‘It’s pro­nounced

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Theatre -

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

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