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Blu-ray Review: The Mel Brooks Collection

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Funnyman Mel Brooks is a comedy juggernaut, evidenced by his rare feat of winning an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy, and by his slate of uproarious farces and parodies that were at their strongest in the ’70s, but continued into the next two decades. Making a comedy isn’t easy, and The Mel Brooks Collection, which collects eight Brooks-directed films and one that he starred in on Blu-ray, is a clear testament to that fact. Among the inspired musical numbers and delightfully silly bits, there are plenty of jokes that just don’t work, but rather than diminish Brooks’ reputation, it just goes to show that when he hit the mark, he really hit the mark.

Packaged in an 11×8 inch rectangular case that’s sure to wreak havoc on your media shelf, The Mel Brooks Collection includes a nicely detailed 120-page hardcover book about Brooks and his films along with a fairly flimsy cardboard book that holds the discs. The discs are held in cutout slots, but slide out easily — this set shouldn’t be prone to problems of scratched discs that similar packaging has had in the past.

Unfortunately, Brooks’ first film — and one of his best — The Producers, is not included, but there are plenty of other Brooks hits, most of which are being presented in high definition for the first time.

The Twelve Chairs (1970)

Brooks’ follow-up to The Producers, The Twelve Chairs is a gentle comedy about a Russian man (Ron Moody) who discovers his family jewels were hidden in a chair from a set of twelve. He embarks on a mission to find the jewels with a con artist (Frank Langella), and the two find themselves in competition with a priest (Dom DeLuise) who also knows about the secret.

The Twelve Chairs doesn’t bear much resemblance to Brooks’ later work. It’s slapstick-y, but devoid of much of the winningly lowbrow humor that Brooks employed in later films. Based on a Russian novel, The Twelve Chairs is an early sign of Brooks adapting existing works for his own comedic purposes, but it’s hardly as memorable as some of his later films.

The film is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. While clarity and color remain decently consistent for a film of this age, there are plenty of instances of damage to the print that distract from the high def upgrade. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is essentially pointless here with little but front channel sound. Music is also much louder than dialogue in many cases.

Trailers are the only extras to be found here.

Blazing Saddles (1974) (Previously available)

Part one of the one-two punch that was the films of Brooks in 1974, Blazing Saddles skewers the western and racial prejudice with equally precise aim. Cleavon Little stars as the black sheriff of a small town who was only given his job by a corrupt bureaucrat (Harvey Korman) to try to drive out the residents so a railroad can be put in place. Gene Wilder also appears as a former sharpshooter who’s lost his way.

Brooks’ undercutting of western conventions is on the money (as usual, it’s a musical number that gets it just right), but it’s the fearless mockery of racism that makes this film truly remarkable.

Blazing Saddles is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. This is the same Blu-ray that was released in 2006. It sports a beautiful color spectrum with consistency and clarity throughout the film. There’s a nice filmic grain to the picture, making this a faithful visual representation. The Dolby 5.1 audio presentation is certainly adequate, but not terribly impressive.

Extras include a Brooks commentary track, a making-of, deleted scenes, a featurette on Madeline Kahn and the pilot episode of the spin-off TV series that never materialized.

Young Frankenstein (1974) (Previously available)

The second part of that one-two punch, Young Frankenstein is Brooks at his most consistent and hilarious, and it’s his best shot film as well. Spoofing the Frankenstein story, the film stars Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson. When he inherits his grandfather’s castle, he goes there to conduct similar experiments with the help of assistant Igor (Marty Feldman). Wilder is at his best here, but Peter Boyle nearly steals the show as the singing and dancing monster.

The black and white cinematography that mimics the original Frankenstein films is superb, and nearly every joke hits the mark. This will always be Brooks’ crowning achievement in film.

Young Frankenstein is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is the same Blu-ray as the one released in 2008. Sharp contrast black and white films can look great in high def, and this is no exception, despite the slight lack of sharpness to be found in the print. Contrast levels are fantastic, with deep blacks and mid-level grays standing out from whites perfectly. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix carries more weight than the previous films, with a nice sense of ambience throughout.

Extras include a Brooks commentary track, making-of featurettes that can be viewed picture-in-picture with the film or separately, deleted scenes, outtakes and a host of interviews and photos.

Silent Movie (1976)

Silent Movie is an experiment that seems like it’s failing initially, but grows on you as the film progresses. In the kind of meta-movie situation that Brooks loves, a failed director (Brooks) is trying to get a silent movie made with his two friends (Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise), and Brooks presents it as a silent film — with a single word of dialogue.

There are a lot of gags with no punchlines that just kind of meander along, but there are a number of inspired moments too, like a motorized wheelchair race against Paul Newman. Other celebrity cameos include Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli and Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft. Though the setup sounds improbable, Brooks mostly makes it work, and this is an underrated entry from the man.

The film is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and it’s an excellent visual presentation with rich colors and excellent sharpness. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix is obviously a bit of a waste here with no dialogue and no ambient sound at all. The score and included sound effects are perfectly clear though.

Extras include a making-of, a trivia track and trailers.

High Anxiety (1977)

An affectionate Hitchcock spoof, High Anxiety is quite enjoyable even if its parodies of classic Hitchcock scenes leave something to be desired. Brooks stars as Richard Thorndyke, a doctor who’s taking over a medical institution run by people who are even crazier than the ones in it. Cloris Leachman is disturbingly hilarious as the menacing Nurse Diesel (Brooks rarely sticks to parodying one film or genre, as seen here with this One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest reference) and Harvey Korman is equally funny as the whipped Dr. Charles Montague.

Close to a dozen of Hitch’s films are spoofed, most notably, The Birds, Psycho and Vertigo, which the title ailment is based on. There’s some clever camerawork here (a scene shot underneath a glass table is great) and a few nice gags, but High Anxiety runs out of steam before it’s over.

The film is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There’s more noticeable film defects here, but for the most part, this is an adequate Blu-ray presentation that occasionally looks fantastic, as in a scene beneath the Golden Gate Bridge that mimics one from Vertigo. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is front channel-heavy like most films of the era that primarily feature dialogue.

Extras include a making-of, a trivia track, a quiz and trailers.

History of the World Part I (1981)

A bloated affair, even at just over 90 minutes, History of the World is hit-and-miss Brooks, but mostly miss. Tracing the history of humankind from the days of cavemen through the French Revolution, the film spends most of its time dealing with the Roman Empire.

The episodic nature of the plot prevents any real comic continuity, and most of the jokes (especially in the Roman Empire sequence) pale in comparison to Monty Python fare that was skewering similar ideas. Gregory Hines does make a great impression in his film debut and Brooks is funny as King Louis XVI (one of his many parts), but pretty much every bit falls flat save for the superb Spanish Inquisition musical number that’s enough to prove that Brooks should’ve done more outright musicals.

The film is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This is the best-looking visual presentation in the set, with a lavish big-budget look that features strong colors and excellent clarity and sharpness. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is similarly excellent, with immersive ambient sound and sharp musical cues.

Extras include a making-of, a featurette on the musical number, a trivia track and trailers.

To Be or Not to Be (1983)

It’s debatable that this one should be included in the set, as it’s not directed by Brooks, but instead, Alan Johnson. Still, Brooks is a producer and starred in the film with wife Anne Bancroft, so it’s not too out of place.

A remake of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch film about an actor whose career is intruded upon by WWII, this version seems like a fairly unnecessary remake, although Brooks fans will no doubt appreciate it for its slightly different side of Brooks as an actor. The slapstick humor is only marginally funny, but it’s generally a treat to see Brooks and Bancroft together.

To Be or Not to Be is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The visual presentation is definitely lacking sharpness, but it’s not clear whether that’s a result of the print or the Blu-ray. Colors look consistent, but the lack of clarity in the image can be distracting. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio makes good use of the music in the film and is an adequate mix.

Extras include a making-of, a trivia track, several interviews and trailers.

Spaceballs (1987) (Previously available)

Spaceballs was the Brooks movie I grew up on, and I still have a lot of admiration for this Star Wars/sci-fi parody, even if a number of the jokes have grown fairly stale over the years. The excellent cast that includes John Candy, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman and Brooks in dual roles ham it up for the entire 90 minutes, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves and it’s hard not to do the same.

Spaceballs would be the last respectable film that Brooks made — the ’90s brought a trio of stinkers — but it’s one of his most quotable, and probably the one I will watch the most in the future.

The film is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is the same Blu-ray that was released individually earlier this year. A significant upgrade from the DVD, the visual presentation presents Spaceballs like it’s never been seen with sharp colors and excellent clarity. Even the cheesy visual effects look great. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is the best audio mix of the set, with a solid amount of bass and good ambient noise amidst crystal clear dialogue.

Extras include a Brooks commentary track, a making-of, storyboards, outtakes, a tribute to Candy, photos and trailers.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

I know a few people who swear by this film, but it pales in comparison to any Brooks film before it. Every joke falls flat on its face and feels like it requires the shuddering wah-wah-wah sound effect to follow. Cary Elwes doesn’t bring much to the table as a comedic leading man, and even Dave Chappelle has a hard time being funny with this exceedingly lame script.

While Robin Hood: Men in Tights probably makes the most sense of any ’90s entry from Brooks to appear in the set (Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead and Loving It are hardly comedic masterpieces, either), it’s at the bottom of the barrel of this set.

The film is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It’s definitely an improvement over the DVD presentation, but the image remains fairly soft in parts. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio fares better, with a nice sense of ambience.

Extras include a Brooks commentary track, a making-of, interviews and trailers.

The Bottom Line

The Mel Brooks Collection is a treasure trove of comedy, even if there’s plenty of inconsistency to be found in most of the films. The high def upgrades make this an easy choice for Brooks fans.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    very good write-up. I wish more people were as thorough.

  • Dusty Somers

    Thanks, Gordon.

  • zingzing

    history of the world is amazingly funny. i will always defend it. maybe it helps that i found it as a freshman in high school, but there’s just something about that i love so much. every bit has something to offer, and it’s just so quotable… “look, the faggot gets it,” “and that’s the ethiopian a-shim-sham,” “france. FRAHNCE,” “rolling papyrus,” “it’s good to be the king,” “no-no-no-no-no-no-YES-no-no-no-no-no-no-YES-no-no-no-no,” “they were playing ping-pong with my balls,” “de monet, de monet,” etc, etc.

    i love it. his last truly great movie, i say, but the first one i saw, so it will always have a special place in my heart. i watched it recently with a friend of mine whom i will gently label a film nazi and he loved it as well. he’d only seen brooks’ later, more parody-driven stuff, and he enjoyed it immensely. it’s just too good to deny.

  • http://www.doblu.com Matt Paprocki

    Good job Dusty. This is how all box sets should be reviewed, with each movie individually given focus.