Over his fifty-plus year career Mel Brooks has established himself as one of the pre-eminent satirists in the entertainment industry. His razor sharp humor has scored successes on television, in Hollywood blockbusters and the Broadway stage. In each industry he has been graced with the highest honor and his accumulation of an Oscar®, Emmy, Grammy, and a Tony Award has earned him entry into a highly exclusive club.
Mel Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn on June 28, 1926. After serving with the army in North Africa during the Second World War, Brooks got his start in comedy by doing standup in Catskills, NY, nightclubs. His routines caught the attention of Sid Caesar who would later hire the young comedian for his TV series “Your Show of Shows.” Brooks then followed Caesar to write for “Caesar’s Hour,” alongside other young comedic luminaries such as Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner.
Brooks’ first film work came in 1963 with the Oscar®-winning animated short The Critic which he created with Earnie Pintoff. Two years later he would win acclaim by co-creating the hit TV show “Get Smart,” which would run through 1969. The show also won him the support of Joseph E. Levin who financed his first feature film, The Producers (1970). The film would win Brooks another Oscar®, this time for Best Screenplay and mark the beginning of his Hollywood career.
In 1974 Brooks co-wrote and directed Blazing Saddles, a hilarious send-up of the western genre and the first of the parodies that would become Brooks’ comedic calling card. The ensemble cast, including Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn, would become a staple of Brooks’ future projects. Brooks quickly followed this success with Young Frankenstein (1974), co-written with Gene Wilder. Their parody of the classic Hammer horror films was a huge success.
Brooks would churn out a steady stream of parodies over the next twenty-odd years, establishing a widely imitated, but rarely equaled formula. He sometimes missed as with Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977), but more often than not he scored hits as with History of the World – Part I (1981), Spaceballs (1987), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).
Brooks, who usually took small parts in his own films also found occasional work as an actor in other projects including a hilarious role as Uncle Phil on NBC’s “Mad About You.” Through his involvement with his own production company-Brooksfilms–Brooks scored successes as executive producer of films as varied as David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).
In 2001 Brooks re-imagined his first film, The Producers, as a Broadway musical. The stage production, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, ultimately won 12 Tony’s and a Grammy en route to becoming the hottest play on Broadway.
With over forty years of experience in the performing arts, Mel Brooks has received the highest honors in each field he has tried his hand in.
From the 2000’s onward Brooks had mostly contributed voice roles on animation series such as the excellent Jakers and occasional guest roles on shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Even in his 1950s heyday, a lot of people would have thought twice before crossing a busy road to see Richard Todd. Yet he was enormously popular. With clean-cut, chiselled features you could cut your hand on, nicely proportioned shoulders and more virtue up front than a van-load of Bibles, Todd looked as if he had come off a drawing-board instead of having been born the usual way. Wisely, he made the most of what he had, which could be summed up as an inability to sit still while there was a horse to leap astride, a swollen river to swim, or a tree to vanish into.
His first big success was as a dour Scots Guards corporal in The Hasty Heart (1949, Vincent Sherman). The setting is a wartime Burma field hospital, and Todd, unknowingly, is riddled with some fatal disease. He is arrogant and dismissive, more difficult to handle than a Scots football fan at closing time, but everyone else, including fellow patient Ronald Reagan and nursing sister Patricia Neal, knows that his number is up so tolerance prevails.
Looking every inch a stage weepie – which it originally was – the story rumbles on towards a predictable climax, with Todd learning of, and coming to terms with, his condition, but not before a rather pathetic attempt to woo Miss Neal – ‘I’ve good teeth,’ he insists. Todd’s playing is in tune with the sombre mood of the piece and his faltering, change-of-heart address at the end works reasonably well, but some of the earlier writing lacks conviction.
He was another terminal case in Flesh and Blood (1951, Anthony Kimmins), a consumptive medical student who discards pushy girlfriend Ursula Howells for some peace and quiet – only to find his action has precisely the opposite effect. Miss Howells rounds on him like a demented fishwife, hollering, ‘I wish you’d die!’ to which poor Todd, semi-convulsed in yet another coughing fit splutters, ‘I’m . . . doing . . . my . . . best!’ She gets her wish, but Todd reappears as his own grandson, an even worse cad with the ladies. ‘Do you think I’d have let you kick me around all this time without adoring you’, trills Glynis Johns, pacifist daughter of an ammunitions tycoon when, after she has carried out a chequered pursuit of the rotter, he grudgingly proposes to her.
Walt Disney picked Todd for three costume actioners, including an attempt at Robin Hood, during 1953-1954, as if determined, at all costs, to establish him as Errol Flynn’s successor. In The Sword and the Rose (1953, Ken Annakin) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French) only the costumes, and Miss Rice were changed. Disney brought in his Flesh and Blood co-star Glynis Johns, plus Robin hoodlums James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough.
Todd risked being adversely compared with Errol Flynn for a second time as Raleigh to Bette Davis‘ Elizabeth in Virgin Queen (1955, Henry Koster), which did nothing for Todd, but reminded audiences how far ahead of his imitators the charismatic Flynn had been in his heyday.
Todd rose to the bait as wartime flying ace Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955, Michael Anderson), a pleasantly restrained performance projecting strength of character without showiness. Todd had not been an easy actor to accom- modate dialogue-wise, but the hero of the Mohne and Eder dam raids settled on his shoulders like an expensively tailored jacket, and the film, whose over-reverence for its subject was its only obvious flaw, was hugely successful.
Several factors helped to maximise its impact. There was Todd’s remarkable physical resemblance to Gibson, and Michael Redgrave’s to Dr (later Sir) Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb’s dogged inventor; there was the near-documentary feel of the early experimentation sequences, the squadron briefings and the raid itself; the despairing loss as well as the triumph expressed by Redgrave as the dreadful death toll becomes known, due as much to the dangers of low flying in the dark in a target zone surrounded on all sides by steep hills as to the enemy’s defending battery stations; and there was the stirring theme music by Eric Coates, impossible to hear then or now without the spirits being stirred.
Nothing much stirred watching D-Day Sixth of ]une (1956, Henry Koster), which used the Normandy landings as backdrop for a turgid love triangle involving Todd as a British colonel, Dana Wynter as his girlfriend, a cross between Mary Poppins and a toothpaste commercial, and Robert Taylor as a married Gl captain who fills in for Todd while the lad is engaging the Hun elsewhere.
Even though it means putting the china doll-like Miss Wynter in storage for a while, Todd is no shrinking violet when the call-to-arms comes. ‘I have a singular theory – the quicker more of us go, the quicker more of us’ll come back,’ he tells Miss Wynter. Her grumpy old retired defence chief dad is in agreement – ‘A bit of cold steel now is worth twenty Americans later,’ he urges, before killing himself because he is too old to kill others.
Miss Wynter’s tally falls short of twenty Americans, presumably because not enough of them looked like Robert Taylor. Their dreary, lukewarm affair has to be heard to be believed. Apologising for her father’s dismissive attitude towards LIS troops – they meet originally when Taylor is sent along to smooth out an incident involving her father and a group of Gls – Miss Wynter explains rather grandly: ‘We [meaning the British] are not much good at being thank- ful. We haven’t had an opportunity to he thank- ful to anyone, except maybe God, in several hundred years.’
Later, on a dance floor, she ticks him off: ‘Don’t be cross but would you mind awfully not calling me Honey.’ Sitting in a cafe overlooking the Thames, the watchful Taylor acknowledges the presence of the moon. Miss Wynter coos, ‘Please God, let him be looking at it,’ apparently unaware that any soldier staring at the moon is unlikely to notice an enemy sniper creeping up behind him.
In the end. Miss Wynter loses both of them. Taylor is badly wounded in action and shipped home to the USA, and Todd is killed when he trips over a land mine on the newly-liberated beachhead.
It took the filming of a real-life heroic naval incident, the escape from Chinese waters of the RN frigate Amethyst in 1949, after months of blockading, as Yangtse Incident (1957, Michael Anderson), to restore Todd’s prestige after D-Day Sixth of June. Todd played the ship’s commander, the redoubtable Commander Kerans – a part which suited his sharp-eyed, closed-mouth style comfortably – and the tension of the wait in Communist waters followed by the ship’s nimble getaway down the Yangtse River under cover of darkness, was graphically conveyed without the need to resort to expensive special effects.
In Danger Within (1959, Don Chaffey), a wartime POW drama, Todd was a paratroop colonel who heads the obligatory escape committee, plagued on this occasion by the presence of a mysterious traitor. He appeared against type in Never Let Go (1960, John Guillerman), as a seedy cosmetics salesman whose car is nicked by sadistic Birmingham car-thief Peter Sellers. In the conflict that follows, Todd is the underdog but he comes through in a way that Sellers could never have anticipated. This was an intriguing – but not altogether successful – pairing of two stars playing outside their familiar selves.
By the early 1960s, he was beginning to run out of steam. He played a Gary Cooper-style lawman in The Hellions (1961, Ken Annakin), urging the inhabitants of a remote 19th-century South African township to find their backbone and repel Lionel Jeffries’ outlaw gang. In The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin) he risked re- minding us of his earlier Normandy landings caper, in a small role as a British Army major, again refreshingly brisk and stiff-upper-lip among hordes of laconic Americans.
In one of his later films, Asylum (1972, Roy Ward Baker), a modest Amicus horror compilation, Todd’s was the first story, a loony tale in which he and lover-doll Barbara Parkins bump off and dismember his troublesome wife, Sylvia Sims. He packages the assortment of odd limbs in neat brown paper packs, and stores them in a freezer till he can get around to final disposal. But the victim refuses to rest in pieces. Like a well- drilled football squad, the gory parcels gang up to inflict a nasty surprise on Todd and his girlfriend.
Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, whose golden curls, comic capers and winsome smile enraptured early filmgoers, became the first powerful women to emerge in Hollywood–on and offscreen. As a young thesp, she was directed by D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios and, in just two years (1909-10), made 77 films and became an international star. Beneath the curls schemed the brains of a shrewd businesswoman. In 1919, at 27, she co-founded United Artists with Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and husband Douglas Fairbanks.
Pickford practically invented screen acting–legendary director George Cukor once called her the first Method actress because she eschewed the broad, melodramatic gestures common at the time. Just as important, she was a true pioneer behind the scenes, demanding–and getting–salaries commensurate with her box-office appeal (million-dollar-plus). In the process, she showed women from Barbra Streisand to Madonna there was more to show biz than singing and acting.
The Last Word: “The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me.” – Mary Pickford, after retiring from the screen (when her youthfulness finally evaporated, at the precocious age of 41) and becoming a full-time producer.
Classic Directors: Anthony Mann
Anthony Mann was an often underrated director who introduced perceptive insights into his high, wide and handsome treatments of outdoor spectaculars, notably Westerns, war films and historical epics.
During the 1960s he had a fascination with sheer size, his El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1963) rank as two of the most intelligent grand-scale spectacles ever made.
Arriving in Hollywood via Broadway and the theatre, he directed his first film, Dr Broadway, in 1942 for Paramount. In the 1950s he established the style that was apparent in all his subsequent work: the analysis of men of action under stress. His Westerns and film adventures with JAMES STEWART – plus a succcssful change of pace for both in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) – were especially notable. He died while directing the spy melodrama, A Dandy in Aspic (1968), which was completed by its leading actor LAURENCE HARVEY.
Other key films include
Strange Impersonation (1946),
Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Winchester 73 (1950)
The Tall Target (1950)
Bend of the River (1951)
The Far Country (1955)
Strategic Air Command (1955)
The Man from Laramie (1955)
The Tin Star (1957)
Man ofthe West (1958)
The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
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