Once upon a time in the golden period of films known as the 1970s, Mel Brooks was, along with Woody Allen, the biggest directing name in comedy. Both had been on the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the '50s (along with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and both brought a distinctly Jewish tone to their slapstick. While Allen represented the Manhattan highbrow, Brooks’s style lurked more in the offensively low end Borscht Belt style. By the '80s, when Allen's status raised to the level of genius, Brooks’s comedy had already become passe and completely juvenile, working in the obvious (Spaceballs, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.). But his early string of comedies, from The Producers through High Anxiety, created a lot of laughs, peaking in 1974 with two comic masterpieces: Young Frankenstein and, maybe even better, the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The western spoof is almost as old as the western itself—you had Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West, The Marx Brothers in Go West, Mae West and W.C. Fields did My Little Chickadee, and Bob Hope had The Paleface and then Son of Paleface, not to mention Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich (which Blazing Saddles actually directly spoofs). The '60s saw an examining of the western most directly through the Italian spaghetti westerns and American western comedies such as Cat Ballou and Support Your Local Sheriff! In the '70s, the reexamining went to the extreme as the western was turned in on itself and poked at by post-modernists with films as broad as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Altman&rs...
Lost In America
Three comic masterpieces in a row is enough to put you on the higher rung of American humorists. The Marx Brothers had that run with Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Mel Brooks had The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (with the less vital The Twelve Chairs mixed in). WC Fields had that amazing trifecta of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen are three more legends whose hot streaks went beyond three. Albert Brooks, an underrated comic genius of recent generations, is the forgotten man. Throughout the '70s he shined as a cutting edge stand-up comic and made groundbreaking short films for that first season of Saturday Night Live. He made his writer/director feature film debut in 1979 with Real Life, a wonderfully uncomfortable comedy that predicted the coming of reality TV. He followed it with Modern Romance, often called Brooks’ Annie Hall, a deadeye take on both Hollywood and love. And then finally maybe his most perfect gem, Lost in America, the most biting satire of Ronald Reagan’s "greed is good" 1980s yuppie culture. (A less sophisticated comic mind like Steve Martin poked fun at the culture with L.A. Story, but was actually embracing the superficiality.)
The first step in embracing an Albert Brooks film is deciding whether or not you can stomach him. The guy plays some of the most neurotic and deeply insecure characters in movie history, and as David Howard in Lost in America, he’s as obnoxious as ever. The movie opens with him laying in bed with his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty, fresh off another comic masterpiece, Airplane!). He can’t sleep; he has second thoughts on the much bigger house they just bought and he’s excited with anticipation for the big promotion he is expecting to get at the advertising agency he has worked at for eight years. He assures her once that promotion comes he will no longer be the uptight husband he can’t help being. Linda is a study in understanding, but the next day she breaks down to a co-worker wondering if she can go on like this. To his shock and disappointment, instead of the promotion, he is transferred to New York. He throws a massive tantrum and is fired. In a sorta melt down, he convinces himself that he has been freed from the rat race and talks Linda into quitting her job too. They make a plan: sell the new house, cash out all their stocks and bonds, leaving them with $180,000 to live on for the rest of their lives (this was considered a lot in 1985), buy a motor home to escape from Los Angeles and travel the country (just like Easy Rider!), and maybe settle in a lighthouse in Connecticut where they can paint and write and no longer have to worry about ambition. Deal! First stop, Las Vegas, for a wedding vowel renewal. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works though. While David sleeps, Linda gambles away their entire fortune in a casino. It’s even more downhill from there as they head East and now must rediscover themselves without the comfort of the nest egg.Continue Reading
Love And Death
I’m not enough of an expert in Russian literature to give Woody Allen’s Love And Death it’s full due, intellectually. I do know there's some Crime And Punishment, some Brothers Karamazov, some War And Peace, and some Chekhov being spoofed. Visually there are references to Allen’s Swedish idol, Ingmar Bergman, with The Seventh Seal and Persona, and as well as some Charlie Chaplin. Allen also borrows healthily from his wisecracking forbearers, The Marx Brothers and Bob Hope.If Woody Allen’s directing career can be broken into three sections - his early slapstick comedies, his middle important films, and his later mostly forgettable busts that he’s been marred in for almost the last 20 years - then Love And Death marks the end of that first period. It would be his final "straight comedy" before making his evolutionary leap with his next film, the masterpiece Annie Hall. Love And Death ended his six-year period of comic experimentation following the hit and miss joke epics Take The Money And Run, Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, and Sleeper. Hard to believe at one time a film critic argued who was the more important comic filmmaker: Allen or Mel Brooks (after making the classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein)? Allen went on to do Annie Hall and Manhattan and about a ten more relevant films while Brooks did Dracula: Dead And Loving It. Woody was always growing, while Brooks peaked early. That is not to say Love And Death is only important as a growth record. It’s also a great comedy on its own merits. It’s beautifully shot in Hungary by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (Au hasard Balthazar, Tess, etc.). Also it’s been cleverly scored with the music of 20th century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (later The Ren & Stimpy Show would use his music as well).
Like Allen’s Latin American revolution comedy, Bananas, a lot of the fun is putting Woody in an absurd situation and letting him be Bob Hope. During the Napoleonic era, Allen, sporting his trademark horn rimmed black glasses, plays Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward ("Yes, but I'm a militant coward"). As his two virile brothers enlist in the military, Boris is too busy fretting about life and trying to get laid. The object of Boris's lust is his independent cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton), however she is engaged to the herring merchant. Eventually Boris enlists in the army, becomes a hero, and then he and Sonja set out to assassinate Napoleon (played wonderfully by James Tolkan).Continue Reading
Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip
It’s a given that Richard Pryor is one of the most influential stand-up comedians ever (along with Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Mort Sahl or whoever you want to put on a short list). His feature length performance film, Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip, along with Richard Pryor Live in Concert a few years earlier, are still the benchmarks for stand-up comedy films. Sunset Strip may be slightly stronger because of the incredible autobiographical detail and honesty. He might have been a train wreck in real life, but on stage he was completely self-assured - without being cocky - and utterly honest about his own shortcomings, not to mention his takes on sex and race. Besides being hilarious, this film stand as a documentary about the mind of Richard Pryor and the unique way he interprets the world.
Like Bruce and Carlin, Pryor started off a TV-friendly, joke man who evolved when he found himself, got dangerous, got dirty, and embraced the counterculture. On The Sunset Strip is almost like an autobiographical one-man show; he talks about growing up in a brothel, how going to Africa changes him, working for the mob, but, most revealing, his cocaine abuse. In an almost too honest moment he discusses his famous "blowing himself up" incident. At the same time he still hits some great standards like the differences between men and women and black and white people. He also does his down & out character of Mudbone, for what he claims, thankfully, is the last time.Continue Reading
The great horror spoofs are far and few between. For every Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein or Shaun of the Dead (both excellent) there are at least a dozen Scary Movies, Saturday the 14ths or Vampire in Brooklyns, most tend to range from lousy to lame. Young Frankenstein falls in the excellent camp, working as both a laugh out loud comedy and a perfect dissection of the style used by Universal in their famous monster period, directly spoofing both Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. For director Mel Brooks it would mark the apex of his career after The Producers and Blazing Saddles, all three films featuring Gene Wilder who cowrote the Young Frankenstein script with Brooks. Wilder went on to direct his own films and neither Brooks nor Wilder would ever make anything as inspired as the three films they made together. They would even both later direct lousy and lame horror spoofs: Haunted Honeymoon (Wilder... lame) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (Brooks... lousy). But together, combining both men’s distinct comedy style, they created a film that is easily one of the two or three greatest horror comedies of all time.
American lecturer and doctor, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) can’t live down his famous mad doctor grandfather (Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein) and is truly embarrassed by his roots. When he inherits the family property in Eastern Europe he leaves behind his icy fiancée, Elizabeth, played by Madeline Kahn, on her own roll of big time performances in the period, including Blazing Saddles and Paper Moon. At the castle, he meets his new hunchbacked manservant, Igor (bug-eyed British comedian Marty Feldman), his sexy young laboratory assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the creepy maid, Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). After reading his grandfather’s journals, Frederick becomes convinced he can reanimate life and sets about recreating his experiments. Like the original Frankenstein story, he brings a patched together man back to life but the man (Peter Boyle, very crafty casting) is accidentally given an abnormal brain and is a relegated to being a monster.Continue Reading