by Dan Goldwasser
From his early days on "Your Show of Shows" to his work as a writer on the satirical "Get Smart" to his feature films and Broadway shows, Mel Brooks has been making audiences laugh for over 50 years. Commonly known as the "Master of Comedy", Brooks is one of the few entertainers who has won a Grammy, an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar. As a film director, he personally directed eleven feature films, most of which he also wrote and performed in. His most notable ones include Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and The Producers, arguably some of the funniest films ever made. In 2006 , 20th Century Fox released a box set of DVDs containing eight of Brooks' films, including To Be or Not To Be, a remake which Brooks starred in and produced, but did not direct. Now, Fox has gone back to re-issue the collection of films, but in high definition in a special collector's edition of the collection. All of the old extras, as well as new ones, are included in the set, and whereas the old set had eight films, this one has nine!
The Twelve Chairs (1970)
This is Brooks' second feature film, coming after The Producers, which is not included in the set. Loosely based on a 1928 novel of the same name, the film concerns Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody), an impoverished aristocrat in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, as he races to find treasure that his mother-in-law hid in one of the twelve dining room chairs. As Ippolit searches the USSR for the chair, he's in a race against time as a Russian Orthodox priest (Dom DeLuise) and con-man Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) who are also in search of the gems. The Twelve Chairs is not a spoof, which Brooks would later be known for, but rather a comedic tale that handles the delicate balance of humor and sadness, poking fun at the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union while also demonstrating the plight of those who were screwed by the Communists. The main title song, "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst" easily sets the stage for the comedy of errors that the characters find themselves in. Released by Universal Marion Corporation, Brooks now owns the film himself, and licensed it to Fox for the set.
The video transfer for The Twelve Chairs looks quite good, considering the source. It didn't undergo any major restorative efforts, but the source print is probably the best I've ever seen for this film. Film grain is present but naturalistic, the colors are relatively vibrant but not overly so, and details are crisp. There are a few soft moments, but for an independent film that is nearly 40 years old, this is still a very nice transfer. Audio is presented as an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, expanded from the original mono source. It's pretty front heavy, and a little thin, and the surrounds are effectively dead save for the occasional effect. The dialogue is clear, and music nicely rendered, but this is hardly a mix that is going to impress. The original English mono track is included, as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese mono tracks.
Sadly, there are no extras for The Twelve Chairs. It's possible that because Mel Brooks owns the film, and it's not technically a Fox title, the studio didn't want to bother producing any supplements for this one. Oh well, at least there are a selection of six Mel Brooks trailers, all of them for the Fox films.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Next we have Brooks' masterpiece, Blazing Saddles (1974). The tale about a black railroad worker, Bart (Cleavon Little), who is installed as the sheriff of Rock Ridge by State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Corman) as part of a scheme to drive the townsfolk out, so that he can grab the land which will be worth millions when the railroad is built through the town. Bart teams up with drunken gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder) to save the town, while facing racism from the very people he's trying to help. The film is offensive, hysterical, and brilliant. Released by Warner Brothers, it makes a delightful inclusion to the collection.
The disc included in the set is the 2006 Blu-ray that was released by Warner Bros. It was a strong transfer then, for one of the earlier Blu-ray releases, and holds up well today. Good color depth and black levels allow details to shine through nicely, all the while covered with a naturalistic veneer of film grain. Audio is the old Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix from the 2004 "30th Anniversary" DVD release, and it's not even lossless. It's a decent remix, particularly in allowing music and sound effects to use the surrounds, but it's still mainly a front-heavy mix, and unfortunately the original English mono track is AWOL. We do, however, get French and Spanish mono tracks, so that's okay.
All of the extras from the 30th Anniversary DVD are carried over here (they were on the subsequent 2006 Blu-ray). The Mel Brooks "commentary" track is really just an audio essay that is informative, but rather detached from the picture. "Back in the Saddle" (SD, 28-minutes) is a nice retrospective featurette looking back at the making of the film. "Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn" (SD, 3.5-minutes) is an all-too-brief short clip from a Lifetime television special looking back at this amazing comedienne. A selection of "Deleted Scenes" (SD, 9.5-minutes) provide additional laughs, and the original "Theatrical Trailer" (SD, 2-minutes) round out the extras. Oh yeah, there's one more.... "Black Bart" (SD, 22-minutes), the unaired 1975 pilot for a proposed television spin-off from the film. It's pretty bad an unwatchable, but fascinating to see just to know that they even tried.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
It's amazing to think that both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were released in the same year, but it's true, it's true! After taking on westerns, Brooks immediately turned to the classic monsters, with his unique spin on Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. In this case, Gene Wilder is the good doctor's grandson, Frederick, and is a respected lecturer at a medical school in America, having shunned his family history. But when he is informed that he has now inherited the family estate in Transylvania, Frederick soon finds himself following in his grandfather's footsteps. With the help of his lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and castle servants Igor (Marty Feldman) and Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), Frederick creates a new monster (Peter Boyle). But when the monster starts to terrorize the local village, Frederick must figure out how to make everything right - all the while trying to keep his fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) out of harm's way. Young Frankenstein is sheer gold, filled with plenty of classic comedic bits and still holds up now, 35 years later.
Shot in black-and-white, a rarity for a 1974 studio picture, Young Frankenstein was released on Blu-ray in 2008, and this is the same disc. A nice high bit-rate, without any color data, results in a very clean and delightfully crisp image. The blacks rule here, with minute details and subtle shading shifts being clearly visible. Again, the original mono audio has been remixed for home theaters, and is presented in a very clean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Dialogue is rendered nicely, and John Morris' exceptional score really shines through, even though (like most mono remixes) the rears get only sporadic usage. The original English mono track is included, as well as the mono French and Spanish tracks.
The extras on Young Frankenstein are absolutely splendid. First up is the insightful and well-presented commentary track that Mel Brooks recorded for the laserdisc years ago. Supplementing it with "Inside the Lab: Secret Formulas in the Making of Young Frankenstein" lets you watch the film with eleven new picture-in-picture bits at certain points in the film (you can watch them separately, too) that mainly discuss the comparisons between the film and the old Frankenstein films from the 1930s. The old DVD included "Deleted Scenes SD" (SD, 16.5-minutes), but now we get that plus an additional batch: "Deleted Scenes HD" (HD, 25-minutes). That's over 40-minutes of excised material, with more than half of it in glorious HD! "It's Alive! Creating a Monster Classic" (HD, 31-minutes) is a new documentary looking at the making of the film, from the story development through filming and the legacy and timelessness of the movie. "Making FrankenSense of Young Frankenstein" (SD, 42-minutes) is the archival DVD documentary, and covers much of the same ground as the previous one, but fortunately includes (and focuses primarily on) the great Gene Wilder.
"Transylvanian Lullaby: The Music of John Morris" (HD, 10.5-minutes) is a new featurette focusing on the great musical score by John Morris, where he and Brooks talk about their collaborative efforts, with a focus mainly on this film. "The Franken-Track: A Monstrous Conglomeration of Trivia" is a nice trivia track that works really well when paired with the commentary track. The "Blucher Button" makes a horse whinny, and we also get some "Outtakes" (SD, 5-minutes), which isn't quite a gag reel. A very nice inclusion is the isolated score in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which is great to hear (even though it is from a mono source). "Mexican Interviews" (SD, 6.5-minutes) present three interviews, with Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman and Gene Wilder. We get a selection of "TV Spots" (SD, 3.5-minutes), "Production Photographs" (SD, 36-minutes) is another DVD carry-over, with a large selection of stills from the filmmaking process, and finally, the "Trailers" (SD, 7-minutes).
Silent Movie (1976)
Only Mel Brooks could convince a film studio (20th Century Fox) to make a silent film more than 45 years after silent films stopped being made. And yet, he did. A self-referential movie, Silent Movie follows filmmaker and former alcoholic Mel Funn (Mel Brooks), who has a brilliant idea that will help save the film studio he works for from being sold - make the first silent movie in 40 years! Needing to convince the studio chief (Sid Caesar) that it's doable, Funn he goes around Hollywood with his sidekicks Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman), trying to recruit as many A-list actors as he can (courtesy of cameos by some of the 70's biggest stars: Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, James Caan, Liza Minnelli and Anne Bancroft). Heavy on the stunts (and John Morris' ever-present score), Silent Movie is fast paced, funny, and very reverential of some of the silent film era's comedic stars, like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Like The Twelve Chairs, the film transfer for Silent Movie is not perfect, but pretty darned good. Details are crisp, colors nicely saturated, film grain naturalistic, and black levels nicely presented. The film is basically all music, with the occasional sound effect, and only one word of dialogue (spoken by mime Marcel Marceau in a delicious cameo). John Morris pulls out all the stops here, and the music sounds great, with nice dynamic range and a somewhat front-heavy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English mix. Oddly, there are still the original English, French and Spanish mono tracks, even though you'd be hard pressed to note any differences between them!
Previously released on DVD with no extras, the Blu-ray for High Anxiety contains a few new features. First up is "Silent Laughter: The Reel Inspirations of Silent Movie" (HD, 25-minutes), a new documentary look at the making of the film. New interviews with Brooks and many of his collaborators explore the influence that silent films had on the method and mannerisms of Brooks' film. "Speak Up! Historical Hollywood Trivia Track" does a nice job of pointing out the respectful nods to old silent films that appear in Silent Movie. The original "Theatrical Trailer" (HD, 2-minutes) is included, as well as the "Portuguese and Spanish Trailers" (SD, 3-minutes). Finally, the five other HD trailers for Brooks films (as seen on The Twelve Chairs above) are included.
High Anxiety (1977)
After spoofing Westerns and monster movies, it was only a matter of time before the "Master of Comedy" decided to take on the "Master of Suspense" - Alfred Hitchcock. In High Anxiety, Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is the new administrator of a psychological institute, after the previous administrator died under suspicious circumstances. Thorndyke suffers from "high anxiety" (a major fear of heights), a weakness that is exploited by the shady head of staff, Dr. Montague (Harvey Corman). With the help of Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), Montague manages to get a hitman (Rudy De Luca) to frame Thorndyke for murder. Now on the run, Thorndyke is helped by Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who is hospitalized at the institute. High Anxiety is filled with plenty of gags and references to numerous Hitchcock films, most notably Vertigo.
High Anxiety makes it's high-definition debut with an impressive transfer that only suffers from some occasional softness. The colors are nicely rendered, though not heavily saturated, and grain is a bit more present in certain scenes than others. Audio is once again presented in a very nice and clean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English track, with dialogue clear and surrounds primarily reserved for the music and some ambiance. Original stereo English, and 5.1 French, Spanish and Portuguese tracks round out the audio options.
Like Silent Movie before it, High Anxiety was only previously released as a bare-bones DVD, with no extras. That gets fixed here, as we start out with a new featurette, "Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master of Suspense" (HD, 29-minutes). New interviews with Brooks, Hitchcock's granddaughter and many of the cast and crew members talk about the various references in the film, and the very nice relationship that Mel and Hitch had with each other. "The 'Am I Very Nervous?' Test" is a little trivia game that asks you various psychological questions throughout the film to see how nervous you are. "Don't Get Anxious! The Trivia of Hitchcock" is a pop-up track that, like Silent Movie, points out the various references and inspirations present in the film. An Isolated Score track is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, showcasing John Morris' Herrmannesque musical score, and we finish off the disc with the same six HD trailers for the various Fox films that appear in this Brooks Collection.
History of the World - Part I (1981)
In History of the World - Part I, Brooks spoofs five major moments in world history. Bridged with narration by Orson Welles, the film takes on The Dawn of Man (ala 2001: A Space Odyssey), The Old Testament, The Roman Empire, The Spanish Inquisition, and The French Revolution. Brooks appears in all of the segments, but the bulk of the film is spent on the Roman Empire, and French Revolution. In the former, Brooks plays Comicus, a stand-up philosopher who falls in love with a Vestal Virgin (Mary-Margaret Humes) and befriends Ethiopian slave Josephus (Gregory Hines). Comicus gets a gig playing for Caesar (Dom DeLuise), and Josephus is conscripted into the service of Empress Nympho (Madeline Khan). But when things go wrong, and their lives are threatened, they have to escape from Caesar's Palace. The latter segment, The French Revolution, features Brooks as King Louis of France, who is dealing with an impending peasant revolt. With the help of Count de Monet (Harvey Korman), Louis gets a servant (also Brooks) to stand-in for him while he goes into hiding. History of the World - Part I has some great moments, notably the "Spanish Inquisition" segment, and a few hysterical gags, but starts to feel a little worn out by the time the film comes to an end. The big finale (a teaser for the never-created Part II) at least ends the film on a high note.
The new HD transfer for History of the World - Part I is truly marvelous. The film isn't exactly a masterpiece of cinematography, but it looks delightful. Colors pop off the screen, detail is luscious and overall this is one heck of a solid transfer. Like the previous films, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track shows off the music, while letting dialogue stay clean and discrete in the front center. Beyond that, there's not much to add about the audio, but we do have the original English mono track, as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks.
New extras were produced for this Blu-ray release, starting with a short look at Mel's penchant for musical theatre. "Musical Mel: Inventing 'The Inquisition'" (HD, 10.5-minutes) focuses on the big musical number from History of the World - Part I, but also goes over most of Mel's musical contributions, and features new interviews with Brooks, John Morris, and other collaborators like stage director Susan Stroman (The Producers) and choreographer Alan Johnson (To Be or Not to Be). "Making History: Mel Brooks on Creating the World" (HD, 10-minutes) is another short but sweet look at the making of the film. "The Real History of the World Trivia Track" is a great extra, mixing history and filmmaking into a rather interesting pop-up trivia track. The John Morris score gets a nice Isolated Score Track in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and once again, the six Brooks films for Fox get their trailers included.
To Be or Not to Be (1983)
Based on the 1942 Jack Benny film of the same title, To Be or Not to Be was not directed by Brooks (instead directed by choreographer Alan Johnson), but instead serves a showcase for him and his wife, Anne Bancroft. The two play Frederick and Anna Bronski, two entertainers who own a theater in 1939 Warsaw. After the German invasion of Poland, with many of their members in peril of being sent to the concentration camps, the theater troupe must use their acting talents to stage a major charade on the occupying troops and work their escape. The film is entertaining, but lacks the comedic oomph that one had come to expect from Mel Brooks.
To Be or Not to Be hits Blu-ray with a decent but hardly stellar video transfer. Colors are nice and detail is present, but there is a bit of softness to the image that is only subconsciously distracting. The grain is a bit odd too, with a hint of DNR likely the culprit. Still, this is the best the film has ever looked on home video. The audio for the film is decent but not amazing. An English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track provides a nice soundscape that, like all of these films before it, is primarily coming from the front. Music and sound effects get a bit more work on the sides and rears, but there is a slightly thinner quality to the sound on this film than on the previous ones. Still, a satisfying listening experience. Additional tracks include the original English Dolby Surround track, mono French and Spanish, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track for Portuguese listeners.
Extras on To Be or Not to Be are short but sweet. "Brooks and Bancroft: A Perfect Pair" (HD, 15-minutes) is a loving look back at the married couple, and features some fond memories shared by friends and collaborators. "How Serious Can Mel Brooks Really Get?" (SD, 3-minutes) is a quick archival EPK piece from the time of the film's release, showing a little behind-the-scenes. Three archival "Profiles" (SD, 7-minutes) are included, with quick interviews with Brooks, Bancroft and Charles Durning. Finally, we end with a somewhat informative trivia track, John Morris' isolated score in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and the six HD trailers yet again.
It was only a matter of time before Mel Brooks turned his attention to science fiction films. Spaceballs was primarily his take on the Star Wars films, but he also managed to fill the movie with other spoof bits, from The Wizard of Oz to Alien and Lawrence of Arabia, among many others. Planet Spaceball is running out of air, and so President Scroob (Mel Brooks) comes up with an evil plan to suck all the air from Planet Druidia and bring it to Planet Spaceball. He has the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) try to capture Princess Vespa of Druidia to hold her for ransom, but her father, King Roland (Dick Van Patten), hires Captain Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) to rescue Vespa before she can be captured. Lone Starr and the Princess find themselves at odds with each other, but they soon find themselves stranded on a desert planet, where they encounter the mystical Yogurt (Brooks), master of the all-powerful "Schwartz". When Vespa is kidnapped by Dark Helmet, it's up to Lone Starr, along with his trusty half-man, half-dog sidekick Barf (John Candy) and Vespa's servant Dot (Joan Rivers) to rescue her and defeat the Spaceballs. The film is filled with wall-to-wall gags, and while some are better than others, it was a nice return to comedic form for Brooks.
Released separately on Blu-ray earlier this year, Spaceballs is the same disc as the previously released one. As such, the transfer is quite good, with great color range, fine details, and solid black levels. It's not quite reference-quality, but it's a darned good transfer that when compared to my old DVD, makes the DVD look like my old VHS! Audio is the best of the lot, with a rather dynamic and punchy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Surrounds get a nice work-out, especially during the space sequences and action scenes, and dialogue is clear and easy to understand. John Morris' musical score sounds great too!
All of the DVD extras are carried over to the Blu-ray of Spaceballs, but nothing new was added. The commentary track by Mel Brooks is occasionally informative, but starts to suffer from dictating what is on screen. (This is a problem that gets worse in the next film.) "Spaceballs: The Documentary" (SD, 30-minutes) is a nice look at the making of the film, with interviews from the cast and crew, as well as a look at the visual effects. "In Conversation: Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan" (SD, 20.5-minutes) is a very worthwhile chat between the two writing partners, and they reveal a lot about their process, as well as how they wrote the screenplay for Spaceballs. "John Candy: Comic Spirit" (SD, 10-minutes) is a nice tribute to the late comic actor, and "Watch the film in Ludicrous Speed!" (HD, 30-seconds) is basically like fast-forwarding through the movie really, really fast. Really useless extra. A selection of still galleries are included, as well as two "Theatrical Trailers" (SD, 5-minutes). Six short "Film Flubs" point out where they made mistakes in the film, and we end with a "Storyboard to Film Comparison" (SD, 7-minutes) which compares a few sequences in the film to their storyboards.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Coming not too long after the Kevin Reynolds re-imagining of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Brooks' take on the classic British legend feels like it was too little, too late. The basic story is the same as the 1991 film, with splashes of the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood thrown in along the way. Robin of Loxley (Carey Elwes), escapes from prison in the Holy Land, and returns to native England only to find that Prince John (Richard Lewis) has taken control over the country, and stolen his family's land. With a band of men including Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle), Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and Will Scarlett O'Hara (Matthew Porretta), Robin goes up against the corrupt Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) while simultaneously trying to woo Maid Marion (Amy Yasbeck). Coming the same year as Hot Shots! Part Deux and Loaded Weapon I, Robin Hood: Men in Tights feels like it was reduced to making cheap jokes at the expense of smart jokes. It's loaded with gags and winks-and-nods to the previous films, and it contains a few moments of worthwhile humor, but sadly much of it falls flat.
The most recent Brooks film on the set is still over 15-years old. Nonetheless, the Blu-ray provides a pretty decent transfer for a catalog title. There isn't anything bad about the transfer, though at times the colors seem a bit oversaturated. Details are nice, and black levels are more or less solid (though at times a little too dark). In 1993, multi-channel mixes were starting to become more common, and so Robin Hood: Men in Tights didn't have too far to go for the home video sound mix. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is crisp, clean and immersive. Solid and near-constant use of the surrounds adds to the ambiance, and Hummie Mann's music score pops quite nicely.
The first extra on this Blu-ray is also the one that is worth skipping. The Laserdisc commentary by Mel Brooks is sadly just him talking about what is on screen for the better part of the film. He's enthusiastic, but it's a little sad. "Funny Men in Tights: Three Generations of Comedy" (HD, 14-minutes) is a quick look at the three generations of comedians that appear in the film. From Brooks and Dick Van Patten and Dom DeLuise to David Chapelle, this is a quick but upbeat look back on the film. "Robin Hood: Men in Tights - The Legend Had It Coming" (SD, 26-minutes) is an archival HBO special that features interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and more, and is pretty well done. Too bad the final product wasn't what they hoped it would be! An Isolated Score Track in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 shows off Hummie Mann's swashbuckling score (with the added bonus that the songs are all vocal-free), and the six HD trailers finish off the extras for this disc.
Packed in a nice full-color box, the Blu-ray discs are all housed in a cardboard booklet, with (on average) two films per page. The set also comes with a rather impressive 119-page full color book, featuring an excellent in-depth essay from writer Stephen J. Smith, and loaded with photos and information about all of the films featured in the box set.
It's a shame that there are only three films missing from this set that prevent it from being the truly complete compilation of Brooks' films, 1968's The Producers, 1991's Life Stinks and 1995's Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Given how lackluster those last two are, however, this might not be that big a deal. Watching all of these films shows that there was definitely a bit more inspiration in the early years for Brooks, with 1974 being a standout year. Although things started to decline in the 1980s, there were still enough jokes that made me laugh while watching the last few films in the set.
Still, with plenty of entertainment over the nine films in the set, as well as pretty good transfers and a very nice selection of extras, The Mel Brooks Collection is certainly worth picking up for any fan. The only real drawback is that if you're a fan, you've probably already picked up Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs - but trust me, it's okay to double-dip every now and then!