Mel Brooks was really good at telling one kind of story. In fact he was so good at it that he just kept telling it throughout his career. The Producers served as a template for every other movie Brooks wrote and directed over the course of his film career, from 1967 to 1995.
I know Brooks has appeared in some other movies, like 1983’s To Be or Not to Be, but I’m only going to focus on the films he wrote and directed.
Without further ado, here’s the formula for every Mel Brooks movie:
- The main character is out of his element
- Someone has a scheme to take advantage of the hero
- The main character meets a bunch of zany characters one by one
- The love interest is fairly stupid
- A song-and-dance number comes in the second half of the film
- The main character loses everything
- There’s a big fight at the climax
- There’s a happy ending
Now I’ll show how each of these things plays out in each of Brooks’ movies.
Main Character Out of His Element – Leo Bloom is an accountant who is coerced into a life of crime by Max Bialystock.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Bialystock turns Bloom’s hypothesis into a scheme to defraud investors, actors, and other people in order to get rich.
Meets Zany Characters – Bloom first meets Bialystock, then a crazy playwright who wears a WWII German helmet, then a flamboyantly dressed director, and finally a hippie who is hired to play Adolf Hitler in the play, “Springtime for Hitler.”
Stupid Love Interest – Bialystock hires a Swedish secretary named Olga, even though she can barely speak English. He only wants her for her looks.
Song-and-Dance Number – The play opens with a grand musical number with the same name as the play, “Springtime for Hitler.”
Main Character Loses Everything – Instead of flopping on opening night, “Springtime for Hitler” gets critically acclaimed. Bloom and Bialystock are devastated.
Big Fight at the Climax – Bloom and Bialystock fight each other over their accounting books before being interrupted by the German playwright who tries to kills them with a gun. They then all team up to blow up the theater to end their play.
Happy Ending – The main characters go to jail for their scheme, but Bloom is happier than he was at the beginning, and he and Bialystock get to keep their racket going in prison.
The Twelve Chairs
Main Character Out of His Element – Vorobyaninov is a former aristocrat from Czarist Russia forced into a life of poverty in the new Soviet Union.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Vorobyaninov must contend with an ambitious young man named Ostap Bender and a crooked priest named Father Fyodor to find a treasure hidden inside one of a dozen chairs from his old estate.
Meets Zany Characters – Vorobyaninov runs into his old servant at his old mansion. Then he forms an uneasy truce with Bender, runs into Father Fyodor on the hunt for the chairs, an eccentric director, and a bunch of other people he seeks to bribe or barter with.
Stupid Love Interest – Bender seduces a beautiful young woman to sleep with him. She neglects to tell him that she’s married until it’s too late and her husband comes home.
Song-and-Dance Number – This is the only exception to the rule. The musical number comes during the opening credits. It’s a song called “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.”
Main Character Loses Everything – In the end, the hunt for the 12 chairs proves futile because someone else already found the treasure and used the money to build a charitable foundation. Vorobyaninov and Bender are penniless and hopeless.
Big Fight at the Climax – In a fit of anger, Vorobyaninov trashes part of the building his treasure bought and punches a policeman. He and Bender barely escape an assault by more than a dozen other officers.
Happy Ending – How could this movie possibly have a happy ending? Vorobyaninov accepts his fate, gets rid of the last of his pride, and pretends to suffer from epilepsy to get money from charitable onlookers. It looks like he and Bender are going to be friends and partners for a long time.
Main Character Out of His Element – Bart is a black railroad worker who is made sheriff of a small town that is sure to reject him.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Hedley Lamarr tries to run out a bunch of Old West townspeople from their valuable land first by violence and then by sending them a black sheriff to offend their sensibilities.
Meets Zany Characters – Lamarr introduces Bart to the governor. Then Bart barely survives his first encounter with the colorful citizens of his new town, befriends a washed-up gunslinger named Jim, defeats the monstrous Mongo, and meets many other people over the course of the film.
Stupid Love Interest – Lamarr hires a silly singer named Lili Von Shtupp to break Bart’s heart, but she unexpectedly falls in love with him.
Song-and-Dance Number – Lili Von Shtupp takes the stage at a saloon and sings “I’m Tired” to a crowd of adoring men.
Main Character Loses Everything – Lamarr raises an army of outlaws to drive Bart and the rest of the townspeople from their land. Things look bleak, and the townspeople are eager to pack up and leave.
Big Fight at the Climax – Bart comes up with a plan to trick the outlaws. He then launches an attack that spills over into other film productions on the Warner Bros. studio lot where Blazing Saddles is being filmed. It turns into a massive fistfight.
Happy Ending – Bart kills Lamarr and then leaves the peaceful town, joined by his good friend Jim.
Main Character Out of His Element – Frederick Frankenstein is a respected doctor who is a believer in modern medicine. So he is uncomfortable with his family heritage of morbid experimentation.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Frau Blücher was once the girlfriend of Frederick Frankenstein’s grandfather, and she plans to complete his work of reanimating a dead corpse by manipulating Frederick into doing it.
Meets Zany Characters – On his way to Frankenstein Castle, Frederick meets an assistant named Igor and a beautiful young woman named Inga. Later, he meets the mischievous Frau Blücher, a lead-tongued inspector, and, of course, the monster he creates.
Stupid Love Interest – There are two foolish love interests in this movie. First, there’s Frederick’s fiancé who doesn’t even allow him to touch her. She later falls in love with the monster. Meanwhile, Frederick falls in love with Inga, his assistant, who has a thick accent and sometimes has trouble following simple instructions.
Song-and-Dance Number – To introduce his monster to the world, Frederick sings and dances with him on a stage to the tune of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” It should be noted that actor/writer Gene Wilder had to plead with Mel Brooks to keep this hilarious scene in the film.
Main Character Loses Everything – The monster’s introduction ends disastrously and he gets chained up in prison where Frederick is unable to help him.
Big Fight at the Climax – The monster breaks out of prison and finds his way back to Frankenstein Castle. Frederick conducts a dangerous experiment to transfer some of his brainpower to the monster to give him a calmer brain. But a mob of Transylvanians breaks into the laboratory and starts trashing the place during the transfer.
Happy Ending – The procedure works and the monster pacifies the mob with his new articulate speaking ability. He and Frederick marry their respective loves and look forward to a prosperous future.
Main Character Out of His Element – Mel Funn is a onetime successful filmmaker who tries to convince modern Hollywood executives and actors to make a silent movie.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Executives at a conglomerate called Engulf & Devour plan to purchase the struggling movie studio that is financing Funn’s silent movie. They try to sabotage his film so it won’t be a hit for the studio.
Meets Zany Characters – Funn and his friends visit actors Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, and Anne Bancroft, and get them to star in their silent movie.
Stupid Love Interest – Engulf & Devour hires a silly singer named Vilma Kaplan to break Funn’s heart, but she unexpectedly falls in love with him. This sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Song-and-Dance Number – Vilma Kaplan performs a long dance sequence to seduce Funn in a restaurant.
Main Character Loses Everything – Funn finds out that Kaplan was working for Engulf & Devour, and he falls back into his drinking habit the night before shooting is about to begin on his silent movie.
Big Fight at the Climax – Funn sobers up and makes his movie, but the final print is stolen by Engulf & Devour. Funn and his friends rescue their film and get chased by the evil executives. They manage to fight the bad guys off with an explosive vending machine.
Happy Ending – Funn gets the film back to the theater just in time to show it to a preview audience, and they wind up loving it. The film studio is saved and Funn is on his way to a long career as a filmmaker and a happy love life with Kaplan.
Main Character Out of His Element – Dr. Richard Thorndyke is an acclaimed psychologist and professor who takes over a strange mental hospital.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Nurse Diesel and Dr. Charles Montague keep healthy patients locked up in their institution to extort money from their wealthy family members. They killed the former administrator for trying to expose their plot, and they plan to kill Dr. Thorndyke, too.
Meets Zany Characters – Dr. Thorndyke meets an eccentric driver, his old college professor, Dr. Montague, Nurse Diesel, several patients, and the lovely Victoria Brisbane on his way to figuring out the secret of the mental hospital.
Stupid Love Interest – Victoria Brisbane is the daughter of one of the patients being held against his will at Dr. Thorndyke’s mental hospital. She’s actually pretty bright and helpful, especially compared to other love interests in these movies.
Song-and-Dance Number – In a move that’s totally out of character, the usually shy Dr. Thorndyke suddenly turns into an outgoing lounge singer/comedian at a bar and sings “High Anxiety” while also cracking jokes.
Main Character Loses Everything – A hired killer named Braces wears a mask to make himself look like Dr. Thorndyke and kills a man in front of dozens of witnesses to frame the real Dr. Thorndyke for murder. He suddenly finds himself on the run from the law, a la North by Northwest.
Big Fight at the Climax – Dr. Thorndyke barely survives an attack by Braces, killing him in the process. He then overcomes his vertigo and fights off an orderly to rescue Victoria Brisbane’s father.
Happy Ending – Nurse Diesel kills herself, Dr. Montague is sent to prison, and Dr. Thorndyke and Victoria get married and live happily ever after.
History of the World Part I
Main Character Out of His Element – This movie is split into different segments with a different cast of characters in each one, but there are two main sections involving The Roman Empire and the French Revolution. Comicus is a comedian who offends Emperor Nero with his comedy routine. Jacques is a peasant who is forced to impersonate King Louis XVI during the French Revolution.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – King Louis plans to leave the country, so he gets Jacques to take the fall by pretending to be him.
Meets Zany Characters – Comicus runs into a pretty woman named Miriam and a slave named Josephus, who help him escape from Emperor Nero. Jacques meets a woman who was prepared to sell her virginity to King Louis in exchange for her father’s freedom from prison. Jacques frees her father with no strings attached, but then he gets captured by a bunch of angry French peasants.
Stupid Love Interest – Miriam and Mademoiselle Rimbaud are the two love interests, and they’re mostly defined by their virginity, not their intelligence.
Song-and-Dance Number – A bunch of Catholic priests sing a jolly song called “The Inquisition” while dancing and torturing heretics into confessing their “sins.”
Main Character Loses Everything – Things look bleak for Comicus after he insults Emperor Nero. He’s about to be killed in a gladiator fight. And Jacques is going to be killed in a guillotine for crimes he didn’t commit.
Big Fight at the Climax – Comicus and Josephus manage to escape certain death and are pursued by a bunch of Roman soldiers in chariots. Instead of resolving the chase through violence, they light up some nearby plants and the ensuing smoke makes the soldiers get high and start dancing wildly. After Jacques is assaulted by a bunch of peasants, he doesn’t get out of his predicament by fighting but by pure deus ex machina. This is sort of an exception to the rule, but what it really shows is that when Mel Brooks doesn’t end with a big fight, he forgets to actually replace it with something else.
Happy Ending – Comicus and Josephus get away scot-free, and so does Jacques, all with the help of the same horse named Miracle.
Main Character Out of His Element – Lone Starr is a renegade who is compelled to rescue a princess. He doesn’t realize that he is actually a prince.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – President Skroob and Dark Helmet plan to steal all the air from Planet Druidia to fill Planet Spaceball’s depleted atmosphere.
Meets Zany Characters – Over the course of his adventure, Lone Starr talks with his friend Barf, gets calls from Pizza the Hutt and the King of Druidia, rescues Dot Matrix and Princess Vespa, meets Yogurt, and fights Dark Helmet.
Stupid Love Interest – Princess Vespa is more headstrong than stupid. She makes some foolish mistakes, to be sure, like insulting her saviors and falling for Dark Helmet’s trap. But she also has some great scenes where she stands up to a bunch of armed guards and even sings a silly yet oddly moving solo.
Song-and-Dance Number – In a memorable diner scene, an alien bursts out of John Hurt’s stomach and proceeds to sing “Hello, My Baby” in front of all the patrons.
Main Character Loses Everything – Princess Vespa is captured and Dark Helmet gets the code to open Planet Druidia’s shield and steal all of its air.
Big Fight at the Climax – Lone Starr defeats Dark Helmet in a lightsaber-ish duel and then sets the Spaceballs’ ship to self-destruct. Pandemonium erupts as everyone aboard claws over each other to escape.
Happy Ending – Dark Helmet and President Skroob get stranded on the Planet of the Apes. Lone Starr discovers he’s a prince, which means he can marry Princess Vespa. He crashes her wedding, marries her, and the two journey to the stars to live happily ever after.
Main Character Out of His Element – Goddard Bolt is a rich business executive who agrees to live as a homeless man for 30 days to win a high-stakes bet.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Vance Crasswell is a rival businessman who makes the bet with Bolt to live as a homeless man for 30 days in order to get a prized piece of real estate. However, he never intends to make good on his promise, but goes behind Bolt’s back to steal all of his wealth.
Meets Zany Characters – During his time on the streets, Bolt makes friends with other homeless people nicknamed Sailor and Fumes. And he falls in love with a woman named Molly.
Stupid Love Interest – Molly used to be a Broadway dancer, but she lost everything when her marriage fell apart. She’s not terribly foolish, which makes it highly implausible that she would still be homeless after many years when she seems smart enough to pull herself up.
Song-and-Dance Number – On his last night of homelessness, Bolt dances with Molly in an abandoned building to celebrate his impending victory.
Main Character Loses Everything – Bolt is betrayed by his lawyers and all of his property is confiscated by Crasswell. He winds up in the hospital under heavy sedation, shouting over and over, “Life stinks!”
Big Fight at the Climax – Bolt teams up with his homeless friends to stop Crasswell’s plan to tear down their rundown neighborhood. They engage in a big brawl akin to the one in Blazing Saddles.
Happy Ending – Bolt forces Crasswell to admit he lied and cheated to get Bolt’s fortune. Soon after, Bolt’s money and property is restored to him and he marries Molly.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights
Main Character Out of His Element – After returning home from the Crusades, Robin of Loxley discovers his family is dead and his property has been confiscated.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Prince John and the Sheriff of Rottingham come up with a plan to disgrace Robin Hood in an archery contest and then assassinate him.
Meets Zany Characters – Robin rescues Ahchoo, rejoins his blind friend Blinkin, thwarts the Sheriff of Rottingham, and defeats and recruits Little John as he seeks justice for himself and his family name.
Stupid Love Interest – Robin and the Sheriff of Rottingham vie for Maid Marian’s affections purely because of her beauty and chastity. She hardly has any other characteristics worth noting.
Song-and-Dance Number – The Merry Men suddenly break into song in Sherwood Forest, singing the titular tune “Men in Tights.” Right after that, Robin serenades Maid Marian with “The Night Is Young and You’re So Beautiful.”
Main Character Loses Everything – Robin is captured during the archery contest, and he’s going to be hanged unless Maid Marian agrees to marry the Sheriff of Rottingham. He’ll either lose his life or his love.
Big Fight at the Climax – A riot breaks out after Robin is freed from the hangman’s rope. The Merry Men and peasants join together to dethrone Prince John.
Happy Ending – Robin defeats the Sheriff of Rottingham, King Richard returns to take back his throne from Prince John, and Robin gets back all of his property and also marries Maid Marian.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It
Main Character Out of His Element – Count Dracula leaves his castle in Transylvania to come to England. Of course, he can only come out at night, and his strange persona comes across as otherworldly to some people he meets.
Scheme to Take Advantage of the Hero – Dracula is both the main character and the villain of this story. He forces poor Thomas Renfield to do his bidding, and he plans to suck the blood of many young women to sustain himself.
Meets Zany Characters – Dracula meets the eccentric Renfield, followed by Jonathan Harker, Lucy Westenra, Mina Murray, Dr. Jack Seward, and Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. Some of them help him and others try to put a stop to his quest for blood.
Stupid Love Interest – All of the women in this film are highly susceptible to Dracula’s mind control. Renfield is, too, but that could just be because he’s an imbecile, as is suggested by his last line in the movie. Lucy immediately falls in love with Dracula and becomes his undead slave. Mina almost becomes his slave, too, but she’s saved through no action of her own.
Song-and-Dance Number – Out of nowhere, Dracula decides to take Mina to his castle and does a long dance with her. The next evening, he dances with her again in front of a large crowd.
Main Character Loses Everything – Dracula is exposed as a vampire in front of dozens of people, and he’s forced to flee with Mina to an abandoned church because his home is no longer safe.
Big Fight at the Climax – Dracula dukes it out with Harker, Dr. Seward, and Dr. Van Helsing in an abandoned church.
Happy Ending – Dracula gets vaporized by sunlight, which frees Mina from his powers. Everyone gets a happy ending with the vampire gone, except poor Lucy.
One More Thing: The Rule of Three
This isn’t in every Mel Brooks movie, but it’s in a lot of them: There are often three characters in the same shot working together.
- Leo Bloom, Max Bialystock, and Franz Liebkind in The Producers
- Frederick Frankenstein, Inga, and Igor in Young Frankenstein
- Mel Funn, Marty Eggs, and Dom Bell in Silent Movie
- Comicus, Josephus, and Miriam in History of the World Part I
- Dark Helmet, Colonel Sanders, and President Skroob in Spaceballs
- Goddard Bolt, Molly, and Fumes as well as the three lawyers in Life Stinks
- Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, Dr. Jack Seward, and Jonathan Harker in Dracula: Dead and Loving It
I don’t know if this is supposed to mean anything, but it sure is in a lot of his movies, so it’s a convention he fell back on a lot over the years.
The schemes may change and the quality of the jokes varies a bit from one film to the next, but the formula remains basically the same across all of Mel Brooks’ movies. While other filmmakers try to do something different with every film they do, like James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, Brooks seemed content to stay in a comfortable area during his career. There’s nothing wrong with that. It served him well most of the time.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
All images are the copyright of their respective owners.
Before “The Artist”, Mel Brooks shot “Silent Movie”.
Before “Django Unchained”, Mel Brooks shot “Blazzing Saddles”.
Before “I, Frankenstein”(urgh!), Mel Brooks shot “Young Frankenstein”(awesome).
Before George Lucas ruined the “Star Wars saga”, Mel Brooks shot “Spaceballs”.
Before Gus Van Sant ruined “Psycho”, Mel Brooks shot “High Anxiety” (Hitchcock liked the movie very much).
Before Wes Craven e Dario Argento ruined “Dracula”, Mel Brooks shot “Dracula: dead and loving it”.
Before Ridley Scott ruined “Robin Hood”, Mel Brooks shot “Men in tights”.
Mel Brooks was always up-to-date
Pingback: 10 Amazing ’80s Directors Who Lost Their Mojo in the ’90s | Deja Reviewer
Pingback: The 10 Most Obscure Movies That Earned More Than $300 Million (Adjusted for Inflation) | Deja Reviewer
Pingback: John Candy vs. Dom DeLuise | Deja Reviewer