Mel Brooks scarred me for life.
No, I’m not taking about some psychic or emotional damage caused by being exposed to his works at too young an age. I mean he has in fact literally caused physical scars on my body. Many years ago, I found myself hospitalized with a ruptured spleen; since the doctor wasn’t sure what was wrong with me, they did exploratory surgery, gutting me like a trout so they could poke around and find the problem, so I ended up with about a six inch incision right up the middle of my abdomen. When the anesthesia wore off, I found myself watching whatever happened to be on TV, and on the second evening, what was on was The Producers. I’d seen it before, of course, but in those long-ago days, there was no cable TV, no VCR, no video-on-demand; if you wanted to watch something, you had to wait until it showed up on one of the five channels, find out when it was on, and sit there and watch it. (You kids today, I tell ya…) So, since The Producers was on, and I wasn’t going anywhere for the next eight days or so, I pulled a pillow against my tortured stomach and watched it.
I laughed so hard at the first half-hour that I tore three stitches, leaving inch-long rips in my belly on each side of the main surgical scar. I have no regrets.
Mel Brooks may also have something to do with the fact that in high school my nickname was “Igor,” and yes, it was often pronounced “Eye-gor.” Lines of dialog from Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles punctuated a great many conversations in those days.
At the peak of his career, there was nobody better than Mel Brooks. This is well captured in the recent Shout Factory releases of Mel Brooks: Make a Noise and the Blu-Ray Collector’s Edition of The Producers. The first, part of the American Masters documentary series, is a retrospective of his career, including less-known periods such as his time writing for Sid Ceasar’s Your Show of Shows (a period that inspired the wonderful 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, which Brooks produced), the classic comedy albums featuring his “2000 Year Old Man,” and less-known films like The Twelve Chairs and Silent Movie. Make a Noise includes interviews with Matthew Broderick, Cloris Leachman, Nathan Lane, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, Tracey Ullman and others. In addition to stories and anecdotes about Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and High Anxiety, Make a Noise details the ups and downs of Brooks’ personal life, including his long and happy marriage to brilliant actress Anne Bancroft (The Graduate).
The Collector’s Edition of The Producers includes a beautiful transfer of the film; extra features include a Making of The Producers documentary; a short documentary titled Mel and His Movies: The Producers; the original theatrical trailer; a gallery of production design sketches of the sets; and an extended alternate version of one of the key scenes toward the end of the film (is it still “spoilers” if the movie in question came out 45 years ago?). The scene is funny and has some nice work by Kenneth Mars, but it’s easy to see why it was cut; it’s unnecessary to the story and the pacing is rather languid, slowing down the movie just before an extended monologue from Gene Wilder. Trimming the scene keeps Wilder’s courtroom defense speech from dragging, allowing him to be charming and funny while setting up the concluding gag.
If you haven’t seen The Producers (and no, the tedious film of the stage musical doesn’t count), you owe to to yourself to pick up the Oscar-winning (Best Screenplay) original and share it with your kids, if they’re old enough to get the jokes (for mine, that was about age 11) and appreciate the lunacy. To this day, my younger daughter’s favorite actor is still Dick Shawn, largely for his portrayal of “Lorenzo St. DuBois,” AKA “L.S.D.”, the burned-out hippie who plays Hitler in the play-within-a-movie around which the plot centers. The character of L.S.D. was removed from the stage musical version because he was a dual anachronism: a hippie singing about love power is a dated reference for the audience, and the musical is set in 1956, prior to the emergence of the hippie movement during which the film was made. It’s kind of a shame, because L.S.D.’s song and dance is pretty hilarious. There are a lot of pretty hilarious things in The Producers; this is the film that established Gene Wilder as a comedic actor, and one of the two films that really capture Zero Mostel at the top of his game (the other being A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), and the film that turned Mel Brooks from an obscure comedy writer to a brilliant director. There are constant sight-gags and throwaway lines in every scene, little treats for those who are paying attention, punctuating the big comedic turns by the stars and the wonderful supporting players.
The Producers Blu-Ray 2-Disc Collectors’ Edition and Mel Brooks: Make a Noise are both available now. They belong in your collection.