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Mel Brooks: Make A Noise (DVD Review)

20 May, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Street 5/21/13
Shout! Factory/PBS
$19.97 DVD
Not rated.

The late Anne Bancroft, speaking here of what initially may have seemed like an unlikely bet for a long and happy marriage, notes she always liked hearing the sound of the key in the front door because that meant the party was about to begin. That was Mel Brooks, of course, walking into their hallway or corridor, and yes: There has always been a party aspect to the former Melvin Kaminsky’s work as well, even when the result ended up being a Mel-miss instead of a hit. Of course, when you sweep the Tonys (with The Producers) at an age when many creative types are well into their emeritus stage, you can make up for a lot of misses.

Brooks, soon to be 87, is not only with us but spry, at least in this sassy contribution to the “American Masters” catalog. It presents the subject himself sitting in a mostly empty soundstage with a handful of monitors (limo just outside) to talk about a career that included writing for the great Sid Caesar before launching a big-screen career with the original movie version of The Producers, which got Brooks a screenwriting Oscar presented by no less than Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles (a clip excerpted here). He can still deliver a zinger with enough throwaway gusto to get a belly laugh, as when he explains here why shooting 1970’s The Twelve Chairs in the former Yugoslavia wasn’t any fun (“Tito had the car”).

I would have liked a little more on Caesar and Bancroft, but the presentation is clip-heavy in terms of Brooks-directed features, which is probably what everyone involved calculated consumers would most enjoy. Young Frankenstein, of course, is the Brooks film that everyone seems to love; I’m pretty sure that even John Simon, a critic one wouldn’t expect to be in this filmmaker’s corner, lavished praise. Yet baked beans classic aside, Blazing Saddles is to me just too directly on point and obvious — though let it be noted that my feelings for the oft-maligned Spaceballs were so affectionate at the time that USA Today editors went into panic mode when I gave it a four-star review. Brooks says that in the long run, Spaceballs has been his most popular and beloved feature (the home market really put it over), but even a lesser work is likely to have his moments. The hardest I have ever witnessed an entire screening room of critics collapse into laughter (if you don’t count Legends of the Fall’s unintentional guffaws) was the stake-driving scene in Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which was nonetheless indifferently received when it opened.

Those interviewed include the subject’s longtime partner/friend Carl Reiner, from the Caesar and “2000-Year-Old Man” days; Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick from The Producers (musical version), and the great Gene Wilder — say, where in the world has he been? — from the key early films. (Though it’s hard to imagine, Wilder actually replaced, on a dime, Gig Young in Saddles a few years before the latter’s unthinkable murder/suicide, and the anecdote Brooks relates is very sad). Wilder himself notes that his standout Producers shrieking scene with Zero Mostel was filmed in a kind of ambush — the night before (and after a long day) it was scheduled and under a heavy caffeine intake after Brooks made this non-coffee-drinker ingest a huge dose of the stuff. The result was and is something close to performance art, which isn’t a bad way to describe Brooks’s all-or-nothing, go-for-broke approach to comedy and the boundaries of accepted taste. He probably did more than anyone shatter the latter (the documentary is up front about this) and left us where we are the multiplex today, for better or worse.

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