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The Schemes of Mel Brooks

The Schemes of Mel Brooks

Talking to Mel Brooks was an all-around mind-blowing experience, but the mind-blowingest part of the conversation came right before the end of our chat when I asked him whether he ever gets the itch to direct another movie, something he hasn’t done since 1995’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.” Here was his response:

“I do, I do. I’ve been getting that for the last four or five, maybe six months. Getting an itch to make a little black and white movie about something, I don’t know. I’m just looking for the scheme. I like schemes, like ‘The Producers’  — ‘You can make more money with a flop than you can with a hit.’ Just that one line, and you’re off and running. A whole parade of characters come in, based on one line; ‘you can make more money with a flop than you can with a hit.'”

I’ve seen all of Brooks’ movies (except “Life Stinks”) multiple times. I can recite long stretches of “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Spaceballs” from memory. And certainly the scheme from “The Producers” — how you can make more money with a flop than you can with a hit — is a classic. But until Brooks mentioned it, I’d never realized how fully schemes drive all of his work, not just “The Producers.” He’s Hollywood’s Hannibal Smith; he loves it when a plan comes together.

A brief list of Brooks’ cinematic schemes:

“The Producers” (1968) – Theater producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) attempt to grossly overfund a Broadway disaster so that when it closes on opening night they don’t have to pay off their backers and can keep the rest of the budget as pure profit.

“The Twelve Chairs” (1970) – Two men (Ron Moody and Frank Langella) team up to recover a priceless fortune in jewels that had been sewn into the seat of one of a set of twelve chairs that had been taken by the Communist government in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

“Blazing Saddles” (1974) – Conniving bureaucrat Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) needs to reroute a new railroad through the town of Rock Ridge, but the residents refuse to leave. He convinces Governor William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks) to deputize a black man (Cleavon Little) to police the area — on the assumption that the racist residents of Rock Ridge will be so disgusted by their new sheriff that they’ll abandon the town, clearing the way for the railroad.

“Young Frankenstein” (1974) – Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) inherits his great-grandfather’s estate, where he discovers a secret laboratory and notes on sinister experiments that involve bringing the dead back to life. Frankenstein, who’d previously shunned his heritage, decides to continue his ancestor’s work, creating a new Monster (Peter Boyle).

“Silent Movie” (1976) – Recovering alcoholic movie director Mel Funn (Brooks) decides to jumpstart his career by selling a movie studio on a unique new project: the first silent movie from Hollywood in decades. The studio’s chief executive (Sid Caesar) accepts the idea, but only if it involves the participation of the biggest stars in the world. Funn and his collaborators set off to recruit big-name actors like Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, James Caan, and Liza Minnelli.

“High Anxiety” (1977) – Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous attempt to keep businessman Arthur Brisbane (Albert Whitlock) hidden from his daughter Victoria (Madeline Kahn) and indefinitely incarcerated against his will in order to use his enormous wealth to fund the Institute. It’s up to new Institute administrator Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) to stop them.

“History of the World – Part I” (1981) – This anthology film of historical sketches includes a scheme set during the French Revolution; King Louis (Brooks) goes into hiding to protect himself from an impending peasants’ revolt, and hires a look-alike (Brooks) to pretend to be him (and take his execution for him).

“Spaceballs” (1987) – President Skroob (Brooks) kidnaps Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the planet Druidia, and blackmails her father (Dick Van Patten) in exchange for the code that unlocks the planet’s airshield, which Skroob and his band of Spaceballs plan to use to steal every breath of Druish air.

“Life Stinks” (1991) – Wealthy CEO Goddard Bolt (Brooks) bets another businessman (Jeffrey Tambor) that he can survive on the worst streets of Los Angeles for 30 days without any sort of financial support. If he succeeds, he wins the land rights to L.A.’s slums, which he can then raze and rebuild for a tidy profit.

“Robin Hood: Men in Tights” (1993) – Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes) returns from the Crusades to find his family home and possessions stole by Prince John (Richard Lewis). Robin assembles a team of Men in Tights to reclaim the land from John and his henchmen.

“Dracula: Dead and Loving It” (1995) –  Transylvanian vampire Count Dracula (Leslie Nielsen) purchases Carfax Abbey and travels to England, where he intends to secretly feast on the country’s beautiful woman and turn them into his vampire slaves.

From those few lines, a whole parade of characters come in — and some wonderful movies were born. I hope we get at least one more of them.

Mel Brooks: Make a Noise” premieres tonight on PBS.

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