There hasn't been a single Mel Brooks movie in the past 21 years, and the last three he created (Life Stinks, Robin Hood: Men In Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It) were torn to shreds by critics and largely ignored at the box office. But you'll have a hard time finding a serious film critics that doesn't consider him one of the greatest comedic filmmakers of the 20th century. His work from 1968's The Producers through 1987's Spaceballs will live forever, and every film he created in that time only seems to improve with age. The passing of Gene Wilder, the star of many of his greatest works, inspired us to ask our readers to select their favorite Mel Brooks movies. Here are the results.
The Western was on its last legs as a genre in 1974, but Mel Brooks knew there were generations of filmgoers that grew up watching films like The Searchers and High Noon and would love to see the formula spoofed. The result is a master class in comedy. It's 42 years later and the movie still has the ability to draw huge crowds. This summer, Mel Brooks even took it to enormous theaters like Radio City Music Hall and saw sellouts everywhere he went. "I really believe that it's the funniest movie ever made," Brooks recently told Rolling Stone. "Sometimes you get lucky."
Mel Brooks had a really amazing 1974. The year began with Blazing Saddles and ended with Young Frankenstein, a parody of the great monster movies of the 1930s. Gene Wilder plays the grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein that wants nothing to do with his family legacy. But once he travels to Transylvania, he slowly becomes transfixed with the idea of bringing a corpse back to life. Nobody but Wilder could have played the title role. He's as convincing as a mild-mannered physician as he is a cackling mad scientist.
Like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, Mel Brooks moved into film after dabbling in theater and created a debut movie that polarized critics at first but is now seen as an absolute masterpiece. The Producers is the story of a struggling Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) who conspires with his accountant (Gene Wilder) to create the biggest flop of all time and oversell shares in it so they can emerge rich once it closes in an instant. The play, Springtime for Hitler, turns into a surprise hit and totally ruins their plans. Having fun with the Third Reich is always tricky, but nobody can pull it off like Mel Brooks. A musical adaptation opened on Broadway in 2001 and shattered records for ticket sales, and earning raves for its co-stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, as well as winning 12 Tony Awards.
After working on a Hitchcock parody with the man himself, Mel Brooks figured the only way to go bigger would be to spoof the entire history of the world. This ambitious film pokes fun at the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution before showing a mock trailer for a sequel that promised to cover Hitler on Ice, a Viking Funeral and Jews in Space. The film drew decent crowds, but critics were torn and some considered it too meandering. Whatever its merits, the movie did introduce the phrase "It's good to be king" to the lexicon, so we can thank it for one of the best Tom Petty songs of the 1990s.
Mel Brooks timed his science fiction spoof Spaceballs perfectly. The most recent Star Wars movie had hit just four years earlier, and Star Trek was so popular that it was months away from returning to television with a whole new cast. Brooks crammed every inch of the frame with gags, mocking everything from Alien to Planet of the Apes and even The Wizard of Oz. The brilliant casts included Rick Moranis, John Candy, Bill Pullman and Brooks himself in the dual role as Yogurt and President Skroob. It grossed $38.1 million and has become an enormous cult classic. Rumors have swirled for years about a sequel, but it has yet to materialize.
Alfred Hitchcock's last movie is technically 1976's Family Plot, but the following year he sat down with Mel Brooks and helped him write the spoof movie High Anxiety. "He said, 'What are you going to do about The Birds?'" Brooks recalled in 2013. "I said, 'Well, gee, at the moment I haven't included it.' And he said, 'Well, why don't you have them attack you with … their doody? If they all shit all over you, I mean, it's going to be funny.' I said, 'Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Hitchcock.'" The movie is a spoof of the entire Hitchcock filmography, and it earned $31.1 million at the box office.
Say what you will about Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but it's got a great title. It's also got rapping Merry Men, a pre-fame Dave Chappelle, Richard Lewis as Prince John and Cary Elwes as the title character. As he notes in the trailer, he's a Robin Hood that can actually speak with an English accent, unlike Kevin Costner who didn't even bother trying in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It grossed $35.7 million and was seen as a comeback after the Life Stinks disaster, but to most people who weren't 12 years old in 1993 it isn't really worth revisiting.
The back-to-back success of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein gave Mel Brooks a lot of pull in Hollywood, basically giving him the freedom to make whatever movie he wanted for a follow-up. He spent all that capital on Silent Movie, a (virtually) silent movie that paid tribute to the earliest days of Hollywood while mocking the studio system of the 1970s. Brooks played a washed-up director that tries to create the first silent film in 40 years. Brooks originally wanted it to be completely silent, but he relented and packed the movie with sound effects and songs. There's even a single word, though its spoken by famous mime Marcel Marceau. It didn't pull in crowds quite like Brooks hoped, but then again, it was a silent movie released in 1976. It's a wonder it happened at all.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It made a lot of sense on paper. Bram Stoker's Dracula was a huge hit just three years earlier, and Mel Brooks had a lot of success in the tiny world of parody horror films with Young Frankenstein back in 1974. Also, who better to spoof the vampire legend than Leslie Nielsen? But the laughs just weren't there and critics ripped it to pieces. "I ran into Roger Ebert and he didn't like Dracula: Dead and Loving It," Brooks said in 1996. "I said to him, 'Listen, you, I made 21 movies. I'm very talented. I'll live in history. I have a body of work. You only have a body." He may have pretended not to care, but the fact he hasn't made a film since shows maybe the barbs hurt more than he let on.
If you're going to make a movie that's not going to appeal to critics, it's better not to put the word "stinks" right into the headline. It makes it all too easy to write nasty headlines saying things like "Life Stinks and so Does the Movie." Taking a rare break from parody films, Life Stinks is about a wealthy Los Angeles CEO that tries to spend 30 days living in the slums to win a bet. It was the first movie of Brooks' career that failed to win acclaim or box office dollars. He went right back to parodies afterwards, but it did little to turns things around. That said, Life Stinks isn't nearly as bad as legend suggests, and its even won a tiny cult following.