The Mel Brooks Collection

(2009) *** 1/2 R
969 min. 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers. Director: Mel Brooks. Cast: Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Dave Chappelle, Marty Feldman, Cleavon Little.

/content/films/3657/1.jpgLet's begin at the beginning: Mel Brooks is a showbiz legend. He cut his teeth doing standup in the Catskills, and broke into the big-time in Sid Caesar's writers' room. Once, when a frustrated Brooks told Caesar, "I've got to get out of here," Caesar held him out of an eighteen-story window. "How far you want to go out?" Caesar asked. "You out far enough now? You want to go out a little further?" Brooks did want to go far out: soon, he was taking Hollywood by storm as a writer and director of his own films, ones that danced dangerously on the edge. His production company Brooksfilms not only fostered a series of Brooks comedies, but also daringly took Brooks the producer into dramatic territory with films like The Elephant Man.

Fox's deluxe new Blu-ray set The Mel Brooks Collection gathers nine of the comedy icon's best-known comedy films, an impressive haul by any standard. Though the gay jokes are a bit musty, the films otherwise hold up well. They're distinguished by their high concepts, verbal and visual humor (well-honed during those days under Caesar), daringly outré profanity and scatology, and a core of brilliant performers: Brooks himself, Dom DeLuise (six films), Madeline Kahn (four films), Harvey Korman (three films), Cloris Leachman (three films), Gene Wilder (two films), Marty Feldman (two films), Sid Caesar (two films), Howard Morris (two films), Anne Bancroft (three films), Cleavon Little (one film), Gregory Hines (one film) and Dave Chappelle (one film).

The Twelve Chairs (1970): One of the lesser-known films in Brooks' catalog, The Twelve Chairs is a rare duck indeed: a cynical delight. With its Old World feel and Russian Jewish sociopolitical satire, The Twelve Chairs is certainly distinctive, and it features what may be Dom DeLuise's most hilarious screen performance. In 1927 Russia, Ron Moody plays a deposed aristocrat living quietly after the Revolution. On the death of his mother-in-law, he learns of a treasure sewn into the cushion of one chair from a now-scattered dining room set. The revelation sets off a chase involving a smooth con artist (Frank Langella) and a greed-crazed priest (DeLuise). The writer-director puts in a very funny appearance as Moody's former servant, and the film features a Brooks song that takes a close second to "Springtime for Hitler": the classic "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst."

Blazing Saddles (1974): Brooks' foray into the Western genre is a deathless comedy classic full of unforgettable performances and scenes. In 1874, State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) hatches a land-grab scheme to drive out townspeople, first by thuggery and then by coercing Governor William J. LePetomane (Mel Brooks) to appoint a black sheriff (Cleavon Little). Gene Wilder plays the alcohol-soaked "Waco Kid," Madeline Kahn the Siren songstress Lili von Shtupp, and Alex Karras the cartoon strongman Mongo. The hilarious finale takes the story from a Looney Tune to a Monty Python sketch. Though remembered most for its infamous campfire scene, Blazing Saddles remains a delirious satirical stab against racism and corporate greed.

Young Frankenstein (1974): See my complete Blu-ray review here.

Silent Movie (1976): In the process of honoring his comedic forebears, Brooks mercilessly satirizes the film business in Silent Movie. Other than the music of Brooks' regular composer John Morris, Silent Movie features only one syllable of audible dialogue. The rest is conveyed in title cards and mime. Since the idea is exactly the sort of thing Sid Caesar did on Your Show of Shows, it's apt that Caesar should take a major role here. He plays the beleaguered studio chief in desperate need of a hit, lest corporation Engulf & Devour ("Our Fingers Are in Everything") take over the studio (as Gulf & Western devoured Paramount at the time). Brooks, DeLuise, and Marty Feldman play the filmmaking trio who set out to enlist big Hollywood stars (Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, etc.) for a modern-day silent movie.

High Anxiety (1977): Now well-established as a parody artist, Brooks moved on to his love of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock (who Brooks had by this point befriended). High Anxiety is an endlessly clever mash-up of—in particular—Vertigo and Spellbound, but there are gags playing off of Psycho, The Birds and several others. Brooks plays a psychiatrist with "high anxiety" whose new position at The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous puts him into serious danger. This underrated Brooks entry features very funny performances from many of Brooks' regulars: Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman (as the mealy-mouthed S&M artist Nurse Diesel), Harvey Korman, Howard Morris (as Professor Lilloman, writer Rudy De Luca (as baddie Braces), Dick Van Patten, and even writer (and later director) Barry Levinson as an extremely frustrated bellhop. Plus you get Brooks doing his Frank Sinatra while singing the title tune to Kahn.

History of the World - Part I (1981): Another brilliant idea inspired by Brooks' sketch-comedy past came to fruition with History of the World - Part I, one of Brooks' most gleefully profane and scatological films. Hiccuping through history, Brooks takes on the cavemen days (with Sid Caesar), The Old Testament (for a quick but memorable blackout gag), Ancient Rome (with Gregory Hines, Kahn, DeLuise, and Bea Arthur), the French Revolution (with Korman, Leachman, and Spike Milligan), and The Spanish Inquisition, a segment featuring the audacious and irreverent blowout musical number "The Inquisition." Orson Welles provides the amusingly stentorian narration. This film is also the source of what would come to be a career catchphrase for Brooks, who plays five roles in the film: "It's good to be the king."

To Be or Not to Be (1983): Though Brooks did not write or direct the next film in the set, To Be or Not To Be, it is in all other respects very much a Brooks film. Literally, it is a Brooksfilm (produced by Brooks), it stars Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft (as well as familiar faces from Brooks' repertory company, like Ronny Graham and Jack Riley), and the screenwriters are Brooks regulars Graham and Thomas Meehan. Brooks contributes two songs co-written with Graham ("Ladies" and "A Little Peace") and sings a third, with his wife, in Polish ("Sweet Georgia Brown"). Directed by Alan Johnson, the film is a remake of the 1942 film starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Yes, it's an unnecessary remake, but a solid one all the same, and it gives Brooks the opportunity to do (and do well) traditional farce in the company of an interesting supporting cast: Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd, and José Ferrer.

Spaceballs (1987): See my complete Blu-ray review here.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993): Last up in the set is Brooks' penultimate parody film, harkening back to the Brooks TV series When Things Were Rotten. Both the series and the film retell the Robin Hood legend from a comedic perspective, though the film closely hews to parodying the 1991 Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Though Men in Tights isn't up to the standards of Brooks' heyday, I have a soft spot for its scattershot humor, and the cast is an impressive assemblage: Cary Elwes (as Robin), Amy Yasbeck, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Ullman, Dom DeLuise, Isaac Hayes, and a familiar face in a film-ending cameo spoofing Sean Connery's film-ending cameo in the Costner film.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1, 2.40:1, 2.35:1

Number of discs: 9

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 12/15/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Mel Brooks fans have probably purchased these films at least once before, but the new Blu-ray set The Mel Brooks Collection is well-worth the upgrade. It collects three films already released on Blu-ray (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs) with all of the previously available extras, the debut of six more Brooks films on Blu (The Twelve Chairs, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History of the World - Part I, To Be or Not to Be, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights) along with brand-new bonus features, and a beautiful 120-page hardcover book celebrating Brooks' life and career.

A/V quality is outstanding. Aside from some noticeable telecine wobble on High Anxiety, these transfers quite spectacularly reproduce the film's original theatrical appearances. Color is accurate and at times strikingly vibrant (the reds of High Anxiety and Silent Movie, for instance, leap off the screen); detail, contrast and black levels are excellent, and film grain is mild and natural. The soundtracks are primarily rendered in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes—many of them with optional isolated scores; these lossless presentations likewise present the films at their best advantage. Blazing Saddles' original monoaural soundtrack gets upgraded to a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix for a bit more body.

Bonus features are generally impressive across the board. It's a shame that The Twelve Chairs doesn't get a commentary or a featurette, especially since recent sitdowns were done with Brooks and DeLuise; that disc includes only a suite of Brooks trailers. Blazing Saddles replicates the features found on the WB standalone disc.  In "Back in the Saddle" (28:21, SD), Brooks, writer Andrew Bergman, producer Michael Hertzberg, and some cast members recall the film. "Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn" (3:40, SD) is an all-too-brief excerpt of the Lifetime special. Also included are the 1975 Pilot Episode of the Proposed TV Series Spin-off Black Bart (24:26, SD), "Deleted Scenes" (9:41, SD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:14, SD).

For details on the Young Frankenstein bonus features, see my complete Blu-ray review here.

Silent Movie features the brand-new retrospective "Silent Laughter: The Reel Inspirations of Silent Movie" (24:45, HD) with Brooks, composer John Morris, writer Ron Clark, Dom DeLuise, producer Alan Spencer, Buster Keaton Remembered co-author Jeffrey Vance, Chuck McCann, Jack Riley, Harold Gould, director/choreographer Susan Stroman, actor James Karen, Carol Arthur, and writer/actor Rudy De Luca; Speak Up! Historical Hollywood Trivia Track; "Theatrical Trailer" (1:55, HD), "Portuguese Trailer" (1:37, SD) and "Spanish Trailer" (1:37, SD).

High Anxiety also gets new bonus features: "Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master of Suspense" (29:20, HD) is a surprisingly in-depth retrospective detailing Mel's relationship with Hitch and featuring interviews with Brooks, Dick Van Patten, Cloris Leachman, Hitchcock's granddaughter Mary Stone, Hitchcock's Notebooks author Dan Auiler, De Luca, Brooks assistant/producer Stuart Cornfeld, Riley, Clark, DeLuise, producer Alan Spencer, film historian/actor Tony Maietta, actor David DeLuise, and production designer Peter Wooley; the "Am I Very, Very Nervous?" Test (a playback comedic quiz option); Don't Get Anxious! The Trivia of Hitchcock; Isolated Score Track; and the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:41, HD).

History of the World - Part I offers two more new featurettes: "Musical Mel: Inventing 'The Inquisition'" (10:40, HD) with Brooks, composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman, Stroman, Morris, director/choreographer Alan Johnson, Spencer, De Luca, Cornfeld, and DeLuise, and "Making History: Mel Brooks on Creating the World" (10:04, HD) with Brooks, Spencer and Cornfeld. Also on this disc are The Real History of the World Trivia Track, Isolated Score Track, and the "Theatrical Trailer" (3:04, HD).

To Be or Not to Be's brand-new features include "Brooks and Bancroft: A Perfect Pair" (14:49, HD) with Brooks, Riley, Dom DeLuise, Teri Garr, Leachman, Tim Matheson, Dick Van Patten, writer Thomas Meehan, Wooley, Johnson, McCann, Cornfeld, David DeLuise, Shaiman, and De Luca; the vintage EPK "How Serious Can Mel Brooks Really Get?" (2:46, SD), including interview clips with Brooks; a section of Profiles also derived from the film's EPK: "Mel Brooks" (2:39, SD), "Anne Bancroft" (2:03, SD) and "Charles Durning" (2:33, SD); To Be or Not To Be: That Is the Trivia! track; Isolated Score Track; the "Theatrical Trailer" (3:20, HD) and the "Portuguese Trailer" (3:24, SD).

For details on the Spaceballs bonus features, see my complete Blu-ray review here.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights includes the new retrospective "Funny Men in Tights: Three Generations of Comedy" (13:48, HD) with Brooks, Dom DeLuise, Van Patten, Spencer, writer J.D. Shapiro, Megan Cavanagh, David DeLuise, Tracy Ullman (vintage), Dave Chappelle (vintage), and McCann, and warms up some previously available extras: the old LaserDisc commentary by Brooks; the HBO special "Robin Hood: Men in Tights - The Legend Had It Coming" (26:14, SD) with Brooks, Cary Elwes, Roger Rees, Richard Lewis, Amy Yasbeck, Mark Blankfield, Cavanagh, Dom DeLuise, Ullman, sword & fight coordinator Victor Paul, Eric Allan Kramer, stuntman Troy Gilbert, Isaac Hayes, and Patrick Stewart; and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:13, HD).

The 119-page hardcover book about Brooks' life and career is a large and lovely bonus adding significant value to the set, though its unusual shape will pose a challenge to collectors (it does at least match the shape of the Planet of the Apes set from Fox—presumably collectors will eventually have a shelf-worth of these). Less impressive is the flimsy book holding the discs in cardboard sleeves. Though the discs—if handled with care—can take it, the pages have already fallen apart on me—time for some rubber cement.

All in all, this is a wonderful gift to Brooks fans—now only The Producers, Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead and Loving It remain to make it to Blu-ray.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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