Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mel Brooks vs. Woody Allen

I heard a quote when I was in high school. Someone asked Mel Brooks why he didn't try making serious movies. He said it was because he and Woody Allen were the only two people who knew how to make a decent comedy.

Even in the '70s, there must have been SOME competently made comedies.

Brooks started out, by the way, trying to make slightly more "serious" comedies, or at least original comedies. His first two movies were The Producers and The Twelve Chairs.

The Producers everyone knows. The Twelve Chairs was based on a 1928 satirical Soviet novel by Ilf and Petrov. I thought it was pretty good. The book featured a criminal named Ostap Bender. I suspect that the character Bender on Futurama was a reference to this.

The story is about a Russian aristocrat deposed by the Russian Revolution. His mother-in-law is on her deathbed. She tells him that she had hidden a fortune in jewels in the seat of one of the twelve dining chairs in their mansion which has now been converted to an old age home by the Soviet government. He sets out to find the twelve chairs and soon finds himself working with Bender. But his mother-in-law also confessed this to a Russian Orthodox priest who is also searching for them.

There was a movie called It's In the Bag, made in 1945 with Fred Allen and Jack Benny which was loosely based on the same story.

The Producers and the movie The Twelve Chairs both failed financially. That's why Brooks turned away from original comedies to doing broad parodies.

Woody Allen's career took the opposite path. He started out making movies that were simply a series of gags. Notice that he didn't direct Play It Again, Sam, based on his play, because he was afraid to. It had a story----a beginning, a middle and an end. He didn't think he could direct something like that.

I don't remember what it was, but Allen had written a play before that. He was shocked when it was criticized for being too funny. It had too many jokes.

So Allen started trying to compensate for his weaknesses by making more and more "serious" movies.

And the results were a mirror of image of the results for Brooks.

Allen's first broad comedies did great, made a lot of money. His later "serious" movies barely broke even, and only because of the foreign markets. Allen has tried to claim since then that his early movies made very little money either, but it wasn't true.

Now, Woody Allen appeared as a voice actor in an animated ant movie which probably made more money that all his other movies combined.

But why anyone would ask Mel Brooks why he doesn't make "serious" movies? Looking at those broad parodies, the acting isn't exactly realistic. Why on earth would anyone think he was qualified to make a drama?

I should mention that Brooksfilm did produce The Elephant Man, and a biopic about Frances Farmer among other things.

With Woody Allen, the more artistic he tries to be the less cinematic his movies are. His "serious" art movies are 100% verbal. Everything is spelled out in the dialog. Reading the script and watching the movie are practically the same experience.

The only cinematic works of art Allen's made are his early, funnier movies. They may be verbal, too, but try to imagine a novelization or even writing a synopsis of Radio Days or Love and Death. They work well as movies but only as movies. They can't be translated into any other narrative form.

Mel Brooks, meanwhile, has gone into sad decline. People have stolen his movie parody gimmick making movies like Aiplane!, Scary Movie and countless others. He's made a few bombs--Robin Hood--Men in Tights, The History of the World Part One.

Well, everyone goes into sad decline if their lucky enough to live that long. Hitchcock, John Huston and Sydney Lumet managed to make triumphant returns at the end which Brooks has now done with The Producers.


Anonymous said...

mel books also did TO BE OR NOT TO BE which was a frame by frame copy of an earlier movie -- a much earlier film, from 1942 -- by ernst lubitsch.

both are great, but brooks did a great job on the copy, too.

Waldo Scott said...

I had forgotten about To Be or Not To Be. I saw it in a theater when it came out years ago.

There was also Life Stinks, which I still haven't seen.

Anonymous said...

Brooks didn't direct To Be or Not to Be.

Waldo Scott said...

You're right. I had no idea. Directed by Alan Johnson.