For much of his career, Mel Brooks has had the peculiar distinction of being simultaneously ahead of and behind the times. Brooks' singing Nazis and flatulent cowboys radically expanded the parameters of mainstream comedy. Yet when American films were addressing social turmoil like never before, Brooks used his clout to turn back the clock by combining silly sight gags, show-biz satire, silence, and celebrity cameos in 1976's aptly named, ingratiatingly goofy Silent Movie. Brooks' cheerfully crude oeuvre connects the dots between vaudeville and the gross-out gags of American Pie, between the brothers Marx and Farrelly. Brooks ranks as one of the preeminent architects of contemporary comedy, yet his heart remains stuck in Hollywood's Golden Age.
Even the non-spoofs collected in Fox's eight-disc Mel Brooks Collection betray their creator's affection for his source material. To Be Or Not To Be is an extraordinarily faithful—though schmaltzy and ultimately pointless— 1983 remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 farce. Meanwhile, 1970's The Twelve Chairs adapts a 1928 novel into a funny, manic, mean-spirited goof about a frantic race to find hidden treasure in a Soviet Union where much of the populace has gone half-mad from hunger and desperation.
But Brooks' reputation largely rests on his genre parodies. Young Frankenstein (1974) and High Anxiety (1977) are as much loving homage as irreverent spoof. Anxiety is nearly as obsessive in recreating Alfred Hitchcock's visual style as Gus Van Sant's Psycho was, but to much greater effect, while Young Frankenstein even recycles some of the original Frankenstein's props and sets. The ambitious, intermittently funny History Of The World Part 1 is something of an anomaly in Brooks' canon, a parody of biblical epics and costume dramas that instead feels like Brooks' attempt to make an absurdist freeform romp in the Monty Python vein. No film better illustrates the enduring appeal of Brooks' enormously influential fusion of time-tested Borscht Belt shtick, postmodern Hellzapoppin' playfulness, lowbrow comedy, and uniquely American vulgarity than the 1974 Western spoof Blazing Saddles. True to form, Brooks references Saddles in 1993's dire Robin Hood: Men In Tights, the set's only out-and-out dud, but the allusion only underlined how far the mighty had fallen by that point. Otherwise, the films in Brooks' winning box set have stood the test of time nearly as well as the cinema they so lovingly send up.
Key features: Audio commentaries on Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and precious little else.