Mel Brooks Collection, The
Released by: MGM/Fox
Released on: 12/15/2008
Director: Mel Brooks
Cast: Mel Brooks
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MGM/Fox celebrates the cinematic legacy of the great Mel Brooks with this nine film Blu-ray collection, compiling the previously Blu-ray’d Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs with some of the director’s less popular (but no less hilarious) films. If you’ve already got the single disc releases of the three aforementioned titles, the discs are identical to the ones contained here – that’ll be bound to irk some fans. That said, this is a pretty great set (even if it’s missing Life Stinks, Dracula: Dead And Loving It, and most puzzlingly of all, The Producers), from the films to the extras, but let’s start with the movies:
THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970):
One of Brooks’ lesser known works, The Twelve Chairs tells the story of a down on his look Russian nobleman named Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody). Since the Russian Revolution changed things in his country, he’s been living a life of poverty so when he finds out that his mother in law his hidden a substantial collection of jewels in one of her dozen dining room chairs, which have since all gone their separate ways and been shipped off to various parts of the country, he’s eager to track it down.
Complicating matters for Ippolit is the presence of a stranger named Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) who also knows about the stash of jewels… as does a Russian Orthodox priest named Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise). As the story plays out, the three men find themselves in a race to see who can track down the chairs first.
Shot in Yugoslavia, the film has an interesting air of authenticity to its Eastern European location shots that help root the story with the right type of mood and atmosphere. The film moves along at a good pace and the three stars all prove more than capable of handling everything the script can throw at them. Dom DeLuise steals the show as the priest, but Moody and a very young Langella both hold their own. The film isn’t necessarily one of Brooks’ best but it’s certainly an enjoyable one with some good situational comedy, a lot of back and forth banter, clever dialogue and, at times, some surprisingly good cinematography.
BLAZING SADDLES (1974):
A gloriously un-PC film that makes no apologies for the stereotypes it deals in or the offences that it makes, Brooks’ Blazing Saddles begins when Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), a town leader on the take, is in the midst of a scheme where he’s trying to buy as much land in the Podunk town of Rock Ridge as possible. He knows that there’s going to be a railroad line built in the town and he wants to cash in on it before everyone else gets word. He’s also got a pair of henchmen, Taggart (Slim Pickens) and Lyle (Burton Gilliam) to do much of his dirty work for him.
The governor (Mel Brooks) decides to clamp down on the lawlessness in the area by hiring a new sheriff, former slave named Bart (Cleavon Little) who actually used to work on the railroad himself. In need of some help in order to keep the town safe he enlists the aid of Jim (Gene Wilder), otherwise known as The Waco Kid, a gunslinger with a serious drinking problem.
A lot of what makes Blazing Saddles so great is the way that Brooks’ film takes the relatively safe American western and turns it into backdrop for some particularly racy humor. There are double entendres throughout the script, plenty of fun poked at various racial and ethnic stereotypes, and even some quality fart jokes thrown in for good measure. Farts are funny. Mel Brooks knows this.
The cast make the most of the material, with Wilder turning in one of his finest performances and sharing some great on screen chemistry with Little. Brooks himself is fine as the mayor, playing the role with the same smart ass aplomb he’d bring to other parts, while Pickens, Gilliam and Korman all do fine as the bad guys.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974):
Made the same year as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein follows Frederick (Gene Wilder), the grandson of the late, great Victor Frankenstein. When we meet him, he’s a teaching surgeon who doesn’t want anything to do with his grandfather’s macabre legacy, which he dismisses as nonsense. He’s even gone so far as to start pronouncing his last name differently so as not to be associated with him or his work. Soon after we meet him, he comes into possession of his grandfather’s diary which spurs him to take a trip to the old family castle in Europe where he can’t help but pick up where his grandfather left off. Brain transplants and monster resurrections ensue, and hey, there’s even a visit from Frederick’s fiancé, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), a buxom nurse named Inga (Terri Garr), and an assistant named Igor (Marty Feldman) along for the ride as the monster (Peter Boyle) and the scientist get acquainted with one another.
A very obviously affectionate tribute to the told Universal Frankenstein films, Brooks’ send up never feels means spirited or trite. It takes the material and simply has a lot of fun with it, playing up the undeniably goofy aspects of some of those older pictures and letting the cast go nuts with the material. Widler and Boyle are perfect together, making a great team and really handling the clever script quite perfectly, with supporting performances from Garr and Feldman fleshing out the cast quite nicely. Kahn rarely seems to get the credit she deserved for her performance here, as she too really does a great job with some of the more outlandish elements of the script, particularly her more ‘intimate’ moments with the monster.
The Producers may be considered by most to be Brooks’ best movie, and that’s hard to argue, but if Young Frankenstein doesn’t equal that directorial debut, it certainly comes remarkably close. It holds up beautifully today, a perfect mix of off the wall humor and honest to goodness tribute.
SILENT MOVIE (1976):
Silent Movie follows a trio of would be moviemakers - a hard drinking Mel Funn (Mel Brooks), Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) – who team up and head to a film studio on the verge of financial ruin. Their plan? To make a silent movie. After the sell the idea to the studio chief (Sid Caesar) they set about trying to enlist the participation of as many big movie stars as they can but they’d better hurry as the creditors who are after the studio are all but completely out of patience and wanting to collect.
Shot with music and sound effects but no spoken dialogue (with one exception), Brooks and company are obviously having fun poking around with the clichés and devices often employed in old silent films. Like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles before it, all involved seem to be having a good time with the material and it’s a blast to see Brooks working with Feldman and DeLouise again, two often times very underrated comedic performers. That said, there’s a lot more going on here than simply recycling old silent movie gags and employing the same sort of physical comedy style those pictures were known for. The film was made in the mid seventies for a mid seventies audience so while it may look and function like an older, safer film, it’s ripe with Brooks trademark raunchy humor while somehow managing to stay in the style its borrowing from.
Fun cameos from the likes of Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Paul Newman, Marcel Marceau, and Anne Bancroft add to the charm and most of the comedy here holds up quite well. The film doesn’t feel like its aged much, it’s not particularly dated or out of touch, making it a whole lot of fun to revisit.
HIGH ANXIETY (1977):
Brooks takes the same sort of loving tribute he created in Young Frankenstein and this time lays it at the feet of Alfred Hitchcock, to whom the film High Anxiety, is dedicated. More or less a spoof of Spellbound and Vertigo, the movie follows a doctor named Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) who runs an institute called The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Inside the building, foul play runs amok as Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) are involved in a scheme that robs the wealthy patients out of their savings.
As the story progresses, Thorndyke, who has a severe fear of heights, becomes romantically attached to the lovely Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn) who just so happens to be the daughter of one of the patients. When Thorndyke gets framed for a murder he didn’t commit, he’ll have to clear his name, but in order to do so, he’ll have to get over his fear of heights.
Not nearly as effective as some of Brooks’ better work, High Anxiety still has plenty of moments that make it worth a watch. Filled with a lot of references and knowing nods to Hitchcock’s films, the more you know about the master of suspense the more you’ll get out of the film but the picture isn’t so entrenched in that aspect of its structure to alienate those who maybe haven’t committed Hitchcock’s filmography to memory.
Brooks is good in the lead role and he works well alongside Kahn, here playing the very epitome of the type of blonde Hitchcock himself would have cast in such a role and doing a very good job of hamming it up and essentially ‘playing dumb.’ Parts of the picture work, parts don’t, so it’s a pretty uneven film that seems to put most of its weight on the homage factor rather than on actual humor but enough works that Brooks fans and Hitchcock fans alike should get a kick out of it.
HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART 1 (1981):
Basically a series of corny gags spread out through some easily and instantly identifiable sets from world history, History Of The World Part 1 is a pretty decent effort from Brooks who wrote, directed, and played multiple roles. The movie starts at the dawn of man and traces man’s history to the future. Along the way we meet Moses, visit a stand up philosopher named Comicus, stop in at the Last Supper where we get a different take on how that all played out, then moving on to the Spanish Inquisition before get a peek at the real reasons behind the French Revolution among others important events that have shaped the world as we know it.
Fairly epic in a sense, History Of The World Part 1 sees Brooks playing with his regulars once again. Dom DeLuise and Madeline Kahn are fun as Emperor Nero and Empress Nympho respectively while Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman pop up in the French Revolution for a few laughs. Appearances from the likes of Shecky Greene, Sid Caeser, Gregory Hines, Ron Carey and even Orson Welles (who proves to be the perfect narrator) are amusing and round out the cast nicely.
The bulk of the run time is centered around the events that take place in Rome, and this part of the film tends to work better than the other segments though all offer up at least some laughs. The film is uneven in spots, but pure Brooksian goofiness through and through. If nothing else, the film looks great. Lots of interesting matte paintings make the backgrounds shine and there’s a really impressive attention to detail evident in all of the sets and props used to recreate the historical backdrops over which the film plays out.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1983):
Set just before the onset of the Second World War, the film follows a Polish theater group whose careers are offset by the beginning of the German invasion. Brooks plays the troupe’s leader, Frederick Bronski, while Anne Bancroft plays his wife, Anna, who seems to pay a little more attention to Polish soldiers in the audience while her husband is busy performing. This, coupled with the current events, sends Frederick into a depression. Eventually the group meets up with Lt. Sobinski (Tim Matheson) and get involved in the resistance, but things are complicated as Sobinski is obviously quite enamored with Anna.
A remake of Ernst Lubitsch's film, To Be Or Not To Be is really Bancroft’s show. She’s perfect in the part and it’s easy to see how the men in the film fall for her. She handles the comedic parts of the script perfectly but also manages to let a few more dramatic aspects shine through as well. Her chemistry with Brooks is strong, with Matheson just as good, and she absolutely shines in this film. Brooks, however, isn’t really treading any new ground here with his performance. He seems to be playing himself and not really creating much of a character.
The film is well paced and contains some good laughs – Brooks is always good when he’s poking fun at Nazis – but this still feels like a minor entry in his larger body of work.
Brooks’ send up of the Star Wars films tells us of the planet Spaceball, where the evil Spaceballs live, which is very quickly running out of clean air to breath. The Spaceballs’ leader, President Skroob (Mel Brooks) has decided to steal the air from a nearby planet called Druidia, but they’ve got a fancy shield surrounding their planet that is going to make it tough for the Spaceballs to steal much of anything. As luck would have it, Druidia's King Roland (Dick Van Patten) is preparing for the wedding of his daughter Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga), who wants nothing to do with the arranged marriage. She and her droid Dot Matrix (Joan Rivers) flee their home planet to avoid marrying Prince Valium (Jim J. Bullock) but are soon captured by the leader of the Spaceball fleet, Dark Helmet (Rock Moranis) who is intent on holding her hostage in order to get the air. Thankfully a pilot named Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his half man/half dog companion , Barf (John Candy) , with some help from strange Jewish magician named Yogurt (who teaches Lone Starr in the ways of The Schwarz) are on the case and out to save the day.
While Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety showed an obvious love for the films they were skewering, that type of affection is missing from Spaceballs. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t often times hilarious, it’s just not quite on the same level of parody. The jokes are quite frequently predictable and even sometimes blatantly obvious, which does take away from the picture a bit. Thankfully the cast here is quite good, with Pullman making a great substitute for Han Solo and Candy’s Barf (that just sounds funny) making a good replacement for Chewbacca. Zuniga is good as the Princess Leia character and Brooks is funny as Yogurt.
Jabs at the Star Wars films are plentiful, but digs at Alien, Planet Of The Apes and a few others are pretty funny. The film’s got a pretty sizeable cult following, likely because of what it lampoons rather than how it does it, but it’s a fun watch even if it’s not quite in the same league as his better films.
ROBIN HOOD – MEN IN TIGHTS (1993):
The most recent entry in the collection takes place, as all Robin Hood films do, in England where the sinister
Prince John (Richard Lewis) is going about taking advantage of the population while King Richard is off dealing with the Crusades. The people need a hero and they find him in the form of Robin Hood (Cary Elwes), who we all know steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The story follows the basics of the Robin Hood myth – he wins an archery contest, he heaps out plenty of trouble to the Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees), and wins the heart of lovely Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck).
Filled with a lot of fun cameo appearances – Dave Chapelle, Tracey Ullman, Isaac Hayes, Patrick Stewart, Dom DeLuise, Dick Van Patten, and of course Brooks himself – the film is a weird mix of toilet humor and pop culture references. Like Blazing Saddles, the film plays around with a lot of stereotypes but this time with middling success. The picture has moments of brilliance but they’re not constant enough to make this one stand out too much.
Is it worth seeing? For sure, Cary Elwes is great in the lead and he handles the material perfectly, just don’t go expecting a classic. There’s enough good humor here to make it work more often than not but some inconsistencies in pacing and humor make it a bit of a mixed bag. Not a horrible film, but definitely on the lower end of the spectrum when compared to some of the other films in this collection.
Overall fans should be pretty happy with the way that Brooks’ films have turned out on Blu-ray in this collection, all of which are presented in full 1080p and in their original widescreen aspect ratios. While this aren’t likely to become your new demo discs any time soon, each disc offers noticeable improvements over their standard definition counterparts in terms of clarity, detail, color reproduction and authoring. There are some shots in some films that look a bit on the grainy side and the odd speck pops up here and there but, as a generality, the images are always pretty clear and pretty clean. Softness is inherent in some of the original photography for some of the older films in the set, but you can’t fault the Blu-ray for that. History Of The World, Part 1 probably looks the best of the bunch, as its more impressive backgrounds offer up a fair bit more to look at but Blazing Saddles also shines in spots, giving the western backdrop more texture and detail than it’s had prior. The Twelve Chairs is the least impressive of the bunch, but it too fares well, as here it’s still pretty sharp and offered up with plenty of detail. All in all, this is a strong batch of transfers.
Every film in this collection gets a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track except for Blazing Saddles, which carries over the same unimpressive standard definition Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track that it had on the previous WB solo disc release. French and Spanish dubs are provided across the board, with Portuguese thrown in for Chairs, Anxiety, History and Spaceballs while the titles that remain in the Fox catalogue throw additional subs in for Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean viewers.
Looking at the set as a whole, the audio isn’t quite as impressive as the video is. Original mixes are missing throughout the set and Blazing Saddles really could have used an upgrade to an HD mix. There aren’t any massive problems to report, everything is clean and audible and easy to understand, but there’s definitely been room left for improvement. That said, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. You’ll be able to understand everything easily enough, the levels are well balanced and there aren’t any problems with background noise or hiss to note. It’s just that it’s all a little underwhelming. Even the newer films, Spaceballs being a prime example, don’t make particularly good use of the surround field. There aren’t any glaring problems here, aside from the missing original mixes, but on the flip side, nothing here really stands out.
The extras are, understandably, spread out across the disc. There’s a LOT included in this set, so here’s a list of what you’ll find and where you’ll find it:
The lightest in terms of extras, this disc as a menu and some chapter stops….. and that’s it.
As mentioned earlier, this disc is identical to the earlier Warner Brothers release and as such, it carries over
all of the extras from that release. Additional Scenes, Scene-Specific Commentary by Mel Brooks, 2 Documentaries, Back in the Saddle, Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn (Excerpt), Black Bart: 1975 Pilot Episode Of The Proposed TV Series Spinoff and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
Again, all of the extra from the previous Blu-ray release are carried over: Commentary by Mel Brooks, Inside The Lab: Secret Formulas in the Making of Young Frankenstein, Deleted Scenes, It's Alive! Creating A Monster Classic, Making FrankenSense of Young Frankenstein, Transylvanian Lullaby: The Music of John Morris, The Franken-Track: A Monstrous Conglomeration of Trivia - Trivia Track, Blucher Button, Outtakes and a welcome Isolated Score Track (in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio format).
This disc is a bit on the lighter side in terms of extras when compared to some of the others in the set, but it’s got an interesting documentary on it called Silent Laughter: The Reel Inspirations of Silent Movie and includes the Speak Up! Historical Hollywood - Trivia Track.
New to Blu-ray, this disc contains a documentary called Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master of Suspense, The "Am I Very, Very Nervous?" Test, Dr. Thorndyke's Ink Blot Test, How Anxious Am I?, Don't Get Anxious! The Trivia of Hitchcock - Trivia Track, and another Isolated Score Track (in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio format).
HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART 1:
The Blu-ray debut for this film includes a featurette entitled Musical Mel: Inventing "The Inquisition," another featurette called Making History: Mel Brooks on Creating the World, The Real History of the World - Trivia Track and an Isolated Score Track (in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio format).
TO BE OR NOT TO BE:
Brooks’ Shakespearean lampoon is afford a featurette called Brooks and Bancroft: A Perfect Pair, another featurette called How Serious Can Mel Brooks Really Get?, profiles of Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning, the To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Trivia! - Trivia Track and an Isolated Score Track (in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio format).
This fan favorite carries over all of the extras from the previous Blu-ray release, which means you’ll find a commentary by Mel Brooks, Spaceballs: The Documentary, In Conversation: Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan, John Candy: Comic Spirit, Watch the movie in Ludicrous Speed, Still Galleries, Film Flubs, Storyboards-to-Film Comparison, and a trailer or two all hiding beneath the disc’s menus.
ROBIN HOOD – MEN IN TIGHTS:
This film’s Blu-ray debut includes Funny Men In Tights: Three Generations of Comedy, an HBO Special called Robin Hood: Men In Tights - "The Legend Had It Coming," and carries over the LaserDisc Commentary by Mel Brooks. Again, look for an Isolated Score Track (in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio format).
If the digital extras weren’t enough, the packaging for this release should seal the deal. If you’ve seen Fox’s Planet Of The Apes Blu-ray collection you’ll know what to expect as this release follows the same format. Inside the thick cardboard slipcase are two books, one of which holds the nine Blu-ray discs (which sadly fit inside little slips meaning it wouldn’t be too hard to scratch them if you’re not careful). The second book is a nice, full color hardcover that details Brooks’ life and filmography. It’s a really nice tough and a great way to compliment a pretty massive array of digital supplements.
The Final Word:
You can probably overlook the omission of Like Stinks and Dracula: Dead And Loving It, even if it’d have been nice to see them here, but the fact that The Producers is missing from this set is a pretty big strike against it. That said, despite some minor gripes with the audio, this is otherwise an excellent collection of most, though not all, of Brooks’ best work presented with strong transfers and a good selection of supplemental material. It’s not a perfect set, but it’s certainly a very good one.