Is there a comic mind more relentless or — admit it — more uneven than Mel Brooks? Over the course of the last half century, the guy has shpritzed his way through TV (from Sid Caesar to Get Smart), comedy albums (2000 Year Old Man), movies, and Broadway musicals, and when the stars align, his work, as corny as it is cauterizing, can paralyze you with laughter.
When they don’t align, it usually means Brooks is in the film, and Fox’s new Mel Brooks Collection makes a backhanded case for keeping him behind the camera. The eight-disc box spans his career from 1970’s The Twelve Chairs to 1993’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights and includes one ringer: 1983’s To Be or Not to Be, which Brooks stars in (with wife Anne Bancroft) but didn’t write or direct. Sadly, rights issues kept The Producers (1968) and Spaceballs (1987) out. Happily, rights issues kept Life Stinks (1991) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) out.
The good news? Robin Hood and To Be are new to DVD, as are the pretty wonderful Silent Movie (1976), about, uh, a director making a silent movie, and the comme ci comme ça Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (1977). The bad news: There are hardly any extras to be found, and the ones that are there — Young Frankenstein’s director’s commentary, outtakes, a making-of featurette, and cast interviews with a Spanish-language journalist — are from earlier releases. To add insult to injury, the extras on Warner’s 2004 special edition of Blazing Saddles have been passed over in favor of an older Brooks commentary track — on only half the film — that defines the word rambling. (All right, it does dish good dirt on Richard Pryor and Gig Young, who were cast in the parts eventually taken by Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder.)
So what are we left with? One four-star, gold-plated comedy classic in Young Frankenstein, a movie that gets better with each passing year. One rung below is Saddles — ”authentic Western gibberish” in the words of its maker — with blissfully sharp performances by Little, Wilder, and the great Madeline Kahn. Chairs is an interesting early find, set in old Russia; it suggests Chekhov with whoopee cushions and costars a thin Dom DeLuise and a Frank Langella so young and handsome it hurts your eyes to look at him.
The rest is slow decline and increasing Mel: The bigger the role the director gave himself, the more he careened around like a tummler with flop sweat. Silent Movie and High Anxiety — both starring Brooks — are watchable, but the same can’t be said of the unbearably crass History of the World: Part I. To Be or Not to Be doesn’t erase memories of the Ernst Lubitsch original. Robin Hood (starring Cary Elwes, with Brooks as Rabbi Tuckman) is a decent MAD parody, nothing more. To quote History’s Louis XVI, it’s good to be the king, but sometimes the king should stay on his throne.