With his birthday at the end of June, Mel Brooks passed his 72nd year in the entertainment industry. With a career dating as far back as the Admirable Broadway Revue in 1949, he established himself as a comedy legend long ago. And, with each passing year, we’re reminded just how much of a treasure he is. When contemplating his lengthy filmography, everyone’s list of favorites is bound to look a little different. After all, he’s been directing movies for almost sixty years.
Have you been looking to jump into Mel Brooks’ work? A look over his complete filmography shows 11 films released over 28 years behind the camera. He’s skewered plenty of genres with his trademark humor.
Being a completist, I finally finished the last few Brooks films I’d missed, and of course, I wanted to talk about them! There’s something here to like for everyone, and even the “bottom” of the rankings show some really interesting movies. From the bottom of this list to the top, here are our thoughts on every Mel Brooks movie. I’m ranking them, too!
11. Life Stinks (1991)
Life Stinks is one of two movies on this list which feels decidedly un-Mel Brooks. The 1991 feature follows Brooks as Goddard Bolt, a wealthy man who wagers he is able to survive without the comforts of home and money. You know what that means? Life Stinks is a Mel Brooks comedy about being homeless. Lesley Ann Warren, Jeffrey Tambor and Howard Morris co-star in the movie. Mel Brooks receives credit for the script along with Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman.
It would be a lie to say Life Stinks isn’t a challenging watch in 2022. After my first-time viewing it, something about it did not sit quite right. Is the issue the subject matter? Is homelessness really a topic crying out for a zany comedy? Brooks certainly hasn’t shied away from challenging subjects. Entries on this list turn the Spanish Inquisition and even Adolph Hitler into humourous fodder. This is the purpose of comedy, after all. At its roots, comedy is deeply rooted in being transgressive and asking questions.
Turning a comedic eye towards certain topics gives us power over our pain. It allows subjects to become more accessible to the masses. Comedy is a powerful tool. However, Life Stinks feels too deeply rooted in a painful reality for Brooks’ fanciful style. While the film eventually acknowledges homelessness as an issue (and Bolt learns his lesson), the road it takes is an uncomfortable one.
Life Stinks is widely available as a rental on many platforms.
10. Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
The next entry features Mel Brooks (in his last directorial outing) turning his trademark wit on the story of the “Prince of Darkness” himself. Dracula: Dead and Loving It stars 1990s parody mainstay Leslie Nielsen, Peter MacNicol, Steven Weber, Harvey Korman and Amy Yasbeck. Brooks directs the film from a script he wrote with Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman.
In format and structure, Dracula: Dead and Loving It feels like a standard Mel Brooks movie. Ultimately, the film’s biggest struggle is something that cannot be helped. This is Brooks’ last time behind the camera. The jokes feel like Brooks’ voice. This looks like a Brooks movie. However, by 1995 the industry had changed. Brooks’ usual stock company is largely absent, leaving only Harvey Korman opposite a troop of younger performers (and the seasoned veteran Nielsen).
This would have been a different (and delightfully entertaining) movie had it come earlier in the director’s career. Regulars like Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Kenneth Mars could certainly elevate this material. Unfortunately, while Yasbeck and Weber are both fine performers, they don’t feel natural in the Brooks world. As such, the material never quite reaches the level of its predecessors.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It is widely available as a rental on various platforms.
9. High Anxiety (1977)
At this point, the list grows a bit harder to put together. As I keep mentioning, there’s not truly a weak work in the bunch. In the next spot, we drift much earlier in Brooks’ career. High Anxiety hit theaters in 1977. However, the movie–which sees Brooks turning his focus to Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography– should be a match made in heaven.
This time out, Brooks steps in front of the camera to star in High Anxiety. He appears as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, a psychiatrist working at a mental health facility. Struggling to learn the ropes of his new job, he unearths a number of secrets hanging over the institution. The film co-stars Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman and Howard Morris. Meanwhile, Brooks shares writing credit with Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca and Barry Levinson.
As mentioned, High Anxiety is marketed as an Alfred Hitchcock movie shot through a Mel Brooks lens. The potential for wackiness practically writes itself! History recounts that even “Hitch” himself loved High Anxiety.
Ultimately, Brooks’ work relies heavily on viewers knowing the genre he’s playing in. There are certainly noted Hitchcock parodies in High Anxiety which will reduce fans of the “Master of Suspense” to giggles. At the same time, intense cinephiles might also appreciate some deep-cut references to The Cobweb. However, the film brings a level of specificity in the humor, which might not connect with the casual film viewer in 2022.
High Anxiety is currently streaming on HBO Max.
8. Blazing Saddles (1974)
I know. I’m going to have to duck some flying fruit here. Blazing Saddles is admittedly remembered as one of the greatest comedies ever made… just not for me. A study of my Brooks preferences left me realizing I liked other films far more. Don’t hate me!
Blazing Saddles stars Cleavon Little as the sheriff of a “Wild West” town tasked with saving the day against the evil Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman). The cast features a cavalcade of Brooks regulars, including Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn and Brooks himself. Brooks is credited on the script alongside Richard Pryor, Alan Uger, Andrew Bergman and Norman Steinberg.
An examination of the history of Hollywood comedies shows Blazing Saddles brings a number of memorable set pieces. Who hasn’t snickered over the beans sequence, or heck, any facet of Cleavon Little’s performance? As a classic film fan, am I sick to death of the Hedley Lamar joke? Yes! (Maybe that’s why I rank Blazing Saddles so low). Anyway, while there are memorable pieces, the whole movie pales in comparison to some of the pictures coming up on our list. Sure, it’s a classic, but check out Brooks’ other works.
Blazing Saddles is currently streaming on Hulu.
7. Silent Movie (1976)
Silent Movie was a new watch for yours truly in 2022. I had no idea what I was walking into as I sat down to check it out. Boy, was I shocked!
Believe it or not, Silent Movie (with one notable exception) is a “silent movie.” The film features a stellar Brooks cast, led by the filmmaker himself, opposite Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Sid Caesar and Bernadette Peters. Mel Brooks is credited on the screenplay alongside Ron Clark, Barry Levinson and Rudy DeLuca.
Silent Movie is a fascinating cinematic experiment. Coming in 1976, the movie falls during a particularly nostalgic period in Hollywood. It was also in 1976 when Peter Bogdanovich released his under-appreciated Nickelodeon… another film about the silent era which deserves a cultural reevaluation.
Silent Movie really is an experiment, and to be honest, in 1976, it’s a brave one. In crafting the movie as a silent film, Brooks is doing more than making a period comedy. He’s making a comedy of the period. In form and style, Silent Movie feels at home in the silent era. While it might not always work, it’s certainly one of Brooks’ bravest experiments and one you should watch.
Silent Movie is a challenge to find on streaming. It is available on DVD from Amazon.
6. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
I must admit, Robin Hood: Men in Tights hits this list at number six, coasting on a bit of a nostalgic wave for yours truly. This was the first Mel Brooks movie I saw in theaters, and it’s always held a special place in my heart. I’m looking at you, Cary Elwes.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights tells the Brooks-ified version of the age-old tale of Robin Hood. The movie stars Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Amy Yasbeck and Dave Chapelle. Brooks is credited on the script alongside JD Shapiro and Evan Chandler.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights rode on the tails of the 1991 film version of the same story starring Kevin Costner. It makes light jabs at the movie, which those who remember it will appreciate. (After all, this Robin Hood speaks with an English accent!) At the same time, classic film fans will also appreciate Brooks’ many homages to the legendary 1938 version of Robin Hood.
It’s already been mentioned that the success of Brooks’ genre parodies relies heavily on viewers recognizing common tropes. In this case, the more accessible the story, the better. In choosing a tale like Robin Hood, Brooks hits a home run. Few stories are as recognizable, and with many popular films to lampoon, the savvy filmmaker has plenty of material to play with.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights is widely available as a rental on most online platforms.
5. The Twelve Chairs (1970)
The Twelve Chairs was a new discovery for yours truly this year when I resolved to finish Brooks’ filmography. I knew the name from interviews but, in truth, knew nothing about the actual film. Speaking honestly, that was a great way to dive into this movie. I had no expectations.
Of all the works on this list, The Twelve Chairs existed as a passing reference for me. Brooks referenced it a number of times in the press while The Producers musical was running on Broadway (it was an early song-writing attempt for him.) The film stars Ron Moody, a shockingly young Frank Langella and Dom DeLuise in a story about down-on-their-luck individuals searching for treasure in 1920s Russia. Brooks receives sole credit for the screenplay, which comes from a number of different sources.
This movie isn’t spoken about much in the pantheon of all things Mel Brooks, and this is probably a big part of why it’s so high on my list. The Twelve Chairs doesn’t feel like a Mel Brooks movie. In that (much like Silent Film), it feels like quite a cinematic experiment when watching Brooks’ filmography in hindsight. Coming in 1970, it is the director’s second film (he directed The Producers three years earlier.) While we see him now as a directing legend, in 1970, he was a young filmmaker trying to find his voice.
I’m adult enough to know that The Twelve Chairs certainly won’t hit with everyone. It doesn’t feel like a “Mel Brooks movie” per se. So, if you’re questing for his trademark style, you won’t see much of that here. The Twelve Chairs stands at a compelling crossroads of Mel Brooks’ comedy and sophisticated period piece. Frank Langella, in particular, is interesting to watch here, especially for those only familiar with the actor later in life (as was yours truly.) If you’re a Brooks completist, ready your brain and check this one out.
The Twelve Chairs is currently out-of-print. At the moment, it is easiest to locate on YouTube and eBay.
4. History of the World: Part I (1981)
History of the World: Part I stands as one of the most uninhibited examples of the “Mel Brooks” form on this list. While it doesn’t get as much mainstream love as works like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, History of the World: Part I shows Brooks at the peak of his powers.
History of the World: Part I features the “Brooks cast” to end all Brooks casts. Gregory Hines, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Ron Carey, Sid Caesar, Shecky Greene and Brooks himself co-star in the movie. Brooks receives sole credit for the screenplay. The movie can best be described as a broad, “Brooksified” examination of the history of the world, from “The Old Testament to the French Revolution.”
History of the World: Part I was one of the earlier Mel Brooks movies I watched, and it stands out as one of the quintessential examples of Mel Brooks as a filmmaker. It brings everything from the bawdy humor and the references to the music numbers. In fact, History of the World Part 1 undoubtedly shows Mel Brooks at his most “Brooksian.”
Need we say more…
History of the World: Part I is widely available as a rental on a majority of platforms.
3. Spaceballs (1987)
I came to Spaceballs with relatively low expectations. Having been raised on Star Wars, the franchise has always been in my life. Though, with each passing watch of the Mel Brooks Star Wars parody, I found myself liking it just a little bit more each time. It grew on me.
Spaceballs stars Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Joan Rivers and Brooks himself. The story follows a galactic rogue (Pullman) who, along with his furry companion (Candy), attempts to rescue a galactic princess (Zuniga) from the evil “Darth Helmet” (Moranis). Brooks is credited on the script alongside Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham.
While works like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It are closely tied to the sources on which they are based, Spaceballs feels less “based on” and more “influenced by” Star Wars. It has the heart of Star Wars while still being able to shine on its own. Thanks largely to the performances of Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman and John Candy, Spaceballs stands alongside Brooks’ best works.
Spaceballs is currently streaming on FuboTV.
2. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Admittedly, the last two entire on this list were painful to pick. Either film could have potentially come out on top, depending on the day.
Young Frankenstein stands as the first Mel Brooks movie I watched. In fact, it is probably many people’s entry-point to the director’s work. It is one of the greatest comedies to come out of Hollywood and is itself an almost perfect movie.
The story follows Victor Frankenstein’s grandson Frederick (Gene Wilder) as he travels to his famous grandfather’s castle. While he initially riles against his family legacy, he inadvertently ends up following in Victor Frankenstein‘s footsteps. Young Frankenstein stars Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman and Kenneth Mars. It’s a perfect Brooks-ian cast. Brooks and Wilder share credit for the screenplay.
Young Frankenstein is iconic, and of Brooks’ works, it is certainly one of the most quotable. Any number of moments are still remembered as vividly as they were upon their release.
Meanwhile, the movie is the smartest of his parodies. Young Frankenstein captures the spirit of its namesake in the Universal horror franchise while shining with the heart of a comedy. Heck, it even captures the spirit of Mary Shelley‘s original novel. Brooks’ love and respect for the original subject matter leap off the screen. While the word “essential” is often tossed around, Young Frankenstein is a film that earns the classification. If you haven’t watched this one, add it to your list.
Young Frankenstein is not streaming at present, but it is widely available in physical media formats.
1. The Producers (1967)
Last but not least, The Producers comes in at number one…who are we kidding… by a nose. As mentioned, these last three entries ended up being one hard choice after another. How is one to choose?
It all started here for Mel Brooks. The Producers marks his directorial debut and follows Broadway producer Max Bialystok (Zero Mostel), who has a sudden epiphany. It seems a producer could “make more money than with a flop than he could with a hit.” So, he sets out with his bookkeeper-turned partner (Gene Wilder) to create a “sure-fire flop.” The result is “Springtime for Hitler.”
The movie features a brilliant cast, including Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars, Estelle Winwood, Christopher Hewett, Andreas Voutsinas and Lee Meredith.
Of Brooks’ movies, The Producers shows the filmmaker hitting his comedic stride right out of the gate. It’s by far the most original of Brooks’ works, and it easily stands on its own two feet thanks to its brilliant cast.
If you were a fan of the 2000’s Broadway musical of the same name, make sure you check out this 1967 gem.
The Producers is available as a rental on many platforms. Just keep an eye on whether you’re clicking on the 1967 or the 2005 musical version.
When All is Said and Done
Mel Brooks remains one of the 20th century’s greatest comedic minds. With a career lasting more than 70 years, few creators equal the longevity he’s enjoyed. In fact, at 96 years old, Mel Brooks is still very much with us and still active. In a filmography with so many hits, it’s a certainty that no one’s list looks quite the same. Everyone has their own favorites.
What are your favorite Mel Brooks movies? Let us know in the comments.