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Rob Edelman: Mel Brooks, An Appreciation

Mel Brooks is a funny man. And he also is a renaissance man. In a career that has lasted longer than a lifetime, he has penned film scripts and written for the stage and television. He has produced films and directed films, and he has acted on both the big and small screens. Happily, Brooks will be appearing in person and in conversation at Proctors in Schenectady on Friday evening, October 16. Also screening at Proctors will be BLAZING SADDLES, one of Brooks’ all-time-favorite films.

In order to fully appreciate Mel Brooks and some of his cleverest comic creations, it may help if you are a confirmed New Yorker, or Jewish, or can savor his edge-of-your-seat outrageousness. But to my mind, so much of his humor transcends ethnicity, or the part of the world from which he hails. He is, as I say, a genuinely funny man.

Still, regarding Mel Brooks, his comedic worldview often is Jewish-centric. Perhaps my favorite Brooks character is Max Bialystock, the shyster stage producer with the cardboard belt, who is so memorably enacted onscreen by the great Zero Mostel in THE PRODUCERS. Decades prior to becoming a smash-hit Broadway musical, THE PRODUCERS was the film that won Brooks a screenwriting Academy Award and catapulted him to Hollywood superstardom.

Then there is the “Jews in Space” segment in HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I and the “Springtime for Hitler” number in THE PRODUCERS, which is so funny that I could not be offended by its lampooning of Nazis just two-plus decades after the end of World War II. There is Brooks’ Yiddish-accented “2000 Year Old Man,” who is interviewed by Carl Reiner in a series of hit comedy sketches and records. And there is the Yiddish-speaking Indian, who is played by Brooks himself, in BLAZING SADDLES. Yet another favorite Mel Brooks celluloid moment comes in a film he neither scripted nor directed: TO BE OR NOT TO BE, a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic black comedy. Here, Brooks and Anne Bancroft, his real-life spouse, perform a sidesplitting Polish-language rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

But back to BLAZING SADDLES... There also is a classic comedic bit here, spotlighting what happens as cowboys congregate around a campfire. If the humor was the creation of other comics, from Abbott and Costello and The Three Stooges to Judd Apatow, I might have found this sequence idiotic. But again, in Mel Brooks’ hands, it is genuinely funny. I can watch BLAZING SADDLES over and over, and know this sequence is coming, and still smile in anticipation of its onscreen arrival.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that BLAZING SADDLES is a deft send-up of the Hollywood Western. Brooks also parodies other film genres, from classic horror films in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to Hitchcockian thrillers in HIGH ANXIETY. I could go on and on about the genius of Mel Brooks but, to sum up, his best work has for decades brought smiles to millions of faces and pleasure to millions of lives.

Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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