Flickhead
Blu-ray Review
By Dennis Cozzalio

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The Mel Brooks Collection on Blu-ray

Nine Brooks films in one Blu-ray set: The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, The History of the World Part I, To Be Or Not To Be, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights

From Fox Home Entertainment

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    As the godfather of what might be generously described as a dominant strain of comedy that remains popular into the 21st-century, it would seem that Mel Brooks has a lot to answer for. His particular brand of movie parody, forged in the white-hot success of the 1974 one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, would set the bar for the Zucker Brothers (The Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane, Hot Shots et al), Ken Shapiro (The Groove Tube) and every other schmuck who picked up a camera to film a kitchen-sink movie parody, up to and including writer-directors Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, who carpet-bombed the genre with a streak of ghastly comedies like the Scary Movie series, Spy Hard, Date Movie, Disaster Movie, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans.
    It’s clear enough to anyone who can quote Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein backward and forward that there is a huge gap between the energy, spirit and, in the case of Saddles, delirium and even anger that Brooks brought to those movies and the soul-crushing emptiness of the …Movie movies. But within his own films Brooks was often wildly inconsistent — in a great comedy like Saddles, the highs were so high that the brief time the viewer spends in the valleys is a fair trade-off; the more balanced, well-paced, reassuringly genial satire of Young Frankenstein probably accounts for its being held up by more fans as the pinnacle of Brooks’ work as a writer-director. (It was also, for those less welcoming of his broad comic persona as an actor, the only one of his hit movies outside of his debut with The Producers into which he did not insert himself.) The rest of his work has much more of a grab-bag feel to it — for every grin, there might be as many as two or three groans.

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Above: Blazing Saddles and the breast implants. Left, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn; right, Mel Brooks and Robyn Hilton (“Work, work, work…”). Click images to enlarge.

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    And it’s (almost) all under one roof for examination now inside the beautifully packaged Mel Brooks Collection just released from Twentieth Century Fox. (The set retails for $139.99, but a number of outlets are offering it for considerably less.) Most fans who love either or both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein will probably be interested enough in Brooks’ work to have their interest considerably piqued by this collection. It contains the previously mentioned 1974 classics, plus Brooks’ follow-up to The Producers, the underrated and even more underseen The Twelve Chairs (1970), Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World Part I (1981), To Be or Not to Be (1983), Spaceballs (1987) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). All of the titles were originally distributed or directly produced by Fox, with the exception of Blazing Saddles, a Warner Brothers title, and Spaceballs, which was distributed originally by MGM, the home video branch of which is now under the Fox banner. Kudos go to Fox for their relative completism — The Producers was originally an Avco Embassy release, the rights to which may have been out of bounds given its recent Broadway permutations — but one has to wonder who decided to leave out Life Stinks (1991), an MGM release, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), a Columbia theatrical release that was handled by Warner Home Video in the U.S. Neither movie is a regarded a classic, but neither of them would be out of place in a warts-and-all set like this one, and it seems a shame that they couldn’t have been included.

    A previously released Fox Home Entertainment DVD set included Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, To Be or Not To Be, High Anxiety, History of the World, Part I and The Twelve Chairs. A few of the films in that set, including Silent Movie, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and High Anxiety had never been released on DVD before, and though they all had moments of graininess and wear, perhaps due to the kind of optical processing that could often be detected in lower-budget films of the time, they all looked probably better than they ever did theatrically. As DVDs the bonus content was limited mostly to trailers for the other films in the collections and the usual series of cast and crew profiles. Curiously, the bonus content on the Blazing Saddles disc went back to the bare-bones edition rather than to the 30th Anniversary Edition, released in 1994, which contained a 55-minute interview with Brooks in lieu of an actual audio commentary. The comparatively lush original Young Frankenstein disc was included, featuring a spry audio commentary, a making-of documentary, interview footage with all of the stars, as well as deleted scenes, outtakes and a set of bloopers that really does convey the sense of fun the principals constantly allude to in the documentaries.
    Naturally, now that the movies have been given the remastered Blu-ray treatment they all look as spiffy as is humanly possible, though some of the source material on some of the lesser-known and/or loved titles looks to have gone wanting in the ensuing years. Less care has been taken, for example, with the overall consistency of the look of To Be or Not to Be. In high definition, the difference between cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld’s brightly-lit, richly colored palette and his occasional attempts to give star Anne Bancroft the gauzy old-fashioned movie-star treatment are far more jarring than they have been in past incarnations. The effect is that Hirschfeld and company seem to be trying to mask Bancroft’s age (something the actress herself never tried to do), a proposal made even more questionable by the evidence throughout the rest of the movie’s crisply-focused frames that the lovely and vibrant Bancroft, age 52 when the film was shot, clearly had nothing to hide. (A glimpse of the actress opposite Richard Widmark in Roy Ward Baker’s 1952 Don’t Bother to Knock inside one of the TBONTB docs serves as a potent reminder that this Italian broad from the Bronx was a knockout right from the start.)

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Above: Never explained on the poster for To Be Or Not To Be, Anne Bancroft’s name is in parenthesis. (Click image to enlarge.) It’s a reference to this exchange in the film between Bancroft’s character, Anna Bronski, and Brooks’s Frederick Bronski:
    Anna: “[I] don’t mind my name in smaller print. I don’t even mind it under the title, but in parentheses?!”
    Frederick: “I like it. It sets your name apart.”

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    Beside the actual image quality, the real upgrade is in the bonus features department on these new Blu-ray editions. The Blazing Saddles disc largely replicates that previously mentioned 30th Anniversary release, updated with all existing extras and another opportunity to hear straight from Brooks’ mouth the story of Richard Pryor’s contributions to the script and how the director tried in vain to have him cast as Black Bart. But it’s the Young Frankenstein disc, likely the most beloved movie in Brooks’ oeuvre, that is really dressed up. There are two new featurettes, both of which give ample gushing time not only to the original players but, somewhat annoyingly, those involved in the new Broadway incarnation as well, a picture-in-picture commentary track that accentuates the Blu-ray’s specifically tech-happy capabilities which features Mel Brooks and others, a trivia track, and an audio track that isolates John Morris' evocative 30s-European-tinged score. It also includes a “Blucher Button” in the special features menu that, when pressed, calls up the team of horses who whinny in terror at every mention of Cloris Leachman’s ostensibly sinister housekeeper. My daughter, who found this joke in the movie among the most gut-bustingly hilarious of all time, loved the opportunity to turn every bit in the movie into a Frau Blucher joke. (“You take the blond, I’ll take the one in the toiban.” Cue the nags!) I was more in love with seeing the present-day Teri Garr, aged by her difficulties with multiple sclerosis but not one iota bowed by the disease. She is truly one of the funniest, most spontaneous comediennes I’ve ever seen, and to see her wit at work talking about the experience of filming Young Frankenstein is one of the genuine joys of this set.

    The other bonus features are of the same basic stripe. Silent Movie, for example, features another trivia track and a featurette entitled “Silent Laughter.” High Anxiety is loaded up with an interactive game (“Am I Very, Very Nervous?”) and a “Hitchcock and Mel” featurette. History of the World, Part I features the usual making-of documentary, but, more appealingly, it takes time to highlight one of Brooks’ most consistent stylistic tropes, the musical number, with the interactive “Musical Mel” and a featurette about Brooks' conception of the controversial production number “The Inquisition.” The extras on To Be or Not To Be include another making-of documentary, and also “Brooks and Bancroft,” a warm remembrance of the actor and actress’s off-screen collaborations (she was a guiding force behind much of the casting of his earlier films as well as encouraging him to pursue the musical elements of those films). Their enduring, if to some eyes unlikely, romance is part of the remembrance too, with more than one associate pointing out that only a tough Italian woman from the Bronx like Bancroft could handle Brooks’ larger-than-life New York Jewish hurricane force. The original laserdisc commentary track to Robin Hood: Men in Tights has been restored and a making-of featurette has been added. And even Spaceballs is less skimpy than before on the bonus feature front. As if it were a genuine visual-effects epic, the disc features storyboard-to-film comparisons, outtakes, a standard-issue making-of documentary, a short featurette dedicated to John Candy, another focusing on the relationship between Brooks and screenwriter Tommy Meehan, and another goofy feature with allows you to watch the entire movie at “Ludicrous Speed” (which, all things considered, may be the best way to experience Spaceballs). Finally, the old DVD commentary with Brooks is back — at one point the director, so enamored with the comedy on screen, just shuts up for about ten minutes and lets it lay, surely a first for the chatty comic filmmaker.
    The slim, rectangular box contains a booklet-style folder for the discs themselves, but the real draw of the packaging is an excellent 120-page companion book entitled It’s Good to Be the King which serves as a fine introduction and biographical sketch of Brooks’ working life through the period in which the films were made, including his show business origins, his personal and working relationship with wife Anne Bancroft, with whom he starred only once, and the stories behind the creation of the films included in the set. For casual Brooks fans several of the stories told about the films get repeated or refashioned on the commentaries that are included for many of the films. But the more dedicated will appreciate the relatively unfamiliar and entertaining looks behind making movies like The Twelve Chairs, which returned Russian Jew Brooks to the homeland of his ancestors and introduced him to Dom DeLuise, who would become an integral element in Brooks’ trusted circle of performers. The book won’t satisfy as criticism, nor is it meant to. As a companion to each film, the chapters serve as a kind of genially written digest of information that forms the spine of historical context through which the movies, gathered together like this, can be seen.

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Above: Released in 1970, The Twelve Chairs was a sleeper hit that played theatrically for years. (Click image to enlarge.)

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    That historical perspective might just come in handy when looking at the individual films, too. It certainly enriches the experience of seeing The Twelve Chairs again, which despite its farcical leanings has a calmness and richness of feeling, not to mention a more structured, character-based approach to storytelling that Brooks as a director would never access again in his career. It’s downright strange to see, after so much exposure to Brooks the zany anything-goes parodist, this relatively humane comedy, about a former Russian aristocrat (Ron Moody) whose pursuit of a cache of diamonds sewn into one of twelve dining chairs he once owned, which have since been redistributed to the people in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, is complicated by the attentions of a con artist (Frank Langella) and an unscrupulous priest (Dom DeLuise, whose wild slapstick style emerged fully formed in his first film for Brooks). Brooks, still working in the cynically tinged mode of The Producers, gives The Twelve Chairs a healthy respect for the Russian culture and milieu while playing out with satisfaction the movie’s philosophy, expressed in the title song “Hope for the Best (Expect the Worst).” The movie’s bittersweet but upbeat ending (haunted by our knowledge of post-1915 Russian history) carries an unexpected punch that proved to be, in the arc of Brooks’ career, the director’s swansong to emotional sincerity, and the meticulously beautiful Blu-ray transfer is the best gift that fans of this minor treasure could ever hope to receive.

    The seismic shift that came next not only changed Brooks’ entire approach to filmmaking, but ended up being a landmark in movie comedy as well. Whether it’s a duplicate or not, the 55-minute interview attached to the commentary track for the Blazing Saddles Blu-ray is an invaluable peek into the process of creating this foul-mouthed, subversive satire. The audio piece details with fond remembrance and not just a smidgen of recalled frustration the difficulties and joys of bringing the movie together. “I wrote berserk, heartfelt stuff about white corruption and racism and Bible-thumping bigotry,” writes Brooks in the introduction to the chapter on Blazing Saddles in It’s Good to Be a King, entitled “He’s Just Crazy Enough to Do It.” Brooks recalls that writing the movie “got everything out of me — all of my furor, my frenzy, my insanity, my love of life and hatred of death.” Seen in 2009, Blazing Saddles is, against all odds, as funny as ever (and this from someone who laughed so hard upon seeing it in 1974, at the tender age of 14, that several of my classmates at school told me the next day, “I heard you at the movies last night!”) To my mind that frenzy Brooks speaks of is channeled here into something truly representative not only of Brooks’s state of mind, but the state of mind of the country at the time he was making it. No other Brooks movie hits the kind of gasp-inducing highs that Blazing Saddles does, or sustains that delirium as well. And maybe part of why the movie plays so well in 2009 is that it taps into our memories of a time that was perhaps less enlightened but also far less suppressed in terms of a culture’s permission to air its filthy laundry in the form of a vicious romp on racism like this. Going into the second American decade of the millennium, we have a Black president and nobody says the “N” word anymore, but anybody with any sense will tell you that the old devils ain’t gone, they’re just well hidden. In Blazing Saddles Brooks fiddles with the enemy, recognizes him in us, and has a hell of a laugh in the attempted exorcism. In the long run the exorcism may not have worked, but it’s good to know that this movie, far from just a well-preserved time capsule, is still in there throwing punches around.

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Above: Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle conduct their fractured alchemy in Young Frankenstein on Kenneth Strickfaden’s sets from the original Frankenstein (1931).

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    Blu-ray also does beautiful things for Brooks most beloved, and certainly most well-made movie, Young Frankenstein. In fact, Blu-ray might be almost too good here — it throws into extra-grainy relief (as it does in those attempts to smear Anne Bancroft’s natural beauty) the movie’s occasional optical zooms and effects against the measured blacks and grays and whites of cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld’s meticulously recreated ‘30s Europe-by-way-of-James Whale visual poetry. Young Frankenstein is now itself a nostalgia piece not unlike the Universal Frankenstein films it so lovingly recreates — Blu-ray affords an even better look at Kenneth Strickfaden’s original Frankenstein laboratory equipment, which Brooks hauled out of a Hollywood garage and used to spectacular effect here. And while the surrounding extras reinforce the affection that audiences have for the movie, Young Frankenstein remains palpably connected to the love Brooks and co-scenarist/leading man Gene Wilder themselves have for the genre they’re parodying, a love which is successfully transferred here. Perhaps Wilder contributed to the movie’s much more even pacing and general structural strength, in essence acting as the calmer brain that never got inserted into Brooks’ monster cranium but this once. (It also helps that the filmmakers hew pretty closely to the basic narrative structure of the Universal formula.) But that evenness holds the movie in check too — it never truly leaps off the operating table and screams “I’m alive!” in the way that Saddles did. That said, Madeline Kahn is almost as good here as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s brittle debutante fiancée, as she was doing Lily Von Shtupp; and the movie will always be a treasure for showcasing Wilder’s patented slow-burn, Feldman’s movable hump, Teri Garr’s effervescent charm, Peter Boyle’s genius way with a double take and Kenneth Mars’ unintelligible clenched-throat proclamations to the howling mob (“I said, a rrrrriot iss an ooogla thank…”). Young Frankenstein would demarcate the last time Brooks would ever hold his spiraling zaniness in check in service to a narrative, and if it could have used a sprinkle or two more of his patented zest, it’s still probably the best genre parody ever made.

    Brooks talked the studio into black-and-white with spectacular results, but though his next stunt was also a hit (less so than Young Frankenstein, however) it would prove less artistically successful. If such a phrase as mise-en-scène can ever be used when speaking of a Mel Brooks movie, Silent Movie, a picture which ought to be dripping with the fancy French phrase, is surprisingly lacking in it. It may be Brooks’ most disappointingly simplistic and unimaginative movie, visually speaking, and the clothesline on which the gags are hung is particularly frayed — an anachronistic trio of moviemakers (Brooks is the director, but it’s never clear what accomplices Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman do) are out to cast a silent movie with big stars in order to save their struggling studio from Gulf-and-Western-esque corporate clutches. The movie is stocked with cameos (Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds have funny bits, and there’s also James Caan, Paul Newman, Anne Bancroft and, in case you were missing him, Marcel Marceau), but it’s nothing more than a lame doodle. I’m kind of stunned to remember that in 1976 as an unrepentant Mel Brooks fan I thought this was hilarious stuff. It remains genial enough, and my daughter loved it for its unabashed love of slapstick (the boys’ increasingly destructive encounter with Minnelli in a studio commissary while dressed in fake armor is the movie’s real keeper). But too many bits fall flat, and since there’s no dialogue only John Morris’ relentlessly cheerful score booms out of those home theater speakers to keep the chirping crickets at bay. Silent Movie’s best feature on Blu-ray is its usefulness as a demonstration for the challenge of subtitling such an ironically sound-effects-dependent movie for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. The subtitle track adds an element of unexpected interest here and is one of many such subtitle tracks in this set that are exceptionally well-done and attentive to material which, more often than not, may not deserve such close attention.

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Above, Vertigo-go: Mel does Hitch in Vertigo’s San Francisco, with multiple nod wounds to Psycho in High Anxiety. Click images to enlarge.

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    The movie that really sent Brooks down the spiraling road of movie parodies with increasingly meager returns was High Anxiety. In this Hitchcock pastiche, the references fly fast and furious, but the movie remains somewhat listless and desultory as it unpacks all the obvious nods to the Master of Suspense. Another bad habit was set in cement with this movie — Brooks’ penchant for casting himself in the role of leading man. It’s possible that, given a, shall we say, more conventionally attractive Cary Grant-style charmer at its center who might be less tempted to overact — Silent Movie co-conspirator Burt Reynolds, perhaps? — High Anxiety might have worked better as a whole. But with Brooks flailing about front and center — and Ron Carey duplicating His Master’s Volume on the sidelines — the whole movie has an air of desperation, coupled with a flatness of technique, that makes it the furthest thing from representative or evocative of what made Hitchcock’s films suspenseful, or funny, for that matter. Again, Madeline Kahn’s inspired lunacy (this time as the Kim Novak-Tippi Hedren stand-in) does the movie proud, as do Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman, reveling in hilarious sadomasochistic villainy. And there are a couple of visually inspired set pieces that play havoc with Hitch’s often-ostentatious camerawork. But even while the movie has some laughs, it’s hard not to notice Brooks coasting by this point.

    Brooks would rediscover an old friend — unabashed vaudeville vulgarity — for History of the World Part I. This sketch-based romp through human history (up through the French Revolution, at least) really isn’t any less hit-or-miss than Silent Movie or High Anxiety, but its blackout format means that if something strikes you as dumb, no worries — it’s likely to be tossed aside in favor of some other dumb bit fairly quickly, and maybe that one will do ya. And it’s bawdier than any Brooks film since Blazing Saddles — Kubrick’s apes greet the Dawn of Man by manhandling themselves — which gives it a welcome forward momentum and energy lacking in his movies since then. The theme of Brooks’ post-Saddles filmography seems to be the reining-in of the director’s crass underbelly — his attempts at subtlety are still broader than the side of my grandma’s barn, but without the accompanying nasty-boy sensibility, Brooks is often left holding the bag with a very unconvincing look of sincerity on his face. Well, the demon gets unleashed in History of the World Part I, which brings to life, with expectedly varying degrees of success, the Jewish jokester sensibility of the 2,000-Year-Old Man in the director’s piecemeal overview of the really funny parts of the Human Comedy. Best and most controversial of all remains Brooks’ eye-rolling, gasp-inducing, hilarious production number “The Inquisition,” which stages Torquemada’s grimmest, most horrific punishments for all their Broadway glory and gusto. Equal parts Brooksian tastelessness, Pythonesque absurdity and Busby Berkeley visual insanity, “The Inquisition” taps back into that anger that fueled the director’s best movie. That he never again dared to take this kind of risk with his comedy marks “The Inquisition,” if not the entirety of History of the World Part I, as the last great moment of Mel Brooks comedy.
    The remainder of the Blu-ray set has its charms, and they are centrally located in Brooks’ genial remake (directed by longtime associate and choreographer Alan Johnson) of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic To Be of Not to Be. The opening credits fail to acknowledge Lubitsch or scenarists Edwin Justus Mayer and Melchior Lengyel, instead giving sole credit to Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham for the film’s script. That the original artists are eventually mentioned about a minute into the end credits (and mentioned once in the Blu-ray bonus material, by Dick Van Patten who claims that the remake is better than the original) is slim recompense. Just about everything that works in the 1983 version, outside of the charm of seeing Brooks and Bancroft’s joy at working together, can be directly traced to the original 1942 film which, let’s face it, having been made while Hitler was still marching across Europe, had a little bit more at stake than does the Reagan-era remake. Seen solely on its own terms, however, the new TBONTB is a pretty good piece of work — Charles Durning’s justifiably Oscar-nominated Colonel Erhardt being a notable high — and if the residue of the movie’s charm proves impermanent, then there is at least the pleasure in the moment of seeing Brooks work within a character-based structure again, surrounding by a flock of the usual suspects (George Gaynes, Jack Riley, George Wyner, Ronny Graham and even a pre-Doc Brown Christopher Lloyd among them). And to my eye there’s no discounting the presence of Anne Bancroft in a role this juicy, even if she is dancing in the shadow of Carole Lombard. For the gift this movie gives her — of being adored by every man who surrounds her — To Be or Not to Be was worth the risk of remaking one of the great comedies of all time. That the resulting movie is nothing to be ashamed of is its own reward, for Brooks and for us.
    Spaceballs, however, is an embarrassment. Though nowhere near the nadir of the aforementioned Seltzer/Friedberg travesties, Spaceballs certainly prefigures the sort of dead-in-the-water shtick that even Star Wars geeks will reject as far too corny and way too dumb for the room. (My seven-year-old wondered aloud why the Yoda stand-in — painfully enacted by Brooks in a dual appearance — was named Yogurt. “Wouldn’t Yoga be funnier and kinda closer to the real name?” Trust me, when a seven-year-old sees through your game, Mel, it was not worth playing. Meanwhile, I think she’s ready for Galaxy Quest.) The Blu-ray transfer does make the movie shine in a way that it hasn’t since I saw it in Century City back in 1987 — in 70mm! (Did Brooks get seduced into thinking the audience was in some way going to groove on the effects even in this movie?) And if in space no one can hear you snore, at least while sitting in front of Spaceballs in the privacy of your living room no one is likely to care. Robin Hood: Men in Tights puts a period on the Mel Brooks Collection Blu-ray box, though not Brooks’ career as a film director (to date his final film was Dracula: Dead and Loving It). The period does mark a less-than-auspicious note on which to close Brooks’ adventures in this new home video format, though at least sans the aggressively desperate after-taste of his epic space nod. There are laughs to be had in this incarnation of Sherwood Forest, most of them courtesy of Tracey Ullman, Richard Lewis, Dave Chappelle and even Isaac Hayes, but the movie is a mere shadow of the similar yuks harvested from Brooks’ short-lived 1975 TV series When Things Were Rotten.
    Brooks’ work as it is packaged together here for the first time (sans The Producers, Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead and Loving It) stands as a valuable document to one of the most energetic entertainers in comedy history — Blazing Saddles was notable for many things, not the least of which finding a way to bottle the kind of Tasmanian Devil-like fury that Brooks often brought to semi-improvised situations like his 2,000-Year-Old Man routines or his hilarious landings on the set of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. And for serious connoisseurs of comedy, even the warts on a career like Brooks’ can be instructive. Viewers will get those, plus all the roses and deserving accolades, and the great highs of his best films too, within this beautifully designed package. The whole enterprise is enough to inspire me to see Life Stinks again (a movie I don’t remember being as awful as its reputation) and even that Leslie Nielsen Dracula movie, the one Mel Brooks movie I have never seen. A good friend of mine thinks it’s pretty funny. Mel Brooks would probably stand by it too. And that, for me, is good enough for at least one whirl. The Blu-ray discs within The Mel Brooks Collection are worth even more than that.

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Dennis Cozzalio writes about film and, occasionally, baseball at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.