Mel Brooks-uary – Part One: The Producers and The Twelve Chairs

For Christmas, my wife Marisa gave me The Mel Brooks Collection on BluRay, which contains nine of his films. Mel Brooks has always been one of my favorite comedic filmmakers, so to take advantage of the gift, we are engaging in Mel Brooks-uary: an attempt to watch every Mel Brooks film during the month of February. This is our chronicle.

The Producers
The producers
I’m sure it has something to do with which studio has the rights to the film, but The Mel Brooks Collection does not include The Producers, which is obviously a Mel Brooks must-see. Fortunately, it’s available to stream through Netflix, so we went for it. If you haven’t seen it (and how could that be possible?), the movie is about a Broadway producer and his accountant, who attempt to put on the worst show possible, in a scam to steal investors’ money.
I’ve seen The Producers probably about ten times, so it was surprising to me that I still laugh throughout. It’s a testament to Mel Brooks that the film is still provocative, even though it’s 40 years old. There are so many dark elements in play for a relatively light movie. I mean, the whole Nazi thing, obviously, is pretty tough to turn into comedy (unless you’re Mel Brooks). Plus, the idea that Zero Mostel’s character raises money by banging old ladies who are about to die could be really nasty in the wrong hands, but Brooks pulls it off in a way that makes it almost kind of sweet.

I also think it’s amazing that Brooks did most of the music for his earlier movies. “Springtime for Hitler” makes me laugh every time I hear it.

The old-fashioned film techniques still stand out to me when I see it. With its odd zooms and pans, its stage-iness, and its sort of hammy “look into the camera and mug” shots, it’s definitely of its time. I also noticed how grating the film can be at times, especially when Gene Wilder starts screaming. But those are minor distractions from an enjoyable movie.

For Christmas I decided to get Nick a Mel Brooks BluRay collection, nine movies in all. I generally don’t like Mel Brooks and in giving Nick this gift I knew I would be watching all of these movies again so you know it’s true love. I’m looking forward to watching The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. I’m least looking forward to Space Balls (insert collective boos) and History of the World Part 1.

I was looking forward to watching The Producers most because it seems the most approachable to me. I know that I have watched it before but I’m more familiar with the Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick version and I was surprised how faithfully the newer version followed the original and how well both movies stand up. I liked much of this movie. I really enjoyed all the little old ladies. They reminded me of a conversation I recently had with my 87 year-old-grandmother. She made a joke about the last time she was in Las Vegas looking for a hot young guy to spend the weekend with; the old ladies remind me of her. Also, how great is Springtime for Hitler? I’ve been singing it since I watched it.

A few things I didn’t care for it the movie was 1) the mugging for the camera – those shots where one of the characters turns and makes an aside to the camera that the other characters don’t hear – not into that, and 2) Gene Wilder’s hysteria got a bit old. However, watching him really made me want to re-watch Willy Wonka.

The Twelve Chairs
the twelve chairs movie posterMel Brooks’s second film, The Twelve Chairs, takes place after the Russian Revolution. On her deathbed, a former noble confesses to her son-in-law and a priest that she hid her jewels in one of twelve dining chairs before the revolution. The priest breaks his vows to track them down, and the son also leaves home to find the chairs. Along the way, he’s blackmailed by a grifter, who forces him to team up as they cross the Russian countryside in search of the jewels.

This was the one Mel Brooks film I had never seen, so I was pretty anxious to give it a try. I can see now why it’s considered minor Brooks. Like The Producers, the movie suffers from its stage-iness. I read that the star, Frank Langella, had come directly from theater, and you can tell. He has that “thespian” voice, never speaking like a normal person. It’s also distracting that some of the characters speak in Russian accents, but our main character does not.

The main problem with the film is tone. The Twelve Chairs the closest that Brooks has ever come to making a drama, which, to me, makes its lack of subtlety less forgivable. I think that there were a number of themes running through the film that would make for an interesting story: the transition from Russia to the USSR, and the desperation of former nobles and peasants to gain security in the new country. But I think that the movie is too broad to really hit the emotional notes needed to tell those stories.

I’m not totally sure what to think of this movie. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a comedy or a drama – a dramedy? The movie never really struck the right tone for me; I felt like something was missing. Also, there were some plot points I didn’t like. Like, why didn’t the main character just go home at the end? He had some sort of government job. Couldn’t he pull some strings and head back to his home or, I don’t know, call his wife? And I got a little sick of following the Father around and all the chases scenes being in that Benny Hill fast-forward style.

As a final note, did anyone notice that the dude from The Producers that played the Director’s Assistant made an appearance in this movie too? I thought that he was just wearing make-up in The Producers but clearly this guy just looks like a human cat.

Up next: Blazing Saddles