- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

LOS ANGELES

Mel Brooks would love to see a run on the new DVD collection of eight of his gleefully manic movie comedies, including “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “High Anxiety.”

“I think people should buy 20 of them. Buy 20 and save a lot of them for Christmas presents. Who knows how many of these they make? They might be gone,” Mr. Brooks says, and not entirely in jest.

It’s not that Mr. Brooks, 79, who turned his 1968 film “The Producers” into a Broadway money machine, could be strapped financially. Profit isn’t the issue, he says.

“I want these movies to be seen. Nobody has seen ‘The Twelve Chairs’ or ‘Silent Movie,’” he says, naming two of the hard-to-find titles in the boxed set that is coming out this week.

Mr. Brooks is especially fond of 1970’s “The Twelve Chairs,” based on an early 1900s novel by two writers in the new Soviet Union who “were like me — they were crazy. They were tongue-in-cheek comedy writers,” he says.

He recognized back then that the film, made in Yugoslavia for less than $1 million, was “a great indulgence, because I didn’t think anybody would go for it.” Time has proved him wrong.

“Through the years, I keep getting letters: ‘My favorite movie of all the movies you’ve done is “The Twelve Chairs.” Not only is it funny but it’s moving, it has heart,’” Mr. Brooks says.”You never know. You never know,” he muses.

He is certain about what helped shape his approach to comedy. As a newcomer, he shared writing duties on Sid Caesar’s classic ‘50s sketch series, “Your Show of Shows,” with other humorists destined for fame. Among them were Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner.

They were heavily influenced by the show’s producer, Max Liebman, Mr. Brooks recalls.

“It was like Liebman University. He taught us the best humor comes out of the human condition, out of the weakness of people, their greed, their broken promises,” he says.

“We didn’t write jokes. We wrote little stories with characters, which prepares you to write screenplays. Our sketches were minimovies. They weren’t situation comedy, where they ride on a very thin premise, like an angry neighbor, for 30 minutes.”

If there’s a theme that connects his movies, he says, “it’s greed or love, love or greed. … Do you want to be good or want to be rich? You can’t be both.”

The jacket of the DVD set is decorated not with critical praise but with snippets of his movie dialogue.

There’s “What a dramatic airport” from “High Anxiety”; “I hate people I don’t like” from “The Twelve Chairs” and “How womantic” from “Blazing Saddles,” which Brooks aficionados will know to pronounce with an overheated Marlene Dietrich accent.

Other films in the collection (Fox Home Entertainment, $99.98) are “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” “To Be or Not to Be” and “History of the World Part I.”

Reviewers rarely had kind words for Mr. Brooks’ parodies of film genres, including Hitchcock thrillers, Westerns and disaster dramas. “The Producers,” for instance, about two sad sacks trying to swindle investors by staging a musical with Hitler as the hero, was panned by one critic as “an almost flawless triumph of bad taste, unredeemed by wit or style.”

(The Zero Mostel-Gene Wilder film is excluded from the DVD set because it’s to be released along with last year’s musical version, based on the stage play and starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, Mr. Brooks says.)

If critics didn’t appreciate Mr. Brooks and his singular, sometimes sophomoric work, his target audience did.

“When we did ‘Young Frankenstein,’ we knew we could get the college crowd. They loved the Mary Shelley novel,” Mr. Brooks says. “If you didn’t get the references, you couldn’t enjoy my movies.”

The dramas produced by his company, including “The Elephant Man” and “84 Charing Cross Road,” were better received.

There’s an inevitable sadness when Mr. Brooks talks about two of the DVDs, “To Be or Not to Be” and “Silent Movie,” which starred his wife, Anne Bancroft. The Oscar-winning actress (“The Miracle Worker”) died last year at age 73.

“Anne was never in better form than when she played the Polish actress” in “To Be or Not to Be,” Mr. Brooks says. “She was great.”

Her death “is not only my heartbreaking, truly heartbreaking personal loss,” Mr. Brooks says of his wife of four decades, “but also to the world of theater and film, it’s a great loss.”

Noting that their son has made him a grandfather, Mr. Brooks adds: “So we’re OK. We’re going on.”

Mr. Brooks isn’t slacking off professionally. He’s working on a stage version of “Young Frankenstein,” creating the words and music as he did for “The Producers.”

There’s one exception: Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” memorably performed in the 1974 film by Peter Boyle as a monster in formal wear, will be part of the Broadway play, Mr. Brooks says.

He finally brought critics around with the stage version of “The Producers,” which was named best musical in 2001 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and won a record 12 Tonys.

Can lightning strike again with the new play?

“There’s no lightning,” he replies. “There’s blood, sweat and tears. There’s a good idea, and there’s 18 months of due diligence, hard work, day and night.”

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