Ed.’s note: Filmographies of Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin follow.
The best way to approach a stylistic analysis of Mel Brooks might be by means of a comparison with Woody Allen, since although both worked as stand-up comedians and staff-writers for Sid Ceasar before becoming writer/director/actors, the differences between them are more important than the similarities. Whereas Allen starred in his earliest films, his subsequent career has been spent attempting to either escape from or redefine his image as a performer. Brooks, on the other hand, did not act in his first or fourth films, The Producers (1968) and Young Frankenstein (1974), and had only supporting parts in the second and third, The Twelve Chairs (1970) and Blazing Saddles (1974). But from the time of Silent Movie (1976) he moved to centre-stage, playing large roles (often the lead) with an undisguisedly narcissistic relish. If Allen can be compared with Chaplin and Eastwood, Brooks’ gradual repositioning of himself at the centre of his cinematic world brings to mind such European figures as Fellini and Godard.
Indeed, it is Godard rather than Allen who provides the more telling comparison – whatever one thinks of Spaceballs (1987), its depiction of the Star Wars phenomenon as a triumph of cynical capitalist exploitation has a great deal in common with Vent D’est‘s (East Wind, Godard, 1969) polemics. In my article “Postmodern Times: Popular American Cinema and the Critical Climate” (Cineaction 34, June 1994, pp. 52-58), I described Brooks as “only interested in conventions to the extent that he is able to demonstrate his superiority to them”, noting that “the attack on racism [Blazing Saddles] purports to undertake is actually an attack on a genre which is theorized as incapable of sustaining such a project on its own terms”. Although I do not wish to retract this, I might now phrase it a little differently: whatever his limitations, Brooks at least demonstrates a genuine interest in issues (fascism, racism, homelessness, religious persecution, Hollywood’s surrender to the demands of merchandising) which do not trouble the complacent surface of Allen’s cosy middle-class world. Even Shadows and Fog‘s (Allen, 1992) excursion into a vaguely defined Europe marked by anti-Semitism is motivated more by the desire to evoke those silent classics one might encounter in a New York revival theatre than the need to grapple with historical reality (on the other hand, Deconstructing Harry  has a pleasingly acerbic attitude towards its protagonist).
And while Godard eagerly supports Allen (though King Lear [Godard, 1987] and the 1986 short Meetin’ Woody Allen [Godard] are curiously ambivalent), he is even more enthusiastic about Jerry Lewis (“the only one…making courageous films”), whose affinity with Brooks should be obvious. Like Lewis, Brooks uses slapstick as a weapon aimed at consumer society’s superficiality (one suspects that Spaceballs is the film Lewis would have made had he been able to finance his Hardly Working Attacks Star Wars project). This affinity is not simply a matter of similar thematic concerns, but of a highly specialised mise en scène practice which simultaneously recalls Lewis’ 1960s classics (not forgetting such later works as Which Way To The Front? [Lewis, 1970] and Smorgasbord [Lewis, 1983]) and opposes those contemporary stylistic traits – rapid editing and glossy imagery – derived from music videos. Consider the sequence in High Anxiety (Brooks, 1977) where Brophy (Ron Carey) attempts to lift Richard Thorndyke (Brooks)’s trunk. The visual field privileges the performers while allowing them to be dominated by the grey floor and yellow airport wall, the basic colour scheme indicating Brooks’ cartoon-like view of the world. Yet, although this is precisely the kind of colour-coding we associate with studio filming’s inevitable distortions, the scene has been shot in a blatantly real location. Like Frank Tashlin and Lewis, Brooks’ parodic visual sense is attuned to something already present in American society, and critics who feel superior to his ‘juvenile’ humour may be expressing their subconscious distaste for the junk culture (George Lucas films, television programs, advertising, shopping malls, airports, brand names, etc.) they confront every day.
The purity (one might use the word ‘cleanness’) of this mise en scène implicitly opposes the corruption it reveals. Whereas so many modern American films attempt to sell us something (a product, a lifestyle), Brooks’ interest is in a cinema whose pleasures are immediately apparent. In Dracula Dead and Loving It (1995), Brooks introduces his own character, Professor Van Helsing, performing an autopsy for his freshman class. Essentially a two-minute sequence-shot interrupted by a couple of brief cut-ins, the scene, though partaking of that gross-out comedy so prevalent in the 1990s, achieves its effects through a combination of performance and mise en scène. After a frontal view of Van Helsing and the students standing over a sheet-covered cadaver, the camera moves in to frame the professor more closely, implying that Brooks’ skills as an actor will be the main source of laughter, but also economically removing the cadaver from sight, thus allowing its subsequent dissection to take place off-screen: the humour of what follows arises not so much from the grossness of the procedure (which Brooks does not allow us to see) as from our gradual realisation that the professor is more interested in causing his students to faint than in demonstrating autopsy technique. The final twist – despite the assumption of Van Helsing and ourselves that every student has passed out, one is still on his feet – is conveyed via the careful choreography of the actors and the camera, which follows Van Helsing as he moves right and left to display a string of intestines, but carefully conceals the presence of one individual until he emerges from behind the professor and declares “I am still standing”. Cinematic space is thus simultaneously manipulated (for comic reasons) and respected (for aesthetic/moral reasons), the director’s apparent egotism traceable to a belief in the body’s primacy within an image that, however much it may be distorted by lighting and colour effects, still has a fundamental integrity.
In his 1994 introduction to the second edition of Moving Places (U Calif Press, 1995), Jonathan Rosenbaum asserts that morphing “put all us Bazinians out of business…The moment you can substitute one pixel for another within a single take, the whole notion of camera reality – including ‘real people and things’ – goes out the window”. But one could, I think, claim the exact opposite – that, at a time when screen space tends to be falsified (by the fragmented editing associated with MTV as much as morphing), Bazin’s claims become more important than ever, his focus on cinematic reality now given an explicitly political (because oppositional) relevance. Brooks’ style embodies a radical conservatism (one which John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.  takes to perhaps its logical conclusion). His recent achievements bring to mind such late works as Ford’s 7 Women (1966), Welles’ Don Quixote (1992) and Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), in all of which the auteur linked with a now-lost cinematic era becomes our primary reference.
1968 - The Producers
1970-1 – The Twelve Chairs
1974 – Blazing Saddles
1974 - Young Frankenstein
1976 – Silent Movie
1977 – High Anxiety
1981 – History of the World: Part 1
1987 - Spaceballs
1991 - LIfe Stinks
1993 - Robin Hood: Men in Tights
1995 - Dracula: Dead and Loving It
Jerry Lewis – filmography (as director)
1949 – How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border
1960 – The Bellboy
1961 – The Ladies’ Man
1961 – The Errand Boy
1963 – The Nutty Professor
1964 – The Patsy
1965 – The Family Jewels
1966 – Three on a Couch
1967 – The Big Mouth
1969 – “The Bold Ones: The New Doctors” (TV Series)
1970 – One More Time
1970 – Which Way to the Front?
1972 – The Day the Clown Cried
1980 – Hardly Working
1983 – Cracking Up (aka Smorgasbord)
1990-1 – “Good Grief” (TV Series)
1993 – “Super Force” (TV Series)
Frank Tashlin – filmography (as director)
1952 – Son of Paleface
1954 – Susan Slept Here
1955 – Artists and Models (starring Jerry Lewis)
1956 – Hollywood or Bust (starring Jerry Lewis)
1956 -The Girl Can’t Help It
1957 – Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
1958 – Rock-a-Bye Baby (starring Jerry Lewis)
1958 – The Geisha Boy (starring Jerry Lewis)
1960 – Cinderfella
1962 – It’s Only Money (starring Jerry Lewis)
1964 – The Disorderly Orderly (starring Jerry Lewis)
1966 – The Alphabet Murders
1967 – Caprice