The spoof film is in sorry, sorry shape these days. With Scary Movie 5 limping into theatres last year and the noxious writing-directing team of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg (Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie) somehow still being allowed to make movies, the parody genre has become synonymous with absolute lowest-common-denominator filmmaking. Take a certain recently popular movie or genre, re-enact all the things that people dug about it but do it in an irritating way, pad out the run time with unrelated pop culture references that date your movie by the time it opens, and voila! You’ve got something that resembles a feature film, I guess…
It’s hard to remember that at one point there was artistry involved in putting together a good parody, something that cut deeper than just lazy mockery. Growing up, I worshipped at the altar of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team, as they tweaked Hollywood genre moviemaking in a sublimely surreal way. And before them, there was Mel Brooks, who unquestionably planted the roots of the contemporary spoof film before anyone else, while also spitting in the face of political correctness and bad taste. Starting this Saturday, TIFF celebrates this master comedian with Mel Brooks: It’s Good to Be the King, a retrospective of the director’s key works. I know Dumb and Dumber To comes out this week and everything, but if you’re looking for some laughs that will stick with you, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is where you need to be.
While Brooks is known as a parody artist first and foremost, he initially gained notice for a more traditionally plotted comedy instead. After a successful stint writing for television, Brooks developed his first feature screenplay, The Producers, a raucous comedy about a flamed out theatre producer and his anxious accountant who hatch a scheme to fraudulently make a ton of money by staging a guaranteed flop on Broadway, a play gloriously known as “Springtime for Hitler”. Nowadays, The Producers is probably better known as the ridiculously successful stage musical and subsequent film remake starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. But like all of Brooks’s early film work, the original Producers has a gleefully dark edge to it that has been mostly scrubbed out of the re-imagined versions. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder play the two leads with a slight helping of delusional craziness as they try to pull off this elaborate plan that doesn’t ever really seem possible of working. And the scenes that we get to see from “Springtime for Hitler”, featuring a hippie Adolf Hitler and a dance number in the shape of a swastika among other things, are still really funny and pretty bold considering the time it was made.
Even though he won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The Producers, Brooks really hit the big time in 1974 with the one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, two of the most successful and celebrated American comedies of all time. Young Frankenstein is a pitch perfect parody of the classic Universal monster movies, with a frazzled Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson attempting to recreate his family’s infamous reanimation experiments, surrounded by a hilarious supporting cast that included Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the monster. Oh, and Gene Hackman shows up too, as a blind man who has a priceless encounter with Boyle. Young Frankenstein isn’t just about aping the plot points of earlier films though. Brooks nails the mood of the films he parodies, shooting in black and white and showcasing elegant production design. You know you’re watching a parody, but it still feels like an authentic classic monster pic.
It was Blazing Saddles that Brooks courted the most controversy over. A total skewering of the classic Hollywood Western, Blazing Saddles didn’t just settle for lampooning clichés. Brooks exposed the racism inherent in the whole genre and, to take it one step further, within the Hollywood system itself. The plot is pretty simple – an evil railroad tycoon appoints a black man as the sheriff of a town so that the population will abandon their home out of distaste, clearing the way for tracks to be laid through – but the commentary is sharp. And Brooks isn’t subtle about it either. Racial slurs are constantly thrown around, ugly stereotypes are employed, and a climactic detour into a meta-reality seals the deal. Yet Brooks also has fun with some of the sillier aspects of the Western, as in the notorious campfire farting scene. Plus Cleavon Little as Sheriff Black Bart and Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid make for one of the coolest duos I’ve ever seen in a Western.
From here, Brooks’s legacy was cemented and he continued to craft more spoofs for the ages – including the classic Spaceballs, which was one of my absolute favourite movies growing up and still remains the best Star Wars parody around. He directed his last film in 1995, teaming up with that other spoof master Leslie Nielsen for Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and hasn’t made another since. A new film from him would be a welcome breath of fresh air in what is now a deathly stale genre, so here’s hoping he makes a comeback. I’d love to laugh along with his take on things now.