Forty years ago, Mel Brooks made piles of money for 20th Century Fox, starting with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, mammoth hit comedies that bookended a single year, 1974. If you weren't around at the height of his fame, think of him as the Weird Al of late 20th-century film parody, or Monty Python's coarser Catskills cousin. Hollywood has honoured him with a Mel Brooks Boulevard and now the 88-year-old director is the subject of a month-long retrospective at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox.
The stock in trade of legendary early Brooks is the highly referential – and affectionately irreverent – Hollywood genre parody, which teeters dangerously between homage, send up and hot sketch-comedy mess. Cinematic billets doo-doo, if you will.
Sure, these broad, jokey movies-about-movies appeal to cinephiles looking for laffs while they ratify their own cleverness, but for me the most compelling reason to watch any Brooks of the 1970s is the dames: Cloris Leachman, Bernadette Peters, Teri Garr and the late, great Madeline Kahn. They're always outnumbered (often 10 to one – were this one of his movies, Brooks would here insert a lightly vulgar joke – get it? insert!) but their performances transcend the many dick, poop and boob jokes they deliver, unflinching and unwinking. Unlike the guys from Brooks' stock company aping it up around them, the women are seriously committed and never play the comedy for laughs.
Blazing Saddles is a comic western that offers social commentary amid the yuk-yuks by, among other things, liberally brandishing the loaded-gun n-word. It isn't exactly Django Unchained meets A Million Ways to Die in the West, but without it, there would be no South Park Terrance and Philip movie, because Blazing Saddles is notable as the first film to feature audible farting – all those refried beans! For the cowboy campfire scene, Foley artists reportedly soaped up and made the armpit move familiar to 11-year-olds everywhere.
The catch is that most 11-year-olds haven't seen Randolph Scott westerns – or Alfred Hitchcock, let alone silent movies or Cecil B. DeMille epics. Only aficionados of the genre will recognize Kahn's Lili Von Shtupp, vamping it as a saloon dame composite of Marlene Dietrich in The Flame of New Orleans and Seven Sinners with a German-accent speech impediment.
What kids and adults alike do recognize, however, is the Brooks way with borscht-belt humour – its sexual innuendo, clichés, telegraphed yuks and madly winking double entendres.
In a 1978 New Yorker profile of Brooks, critic Kenneth Tynan suggested that "it would be fair to call Young Frankenstein the Mel Brooks movie that appeals to people who don't like Mel Brooks." For this film, Brooks and co-writer/star Gene Wilder took on James Whale's 1931 version of Mary Shelley's horror classic (and Whale's superior sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein). After opening credits in German blackletter, evoking all the post 1930s monster thrillers from Universal Studios (including Whale's), they add in elements of classic screwball comedy – the romantic triangle wherein the engaged couple at the start of the film isn't the same as the pair at the end.
Wilder plays Victor, the earnest scientist grandson of Baron Frankenstein, who is at pains to distance himself from his infamous ancestor (he pronounces his surname "Frankensteen"), while his high-maintenance fiancée (played by Kahn) is a nymphomaniac waiting to be awakened. Amid Brooks' malapropisms, misdirection, puns and pratfalls,Kahn always portrays a variation of this sexually frustrated (and eventually, fulfilled) neurotic. In 1981's History of the World Part I, she does so as a combination of Norma Shearer and Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, with a gum-snapping Brooklyn accent borrowed from Judy Holliday. In Young Frankenstein, as she air kisses her lover goodbye, she chortles and chokes on the fumes of the steam train, on cue.
Wilder's Transylvanian wench-assistant Inga is played by Teri Garr, who proves another excellent dumb deadpan and enthusiastically physical comedian(talent from her days as a backup dancer in Elvis movies, and as the daughter of a vaudevillian and a former Rockette). Cloris Leachman – in the first of many Brooks movie fright wigs – is Frau Blucher, a cigar-smoking, violin-playing heavy who offers the scientist warm milk, Ovaltine and more lascivious stuff.
Brooks's High Anxiety opened on Christmas Day, 1977, and is an homage to Hitchcock in which Brooks gets to play the put-upon hero. The farce's references are dizzying, and include the falling-man vortex pattern of graphic designer Saul Bass's original poster for Vertigo.
Set in a mental institution (the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous), Brooks offers a a mash-up of Torn Curtain, The Ring, Spellbound, Vertigo and Rebecca – and more. But it is Leachman and her evil mastermind Nurse Diesel who steals the picture, even from Kahn's stereotypically cool-but-hysterical Hitchcock blonde. "He wanted to change the drapes in the Psychotic Game Room," Diesel deadpans from beneath lacquered braids, the shadow of a downy mustache and jutting bosoms. Brooks adds references of his own: She is Nurse Ratched by day and dominatrix by night (in a peaked Nazi cap that recalls Charlotte Rampling's Night Porter garb).
Unfortunately, as the years progressed, Brooks didn't so much regress as repeat himself – same shtick, different genre (let us not even speak of his 1990s oeuvre, limping along to Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the world's least necessary parody) and, like the monster Frankenstein, the gags are barely stitched together.
On the eve of its 40th anniversary, however, Young Frankenstein endures. At the end of the film, played to the genre right down to the expressionistic cinematography, a frisky, self-consciously flirtatious Kahn sashays across the boudoir to where her monster (Peter Boyle) lounges in bifocals and leopard-print silk pyjamas. She snorts, vamps and kicks off her marabou-tufted bedroom slippers. Every growl and guttural gurgle seems somehow elegant – an egg cream served in a champagne coupe.
Mel Brooks: It's Good to be the King screens nine of his movies at TIFF Bell Lightbox from Nov. 15 to Dec. 20.