Sunday, April 15, 2007

Autobiography At Second Hand

Most readers will know about my obsession with Mel Brooks, an obsession which has extended to me owning copies of both the post-1960 and post-2000 versions of The Producers, watching both of the movies several times, and even seeing the play on Broadway despite the fact that Max Bialystock was being played by Tony Danza. And shortly I plan to get a copy of his 1960s comedy album The 2000 Year Old Man. Yep, I got it bad.

It's Good To Be The King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks is the latest edition to my Brooks library, a biography of the man by some dude called James Robert Parish. What's it like? Let me just say that Mel Brooks life makes a fascinating, riveting, intriguing and eminently readable biography, and it's just a pity that this book isn't it. Parish has gone through realms of documentary material from newspapers, magazines, television interviews, films, documentaries, and biographies, and proceeds to ignore the best anecdotes, tell a series of stories that don't go anywhere, and cuts-and-pastes quotes from Brooks that don't seem to mean anything. Facts are gathered together so that Parish can squeeze every last drop of insignifance out of them.
It's good to learn about Anne Bancroft and her 30-odd year relationship with Brooks, but what point exactly is there to learning that Bancroft is fond of gardening? Or that in making his later films, Brooks often ended early so he could get back home to see the horse races? Now you do.

That whooshing sound you hear is Parish missing the point, usually with the aid of one of his trusty cliches. Did you know that Mel Brooks is 'zany'? He is also 'wacky' and 'seriously funny'. He is a 'jokester'. He has an 'extensive, multifaceted show business career' and is a 'born survivor.' He 'could 'rarely resist indulging his antic sense of humor'. He is all cliches to all people, but most of them to Robert Parish.

The book is good about Brooks' early career as a TV writer with Sid Caesar and his earlier films, with detailed stories about how Brooks struggled to get The Producers his initial version of The Producers off the ground (it started as an unpublished book, became an unperformed stage play, and ended up as a script for the screen). Mostly this is because Brooks and his friends tell a good story themselves. It was interesting to learn that Silent Movie, a conscious parody of the silent movies of previous years, was not originally Brooks' idea.
The later movies often get two or three pages each (in an almost three hundred page book). You barely start reading about them before you get to read the critics being critical about them. Their favourite criticism is that Brooks' films are 'tasteless', which is another cliche. Parish seems to tacitly approve of much of this criticism; he doesn't offer many insights into the filmmaking process. For 'A History of the World: Part 1', Brooks got Orson Welles to be the narrator. How did Brooks get Welles to agree to this? Did they know one another? What was their working relationship like? We never find out. The film is also a groundbreaking comedy, one of the first and most effective parodies of the Grand History Documentary genre.
'Robin Hood: Men in Tights', probably Brooks' best later film, also gets short shrift. I loved this film when I first saw it (admittedly, this was just several months ago). It zig-zagged from references to Cole Porter musicals to Errol Flynn-style action scenes. It starts and closes with a rap number led by Dave Chapelle and companions clad in 'Merrie England' style clothing. I laugh just thinking about the scene where Robin swims back to England through the Mediterranean seas, to the tune of 'row, row, row your boat'. What movies were being parodied here? Was Brooks a fan of Errol Flynn as a kid? Did he re-use many of the gags from his earlier Robin Hood television series 'When Things Were Rotten'? Often the jokes rely solely on the comic timing of the actors, and they pull it off brilliantly: how did Brooks settle on his cast?

But no, we don't really get any of that. All we get, instead, are funny anecdotes about Brooks clowning around in a Manhattan record store in front of a college student ("A short man appeared in the doorway above me, jacket thrown over his shoulders like a cape ... In a loud theatrical voice, he called out to the manager, asking if his records had come in.... he said: "Would you like a quick lesson? I'll show you 10 ways to smoke a cigarette - give me one... he then proceeded to act out a series of freeze frames that would have done justice to the most emotive of silent film stars.")
It's true, there are the occasional telling moments. When Mel's father, Max Kaminsky, dies, his grandparents are ever on hand "with a seemingly endless supply of herring, and, sometimes, with much-needed cash". ('So sorry to hear about your father's death. Here, have a fish!') Or, later, there is the story about how while Brooks is writing for television, he is fired by boss Max Liebman. Several times. Every day. Now there is comic potential aplenty in all of this, and it says something about the surreal, absurd, Borscht-belt humour Brooks typically uses. Typically, Parish fails to make the connection.


Unsurprisingly, most of the best anecdotes in the book are told by Brooks himself. The whole thing is kind of an autobiography at second-hand. Bugger that. I'd be interested in reading a first-hand autobiography.


Karen said...

Every man of a certain age is obsessed with Mel Brooks, it seems!

But you do need this:

Row, row, row your boat in Latin

Duc, duc, navem duc,
Flumine secundo,
Laete, laete, laete, laete,
Ut in somnio.

It's not an exact translation, but it balances the demands of meaning and metre rather well, I think.
(It's my favourite thing to sing in rounds. Sorry about that conversation, incidentally- too much champagne and too many oysters too late in the day).

Tim said...

He is all cliches to all people, but most of them to Robert Parish

Almost Jamesian. Clive, not Henry.

Brooks has a recurring role in series four of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David is cast as Max Thingamy in The Producers.

BTW, I'm back blogging at Sterne and Sars.

TimT said...

Karen, I love it - it actually rhymes!

Yep Tim, I noticed - I think after you left that comment at Ampersand Duck's a week or so back.

I am ashamed - I had no idea about this series of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'.

Bill Cooper said...

My favorite Mel film was 'History of the World', I always thought it would be 'good to be the King' but I always end up being the piss boy.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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