself, complete with the Busby Berkeley spoof of the chorus forming a revolving swastika) but from the sensationally successful musical revival on the Broadway stage in 2001, with Nathan Lane in Zero Mostel’s original role and Matthew Broderick in Gene Wilder’s. The Producers holds up as sensationally funny, even though there’s a part of me that almost heretically resents the way Mostel hammed it up as Max Bialystock and wishes Brooks himself could have played the role (but then Mostel was a major star from the Broadway version of Fiddler on the Roof and Brooks was having enough trouble getting the project green-lighted; had he insisted on starring in the film as well, it probably never would have been made).

The show also noted that Brooks originally conceived of Springtime for Hitler as a novel, until an editor said it was all dialogue and no descriptions and therefore would work better as a play; then Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden told Brooks, “It won’t work as a play; it has too many locations. Why not try to do it as a movie?” The imdb.com trivia page on The Producers has a number of items that seem almost as lunatic as the film itself, like the fact that because of the “Springtime for Hitler” number it couldn’t be shown in Germany until someone got the bright idea of booking it as part of a festival of films by Jewish filmmakers, and that Brooks himself had worked as a writer on two major Broadway flops, Shinbone Alley and All American, before making it. The show didn’t mention that the basic concept of The Producers — an unscrupulous producer collects several times the budget needed for a production, then stages a deliberately bad play that will flop so he can pocket the extra money he raised — had been an urban legend on Broadway for decades; Groucho Marx had wanted to film it with the Marx Brothers in the mid-1930’s (Irving Thalberg rejected it and made A Night at the Opera instead), and the 1945 detective “B”-movie The Falcon in Hollywood used the Producers premise seriously. That wasn’t the only dramatic film that used a premise also employed by Mel Brooks: in 1975 former football star Fred Williamson and Creature from the Black Lagoon director Jack Arnold made Boss Nigger, in which, as Harry and Michael Medved put it in The Golden Turkey Awards, Williamson “rides into a bigoted, lily-white Western town and, much to the horror of the white inhabitants, installs himself as the straight-shooting Black sheriff. Sound familiar? It’s the same plot as in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, but this time around it’s supposed to be taken seriously.”

Brooks went on from The Producers to The Twelve Chairs, based on a Nikolai Gogol story in which to keep them safe from the revolutionaries, a dispossessed Russian noblewoman in 1917 sews a small fortune in jewels into the cushion of one of 12 identical chairs, and a group of various characters searches for them all over Russia (though the film was actually shot in Yugoslavia). The Twelve Chairs was also an Avco Embassy release and was a dismal flop — though former Fanfare reviewer Royal S. Brown said it was the one time in Brooks’s work, apart from Young Frankenstein, that he had actually shown subtlety, pathos and wit — and Brooks was persona non grata in the film business until Warner Bros. hired him to make a comedy Western they already had under development called Tex X. Brooks originally begged off on the ground that he only directed scripts he’d written himself, and then Warners offered him $100,000 for the project and he decided that for that kind of money he could break his rule. He also recruited Richard Pryor both to work on the script (which he did — Brooks felt he needed him because all the other writers were Jewish and he needed a Black person to write for the Black character) and to star (which he didn’t because the “suits” at Warners were concerned about his already legendary drug use), and he hired Gig Young to play the drunken gunfighter — then fired him because Young showed up for the first scene (the famous one in which the gunfighter is hanging upside-down in the town jail’s drunk tank and is supposed to react to Cleavon Little’s “Are we … O.K.?” with, “I don’t know. Are we … Black?”) not on the wagon, as he’d promised, but drunk to the gills and suffering from D.T.’s, so the line came out like gargling and Brooks fired him and brought in Gene Wilder. Blazing Saddles was a blockbuster hit and Brooks ended up next at Columbia, where he was going to make Young Frankenstein until the “suits” there rejected his plan to shoot it in black-and-white, whereupon Alan Ladd, Jr., newly appointed studio head at 20th Century-Fox, took up the project and had no problem with it being in black-and-white.

The hits just kept on coming for Brooks — Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie (which, judging from the clips shown in it, probably would also have been better in black-and-white à la The Artist), the Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (Hitchcock was still alive when it was made and Brooks screened it for him; Hitch sat through it impassively, occasionally giving a very restrained British-style chuckle, until he got to the spoof of the shower murder in Psycho, whereupon the Master told Brooks he’d made a mistake: there were 13 rings on the shower curtain in High Anxiety, whereas in Psycho there had been only 10), History of the World, Part 1 — until they stopped coming. Brooks ended up at MGM making Spaceballs (a film I’ve always found screamingly funny, mainly because there was already something so silly about the Star Wars mythos he didn’t need to do much to it to push it into parody; in this case George Lucas’s only request to Brooks was that they not merchandise Spaceballs action figures because they’d look too much like the Star Wars action figures; instead Brooks inserted a scene spoofing merchandising into Spaceballs) and Life Stinks, then doing critically reviled and commercially unsuccessful spoofs like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (which the Los Angeles Times critic found especially disappointing coming from the director of Young Frankenstein!) until he made a blazing (pardon the pun) comeback with the enormous success of The Producers as what Brooks had wanted to write lo those many years ago: a Broadway musical. Since then there’s been a successful musical adaptation of Young Frankenstein and there’s still talk of one of Blazing Saddles (whose fart scene is shown here and regarded as the origin of all the tiresome gags about involuntary body functions that plague so many so-called “comedies” today; it’s tasteless, all right, but at least the fart scene in Blazing Saddles is funny, which most of the subsequent ones haven’t been). Mel Brooks has been making me laugh for decades now, and this is the sort of show that makes you want not only to re-watch your favorites of his films but to check out some of the lesser-known ones to see if they’re really as bad as their reputations!