It's good to be the king, and for years, Mel Brooks has been one of the kings of the moving picture. Though he hasn't directed that many films, 11 in total, his influence on the field of comedy has been immense. Just in time for Christmas, but oddly halfway through Hannukah, eight Brooks-directed films and one Brooks-starrer are hitting Blu-ray in a single set.
The Mel Brooks Collection features The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Silent Movie, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, History of the World: Part One, and To Be or Not To Be (1983, this last is the non-Brooks directed movie). It also, as one might surmise, features some of the funniest filmic moments of the past 40 years. Though he has perhaps not won as many awards as others, via his films Mel Brooks has created some of the most memorable characters to grace the silver screen as well as innumerable classic film moments. Two of the best known films in this set, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both appear in the top 15 of AFI's list of the 100 funniest movies (and 1968's The Producers, not included in this set is also in the top 15).
With a set like this, however, everyone will have their own personal favorite film. Some will say that Blazing Saddles, and its lampooning of racism and Westerns is the funniest of the pieces. The film stars Cleavon Little as the new – and black – sheriff as well as Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, and Brooks himself. The film is full of incredibly memorable scenes like Mongo's punching a horse. There is, perhaps, a minimal amount of plot to the film, but it still manages to be an almost continuous series of laughs.
Others will prefer the other Wilder film in the set, Young Frankenstein. Filmed in black and white, it manages to lampoon more than one Frankenstein film and the Universal monster movies in general. From beginning to end, the film is a perfect send-up, and completely hysterical.
When Brooks' films are at their best, as one may have already surmised, they do more than just make cheap jokes, they make cheap jokes and beautifully mimic – or perhaps mock – both history and styles of filmmaking. A film like Silent Movie, with the exception of one word of a dialogue is, actually, a silent movie. And, the one word in Silent Movie is uttered by Marcel Marceau. The idea of making a big budget silent film in the last quarter of the 20th Century (or the beginning of the 21st) may seem like the sort of thing that Hollywood would never accept, and yet not only did Brooks make an hysterical film, he got Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, and James Caan to do cameos.
This reviewer's personal favorite of the included films is High Anxiety in which Brooks plays off of one famous Hitchcock moment after another. The film also manages to create a plausible Hitchock MacGuffin of a story on which to hang the jokes. History of the World – Part One, with its Spanish Inquisition song ranks a close second.
Certainly less good – but far from bad – are Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The films both feature big stars in the cast and several laugh-out-loud moments, but still feel more one-note than the other films.
Outside of Brooks and some of the other stars he used over and over again (Harvey Korman & Dom DeLuise to name two) appearing in more than one film, another commonality is the inclusion of a musical number. Even when the screenplays are not the greatest, like in Robin Hood, the musical numbers and through them Brooks' talent shines through. It is impossible to watch the Spanish Inquisition song in History of the World and not laugh.
The technical aspects of the release are a mixed bag. Some of the films have been previously available on Blu-ray, and these films tend to look far less good than the others. Particularly disappointing is what many will consider the funniest of the films, Blazing Saddles. Within certain scenes in the film the coloring and clarity of the differing shots don't match, and the differing looks within a single scene is hugely disconcerting. None of the films look great, dirt and scratches appear in the majority of the older films, but it is only Blazing Saddles which one will feel should have gotten better treatment. In terms of audio, each films contains a DTS-HD Master Audio track. These tracks are free from defect and sound particularly good when music plays. , but older comedies are not the best place to show off your entertainment system to begin with.
The on-disc extras that accompany the set are not terribly special. There are commentary tracks on Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, & Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The majority of the films – though not Twelve Chairs – contain some sort of behind-the-scenes documentary/discussion. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein both contain deleted scenes, and Saddles also has the TV pilot for Black Bart, a spin-off of the film. Trivia tracks can also be found on Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History of the Word – Part One, and To Be or Not to Be.
The highlight of the set in terms of extras is the nearly 120-page hardcover book that accompanies it. Part biography, part filmography, the book is wholly engrossing It is not all-encompassing book, but the tour it gives of Mel's life and work and the stills that accompany it is something no fan of Brooks or comedy will be able to put down.
If you happen to still be looking for that perfect holiday gift for someone who loves comedy, look no further than the Mel Brooks Collection. It is a little disappointing that The Producers is not included, but even without that film, the set is a great one.