To Be or Not to Be Reviews
The first was how much better The 12 Chairs looked than I remembered (the difference between VHS & Blu-Ray).
The second was this movie.
It's easy to belittle as an unnecessary vanity project. The original is an acknowledged classic, and Brooks clearly made this film in part as an offering of love to his wife, the late Anne Bancroft. She's filmed as if through a stocking throughout, and Brooks has probably his most heartfelt moment onscreen ever when he tells her character's would-be lover: "I don't blame you for falling in love with her. It's easy."
Trouble is it's too GOOD to belittle thus. I know it's easy to do because in the past, I've done it, saying "It's as good as it could be, considering it didn't need to be made."
I was wrong. It's better.
Although "officially" not written or directed by Brooks, its inclusion in a collection of films he *did* write (usually with others) and direct speaks for itself.
So I will speak of it as his film, but I feel he'd want me to say it was directed by former choreographer Alan Johnson and written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, none of whom were likely to need him hovering over them the whole film. But a wink in a special Blu-Ray feature suggests he still had a hand in.
But chiefly, he's an actor here, and this is his best (one of his only) sustained performance.
Dr Thorndyke in High Anxiety was a believable Hitchcockian leading man, but only as much as needed for the spoof. He didn't have to, excuse the expression, engage the heartstrings.
Maybe Bronski in this movie didn't *have* to either, the point is that he does, and the movie is better for it.
As the other half of the theatrical lead couple in World War II, it's also a genuine privilege to watch Bancroft act. She knew how to think onscreen, and also how to raise her head with comedic timing.
From top to bottom, the movie is filled with great character actors; the script gives them, and the movie allows them, moments to show why.
Charles Durning was nominated for an Oscar but on this last viewing I thought the best among equals was James Haake as Bancroft's dresser.
His character is an effeminate homosexual. (One way the film differs from the original is that it *can* show it wasn't just Jews menaced by the Germans.) For most of it he's played for laughs, which is fine-there were and are such men, and this is a comedy.
But his moments come first when he explains to Bancroft about the pink triangle he must wear, and the film affords him his dignity to say "I hate it," before he returns to joking, as some do. And later when he attempts to hide from the Nazis by dressing in drag. He is not successful, and the scene trips neatly from the ludicrous to the emotional.
Which isn't a bad way of describing the whole film, come to think of it. 30 years later, this stands by leaps and bounds as Brooks' best film of the '80s.
PS: The songs ain't bad, either.
This remake was faithful to the 1942 film on which it was based, and in many cases dialogue was taken verbatim from the earlier film. The characters of Bronski and Joseph Tura are combined into a single character, however (played by Brooks). The character of the treacherous Professor Siletsky (here spelled Siletski) was made into more of a comic figure, and even into somewhat of a buffoon, whereas in the original he was the one completely serious character in the film.
The film was favorably reviewed by Vincent Canby in the New York Times, who called it "smashingly funny."
Roger Ebert's film review stated that in the film, Mel Brooks "combines a backstage musical with a wartime romance and comes up with an eclectic comedy that races off into several directions, usually successfully."
It has a 63% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating "Fresh."
However, the film was not a great commercial success, grossing only $13,030,214
For his humorous performance as Colonel Erhardt, Charles Durning was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
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