Aclear pattern is discernible in the remarkable, gilded and glorious career of Mel Brooks – a recurrent tendency to take wild leaps in the dark to the sound of people advising him he’s making a huge mistake, only for him to triumphantly prove his detractors wrong.
Not always, of course. There have been leaps that resulted in flops but in the case of the three movies, at the very least, that cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s funniest ever film-makers – The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – he had to fight tooth and nail to see his madcap visions realised, and then overcome early reactions of perplexity and uncertainty.
His 1968 breakthrough, The Producers, was seen as potential box-office poison, not an altogether surprising verdict considering that its centrepiece was Springtime for Hitler, a musical eulogy for the Führer, complete with goose-stepping chorus girls and choreographed rotating swastikas.
This grotesque spectacle of bad taste is mounted by grasping Broadway impresario Max Bialystock and his hapless accountant sidekick, Leo Bloom, in the mistaken assumption that it will fail (thereby fleecing their backers). But Brooks struggled to persuade backers himself that audiences would get the joke.
“I took it around to various producers,” Brooks recalls, in that familiar rasping voice. “And they all said: ‘I can’t ask people to put money into a show that stars Hitler. It’s too crazy’.”
He pushed and pushed, and got it made, but a test-screening in Philadelphia was a disaster. The film nearly got shelved until Peter Sellers saw it, gave it a rave endorsement, and the rest is history: it screened for a year in New York, won an Oscar, and went from cult to classic: “I was the first Jew in history to make a buck out of Hitler,” he later quipped.
A similar story pertains to Blazing Saddles (1974) – the first test-screening at Warner Bros was, again, lacklustre. Executives barely raised a smile at Brooks’ riotous subversion of the Hollywood Western, with a black hero in the saddle trying his luck as sheriff of a racist frontier town. With the copious use of the “n” word, the beating up of an old lady, the punching of a horse, and a puerile scene of flatulent cowboys, had Brooks gone too far? “Let’s dump it and take a loss,” the head of distribution said. But a second screening saved the day. Result? Another classic.
“I know what critics will say when Young Frankenstein opens in London,” Brooks proffers goodnaturedly as we sit taking tea in the Savoy. A musical version of his 1974 celluloid spoof of Thirties Frankenstein films opens in Newcastle at the end of the month, before transferring to the West End in October.
“They’ll say, ‘ Well, it’s good. But it’s not as great as [the stage adaptation of ] The Producers was…’ In my career, I always get a good review, one review later. With the film of The Producers, right at the start, a few critics got it but I was mainly damned. Then I did The Twelve Chairs, which was a good little movie. A lot of them said: ‘ What happened to the genius who gave us The Producers? Why is he so sad?’ Then I did Blazing Saddles and they said: ‘ This is bad taste insanity. What happened to the Mel Brooks who gave us The Twelve Chairs?’”
Frail but trim, dapper in black and with a mind as sharp as a tack, Brooks is now 91, but has always proceeded on the basis that life is short. That’s the raison d’être behind his impulse to push things too far. “You need to make a noise that defies death because there is no noise in death,” he explains. “To be overlooked, to be passed over, is a kind of death. So I say to the world ‘Make a noise!’ It’s so important to enjoy life – and not forget that it’s brief. I always try to remind people in my work that they are alive – don’t defer!”
And suddenly Mel Brooks is singing for me, croaking lines from the big number in The Twelve Chairs: “Hope for the best, expect the worst… No one will survive, live while you’re alive!” A chuckle. It’s impossible not to laugh along with his chutzpah.
The man who was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn on June 28, 1926 began his career as a writer for Fifties TV comedy pioneer Sid Caesar. But Brooks “exploded” (in his words) after Kenneth Tynan saw him at a ritzy New York party
As Mel Brooks’ ‘Young Frankenstein’ hits the stage, e, Dominic Cavendish meets the irrepressible comic The crew stuffed hankies in their mouths so they wouldn’t laugh
How they were: the cast of the 1974 film, left, with Gene Wilder in the titular role now taken on by Hadley Fraser, right, with Ross Noble as Igor
Love of his life: Brooks was married to Anne Bancroft for 40 years