Mel Brooks Unveils ‘Young Frankenstein’ Mural at Fox Studios

Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein mural

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about an event which took place in 2014. I am presenting it here in honor of Mel Brooks’ 93rd birthday. Happy Birthday Mel!

The career of iconic filmmaker Mel Brooks was celebrated at Twentieth Century Fox Studios on October 23, 2014, and it was done in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of one of his best and funniest films, “Young Frankenstein.” This event brought out a big crowd on the Fox Lot and Jim Gianopulos, CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, introduced Brooks by saying he is one of 12 people to win an EGOT (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and the Tony) and that the 80-year-old studio was welcoming back its 2,000 year-old-man.

To commemorate this occasion, the studio painted a mural on Stage 5 where the movie was shot, and it features stars Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr and Peter Boyle in a scene which depicted them re-animating the creature. On the other side of the mural was an illustration of Mel Brooks who looked over the proceedings with a big smile on his face. This made Brooks remark amusingly, “That’s a beautiful, beautiful mural, really. I wish we were in Italy, it would last forever. They keep them on church walls in Italy. This will be good for 18 months and then they will get something else.”

Young Frankenstein mural

After all these years, Brooks remains a consummate storyteller, and the was delighted to hear of how the idea for “Young Frankenstein” first came about.

Mel Brooks: While I was doing “Blazing Saddles,” Gene Wilder, who played the Waco Kid, was in a corner of the soundstage scribbling on a legal pad. And I said, what are you doing? And he said I have an idea for a movie. I’ve always wanted to play this nutty, wonderful character Frankenstein, and in my concept I call him Frankenstein because he’s ashamed of the family fooling around with occult nonsense, trying to take dead tissue and turn it into living matter. He says that’s my story, sucked in again to the Frankenstein destiny.’ I said that’s a good story, do you need any help?’ He said well, I don’t know how to write. So, we wrote it together while we were filming “Blazing Saddles,” and most of it while I was in the editing process of “Blazing Saddles.”

Brooks’ first pitched the idea to Warner Brothers, but the studio was ultimately not interested. Keep in mind, this was before “Blazing Saddles” was released. Brooks said if he pitched the idea after “Blazing Saddles” came out, there’s no doubt Warner Brothers would have made any movie he offered them. So instead Brooks and Wilder took it over to Columbia Pictures, but it resulted in a rather strange situation.

MB: So, Columbia liked the idea and they said they would make it, and we made a deal for roughly $1,750,000, not even $2 million to make “Young Frankenstein.” And as I left the room at Columbia, I said thank you, this is wonderful! We’ll start Monday. Just one thing, just one little thing – we’re gonna make it in black and white, and then I left. Down the hall after me were a thundering herd of Jews screaming, “PERU JUST GOT COLOR!” So, we went back in the room for six hours of arguing about black and white or color and finally they said, we’ll compromise. We’ll make it on color stock and we’ll diffuse the stock and it’ll be in black and white, and those countries that are up to color like Peru will issue it in color. I said, well it’s a good compromise, and then somebody told me it’s never black and white. It’s blackish like the show, actually bluish. I said no, it has to be on Agfa black and white thick film. They said that’s a deal breaker, and I said break the deal. So that night Mike Gruskoff (the movie’s producer) got the script over to Alan Ladd Jr. who was running the feature aspect. We met with Ladd and he said, we’ll do it. What do you need? We said about $2 million. He said I’ll give you $2.2 (million). So, Fox bought it and no interference, just support, and I have tried to be at Fox ever since.”

This led Brooks to talk about another one of his best-known comedies which spoofed the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and of how Hitchcock himself was actually involved in its making.

MB: I made “High Anxiety” here and Hitchcock was helping me write it, and Hitchcock gave me a joke. I said hey, Hitch is pitching! Look at this! And I said what’s the joke Hitch? He said, a guy is running, he’s at the end of a dock and the ferry is about 12 or 14 feet away, and he leaps into the air and he lands on the deck of the ferry. Ah, made it! Except the ferry is coming in. That’s a great joke, and if I had the money, I would have filmed it. Hitchcock saw a rough cut of “High Anxiety,” and he didn’t say a word and he literally waddled past me (makes waddling sounds), got to the end of the aisle, walked out the door and I said, he didn’t like it? He liked it? He didn’t like it?’ I was just heartbroken and I thought it’s a failure. Next day a guy comes with a wooden box. On the box it says Château Haut-Brion, 1961. Priceless! Six magnums of Château Haut-Brion with a note: “Dear Mel, have no anxiety about ‘High Anxiety.’ It’s a wonderful film. Love Hitch.”

In addition, Fox permanently renamed the street adjacent to Stage 5 “Mel Brooks Boulevard” in honor of the director. The event came to an end after Brooks unveiled the new street sign for everyone to see, and he couldn’t help but say the following,

MB: Now that they’ve got a street named after me, people are going to walk all over me. Terrible.

Nevertheless, it was a fitting tribute to a man who has given us some of the funniest movies ever made.

 

‘Love, Gilda’ Shows How the Late ‘SNL’ Comedienne Never Really Left Us

Love Gilda poster

You cannot help but fall in love with Gilda Radner. Even in death, her spirit radiates with a power nothing can destroy. Her smile stretched for miles whenever she appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” and it never faded from our sight even as she fought a tough battle against ovarian cancer. When she passed away on May 20, 1989 at the age of 42, it really felt like a national tragedy, and I remember Steven Martin paying tribute to her on the “SNL” stage while on the verge of tears. After showing a video of him dancing with Gilda, he said the following:

“You know when I look at that tape I can’t help but think how great she was and how young I looked. Gilda, we miss you.”

It’s now been almost 30 years since Gilda died, and she is still missed. But with the documentary “Love, Gilda,” she is brought back to life for a time, and we get to see sides of her many have not seen previously. Granted, her life has been documented endlessly on various shows and in numerous books, but we get to see home movies of her youth and journal entries, most of which were previously unseen. Whether or not you think this documentary touches on anything new, just the chance to spend time in her company makes it a must see.

Among the most memorable images we get of Gilda are in home movies made when she was a child. Even back then she had a big smile on her face and a zest for life which never faded. We also see how she was overweight as a child to where she talked of how kids at school teased her viciously. One family member told her to make a joke about her weight if they made fun of her again, and this proved successful. From there, I think it’s safe to say comedy was Gilda’s weapon of choice for all the obstacles life would throw at her.

It’s a treat to watch “SNL” regulars like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Cecily Strong among others reading from Gilda’s journals as it is clear on their faces the love they had for her work, and of the effect she had on theirs. Poehler even admits many of the characters she created on “SNL” were essentially B-versions of Gilda’s characters, but her work still stands on its own regardless. I envied these celebrated performers as they got a glimpse of Gilda’s actual handwriting which gives a glimpse into her wonderful mind.

As “Love, Gilda” moves on, we see her reflecting on the fame she achieved through “SNL” and the overall effect it had on her. I believe her when she reveals how she was unaware of how famous she had become until the cast visited New Orleans. We also come to see how fame at times served to keep her chained to a certain place in life, and of the pressures it brought on which made her eating disorder even worse. Once again, comedy becomes her weapon as she finds ways to make fun of being famous as her spirit remains strong. While she came to fame in a time before the advent of social media and cell phones, being in the public’s eye probably wasn’t much easier.

This world can really beat you down to where we become overcome with disappointments and bitterness, and many often feel like happiness is a commodity far out of their reach. So, it’s always great to know that one person who maintains a strong spirit and a wonderful view of life in the face of personal tragedies. Even as we watch Gilda Radner in her most harrowing moments, going through chemotherapy and losing the ability to bear children, she still has a big smile on her face and an infinitely strong spirit which never faltered even in her dying moments. She also had the love of her life, the late Gene Wilder, at her side through it all. I can only hope to be as lucky.

Could director Lisa D’Apolito, who had the privilege of appearing in my all-time favorite movie, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” have dug deeper into Gilda’s life? Perhaps. Some parts are given short shrift like her brief marriage to guitarist G.E. Smith and her movie career which ended after the critical and commercial failure of “Haunted Honeymoon.” D’Apolito also uses audio of Radner reading from her autobiography “It’s Always Something,” which remains one of my favorite books ever. Anyone who has read it can testify just how revealing Radner is about her struggles, and it threatens to make this documentary pale in comparison.

Regardless, D’Apolito does excellent work in making us see what a strong human being Gilda Radner was, and of how her spirit and influence remain incredibly strong even years after her death. The “SNL” cast member was made to endure terrible things in her life and left us at far too young an age, and yet she came out fighting and left us laughing hysterically. She even found humor in her cancer battle and demonstrated this when she guest starred on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” and her entrance was one full of victory. Nobody dared to make jokes about cancer back then, but she showed no fear in making fun of the most hideous of diseases. Even if it feels like there could have been more to this documentary than what we are shown, D’Apolito makes us see how Radner lives on in many ways.

Wilder founded “Gilda’s Club,” an organization where people with cancer can meet to build emotional and social support, after her death, and there are now over a dozen of them throughout America. Her book “It’s Always Something” is still in print, and I cannot recommend it more highly. And, of course, you can always catch her in “SNL” reruns which continue to entertain audiences of many generations. She may be gone, but “Love, Gilda” shows she never really left us. With a spirit as strong as hers, she never will.

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Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles poster version 2

Blazing Saddles” is one of Mel Brooks’ funniest comedies and one which invites repeat viewings as there are always jokes still waiting to be discovered. It acts as a satire of the western genre as well as the racism which was obscured by Hollywood’s creation of myths regarding the American West. But as funny as it is, it also offers the viewer a moving story about a black sheriff who manages to win over a town on the verge of being taken over by murderers and thieves. It also gleefully breaks the rules to where places and people are added that were never really part of the American West in the first place.

The wonderful Harvey Korman plays Hedley Lamarr, the State Attorney General who wants to get his hands on the town of Rock Ridge where the land is worth millions. His attempts to frighten the people out of their town includes getting cowboys to ride in and shoot their guns, creating a havoc which makes everyone living there fearful and anxious. But when that doesn’t work, Lamarr comes up with what he believes is an ingenious idea; he hires a black man to become the new Sheriff of Rock Ridge with the belief his “mere presence” will scare everyone out of there. Of course, things do not go as planned.

Looking back at “Blazing Saddles” all these years later, it still stands up mainly because Brooks is not out to make the actors simply go for the joke. Instead they play many scenes straight instead of trying to be funny, and this makes the humor work even more than it already does. With a satire like this, it helps to have characters you care about regardless of how ridiculous their actions may be. Most movie satires and spoofs these days keep forgetting this as they are more persistent in selling the joke to the audience instead of giving the story any real substance.

The late Cleavon Little portrays Bart who becomes the Sheriff and immediately meets resistance to his presence because of the color of his skin. Regardless of how infinitely intelligent and cool he is compared to the idiotic residents of Rock Ridge, he has to work real hard to win them over. Little has so many inspired moments in the movie like when he sings a Cole Porter song instead of the “Camptown Races” which the racist cowboys assume blacks sing all the time.

Many may accuse “Blazing Saddles” of playing up black stereotypes in order to get easy laughs, but they completely miss the point. Brooks and his team of writers, which included Richard Pryor, turn those stereotypes upside down and expose them for the falsehoods they have always been. Seeing the residents of Rock Ridge overzealous reactions to Bart’s behavior, such as him saying “excuse me while I whip this out” when he takes out his written speech, are indicative of their overt racism more than anything else. Seeing them act so stupidly out of fear and sheer ignorance gives the movie some of its most side-splitting moments.

Another memorable performance comes from the great Gene Wilder who plays Jim, a.k.a. The Waco Kid, the fastest gun in the world. While Wilder is best remembered at times for playing neurotic characters, he is as cool as can be in this film. Seeing him play it so cool in moments where his precision with a pistol is stupidly questioned by others who don’t know him is so much fun to take in. His character is a riff on the one Dean Martin played in “Rio Bravo,” and Wilder is such a blast to watch throughout.

“Blazing Saddles” also provided the late Madeline Khan with one of her most famous roles, the German singer Lili von Shtupp whose name is inexplicably censored on the movie’s television version. She is endlessly brilliant in her rendition of the song “I’m Tired,” and it makes for one of the most unforgettable comic performances ever captured on film.

There are many unforgettably hysterical scenes throughout “Blazing Saddles” which stand up to repeat viewings. The campfire scene is as obscene as it is gut-bustlingly hilarious, and you may find yourself laughing harder than you ever have before. Brooks himself plays a couple of parts like the severely lacking in intelligence Gov. William J. Le Petomane and an Indian Chief who, for some bizarre reason, speaks Yiddish. Other actors like the great Slim Pickens and Burton Gilliam have us gasping with laughter just by looking at the befuddled expressions on their faces.

Along with a great music score by John Morris and beautiful cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc, “Blazing Saddles” has more than earned its place on the list of greatest comedies ever made. There is tremendous delight in watching Brooks throw caution and logic to the wind as he throws in the unexpected like Count Basie and his orchestra performing in the desert while Bart rides by, or having Nazis sign up for Lamar’s final battle at Rock Ridge. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or because you just want the laughs to keep on coming (and they do). With a comedy like this, you can never be sure what will happen next!

By the way, be sure to watch “Blazing Saddles” in the widescreen version. Brooks shot the movie in Panavision scope, and it has never ever translated well to the realm of pan-and-scan.

Blazing Saddles poster version 1

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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