Forty years ago today, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein shuffled into theaters. The film was an instant success, earning both healthy box office figures and critical acclaim (even if it was of the guarded sort: “It would be misleading to describe Young Frankenstein… as astoundingly witty, but it’s a great deal of low fun of the sort that Mr. Brooks specializes in,” sniffed Vincent Canby of The New York Times). The movie went on to earn a pair of Oscar nominations, prime spots on scores of “best comedy” lists, and the reputation of being perhaps Brooks’ best film ever.
Young Frankenstein also happens to be one of the only Mel Brooks movies that doesn’t feature the director himself in either a supporting or a starring role. And according to Brooks, that was no accident: “That was the deal Gene Wilder had. He says, ‘If you’re not in it, I’ll do it,'” Brooks told The A.V. Club in 2012. “He says, ‘You have a way of breaking the fourth wall, whether you want to or not. I just want to keep it. I don’t want too much to be, you know, a wink at the audience. I love the script.’ He wrote the script with me. That was the deal. So I wasn’t in it, and he did it.'”
Interesting. Brooks has directed 11 feature films; he appears onscreen in nine of them. The only other outlier from Brooks’s oeuvre is 1967’s The Producers, his very first movie—and like Young Frankenstein, that film is considered a unimpeachable classic. Later releases by Brooks, though—like 1991’s widely reviled Life Stinks—aren’t nearly as beloved… and at first glance, it seems that those later releases are a lot more likely to star Brooks than his earlier movies.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying this: I spent last week watching every movie Mel Brooks ever directed with a stopwatch in my hand, all to see whether this hypothesis (the more Mel, the worse the movie) held up under rigorous scientific review (read: me, with a stopwatch). I counted every time Brooks appeared onscreen in each film, including times when he’s visible but not speaking. It took… longer than I anticipated when I decided that this would be a fun way to spend a week.
Interested in my findings? Excuse me while I whip ’em out.
The Producers (1967)
Where’s Mel? Nowhere; like I said, he doesn’t appear in the movie. Although he does voice the storm trooper who chants, “Don’t be stupid/be a smarty/Come and join/the Nazi party!” in “Springtime for Hitler.” (Fun fact: That same recording is used by stage productions of The Producers to this day.)
Total screen time: None
How much of the movie is that? Still zero; have you not been listening?
Rotten Tomatoes score: 90—near universal acclaim.
Verdict: The hypothesis holds. So far, so good. (P.S. The original movie’s “Springtime for Hitler” is, for some reason, absent from YouTube, though it looks a lot like the version that appeared in Susan Stroman’s 2005 adaptation of the stage show… which also features Brooks’ vocals.)
The Twelve Chairs (1970)
Where’s Mel? He plays Tikon, the drunken, sycophantic ex-servant of a Russian aristocrat reduced to poverty following the Bolshevik revolution.
Total screen time: 7 minutes, 17 seconds
How much of the movie is that? 7 percent
Rotten Tomatoes score: 92—shockingly high, considering nobody really talks about The Twelve Chairs anymore.
Verdict: Short Brooks cameo… higher Rotten Tomatoes score than The Producers. Iiiinteresting. Really, though, the main takeaway from this movie is Hot Young Frank Langella. (Humina humina.)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Where’s Mel? Three places: He plays lecherous governor William J. LePetomane (“We’ve gotta protect our phony baloney jobs, gentlemen!”), the Yiddish-speaking Indian Chief, and, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-cameo, an aviator who’s come to Hedley Lamarr’s outlaw recruitment event.
Total screen time: 5:50
How much of the movie is that? 6.5 percent
Rotten Tomatoes score: 90. Which is kinda nuts, because this movie is definitely better than The Twelve Chairs. (Not that The Twelve Chairs is bad! But Blazing Saddles is the funniest movie Brooks ever made, as well as one of the funniest movies ever made period.)
Verdict: Another short-ish cameo, another high Rotten Tomatoes score.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Where’s Mel? Nowhere onscreen, though he voices a werewolf, a cat hit by a dart, and the unseen Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
Total screen time: Zilch
How much of the movie is that? A big ol’ goose egg.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 94
Verdict: The best-reviewed movie on this list, and it contains no onscreen Mel. Maybe Gene Wilder was onto something.
Silent Movie (1976)
Where’s Mel? Front and center—this is the first Brooks film starring its director. Brooks movies are always self-referential, but this one may take the meta prize: Brooks plays Mel Funn, a director trying to convince big Hollywood stars to appear in a silent movie. Mark this also as the first time Brooks casts himself opposite a beautiful woman around 20 years his junior; it won’t be the last. (He does, however, share one lovely scene with his actual wife—Anne Bancroft, playing herself.)
Total screen time: 32 minutes, 24 seconds
How much of the movie is that? 37 percent, which isn’t crazy high considering Brooks is the film’s star.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 89. Lower than the ones that came before it—though not really low enough to prove me right.
Verdict: You might think that since this (utterly delightful) movie kinda disproves my hypothesis, I’d quit the experiment now. But you would be wrong—because I own the Mel Brooks collection on DVD. Nothing can stop me!!
High Anxiety (1977)
Where’s Mel? Starring again, this time as Richard H. Thorndyke, a brilliant psychiatrist from Harvard who suffers from vertigo… er, “high anxiety.” You may begin to notice a pattern: From here on out, Brooks tends to play superlative characters whose brilliance is lauded by everyone else in the movie. Also, High Anxiety marks Brooks’ producing debut. Also also: There’s an extended sequence where he and Madeline Kahn put on Yiddish accents, and it’s probably the funniest thing in the movie.
Total screen time: 50 minutes, 18 seconds
How much of the movie is that? 53.5 percent—by far the highest yet.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 75—the lowest yet, by a relatively wide margin.
Verdict: A frequently amusing Hitchcock parody, but you can’t help wondering if it’d be funnier with someone more like Jimmy Stewart (and less like Mel Brooks) at its center.
History of the World, Part 1 (1981)
Where’s Mel? Everywhere! This one’s a collection of sketches (some long, some short) rather than a sustained narrative, which explains why Brooks plays so many parts—he appears as a Yiddish-accented Moses, the “stand-up philosopher” Comicus, Spanish inquisitor Torquemada, King Louis XVI, and Jacques, the King’s “piss boy.” (Kinda weird for the monarch to call a 55-year-old man “boy,” but hey, I guess that’s why it’s good to be the king.)
Total screen time: 31 minutes, 56 seconds—less than you’d expect, frankly
How much of the movie is that? 34.7 percent
Rotten Tomatoes score: 62, which barely puts it in the “fresh” category. And which makes me question the integrity of reviewers; who doesn’t love this movie?
Verdict: High Mel content, low critical score—though it has less Mel than the better-performing High Anxiety. Worth noting: The French Revolution stuff is by far the weakest section… and it’s also the segment that spotlights Brooks the most.
Where’s Mel? Doing double duty as both evil President Skroob and Yogurt, a Yiddish-accented Yoda parody.
Total screen time: 10 minutes, 48 seconds
How much of the movie is that? 11 percent.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 54. And Spaceballs deserves it. (Sorry, guys—I do not get why people love this movie.)
Verdict: Goes against my hypothesis; after all this, I ain’t found shit. Sigh.
Life Stinks (1991)
Where’s Mel? Starring as Goddard Bolt, a billionaire persuaded into betting a devious Jeffrey Tambor that he can survive for 30 days in Los Angeles’s worst (and incongruously rainiest) slum.
Total screen time: 52:03
How much of the movie is that? 56.5 percent, the highest yet.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 20, the lowest yet.
Verdict: It’s interesting to see Brooks branch out from spoofs… but Life Stinks is mostly just Trading Places, without the laughs or Eddie Murphy. Which is to say it kinda stinks. (Should’ve had more Yiddish.)
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Where’s Mel? Surprise: He’s barely in the movie! Brooks stops by for just a few brief scenes as Rabbi Tuckman, a Yiddish-accented mohel. (In 12th century England. Just go with it.)
Total screen time: 4 minutes, 59 seconds
How much of the movie is that? A measly 4.8 percent—the lowest of all Brooks films, not counting The Producers and Young Frankenstein.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 48. Wait—48?! EW called it a “senile rehash of [Brooks’s] demented classics”? But… but unlike some other Robin Hoods, he can speak with an English accent!
Verdict: The real pattern ruiner—though I maintain this movie is much better than critics gave it credit for. Probably because none of those critics happened to be 11 years old when they first saw this movie.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
Where’s Mel? Digging into the (potentially) juicy role of Van Helsing, a Yiddish-accented vampire fighter.
Total screen time: 18 minutes, 4 seconds
How much of the movie is that? 20.5 percent.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 11. Oof.
Verdict: The worst movie Mel Brooks ever made isn’t the Brooksiest of them all… but it does happen to be the last movie he ever made. What a bum note to end on.
So, where does all that leave us? With this: The less Mel in a Brooks movie, the better the movie—unless you’re talking about Spaceballs or Robin Hood: Men in Tights. (Which, it must be said, are both beloved by certain subsets of viewers—i.e. the ones who were too young to see Mel Brooks movies in the ’70s.) The more Mel, the worse the movie—unless you’re talking about Silent Movie, or, arguably, History of the World, though on that one, your mileage may vary. In the end, then, Brooks screen time isn’t a reliable barometer; release date is. Which is the sort of thing I probably could have determined without the stopwatch. But hey—after all that Borscht Belt immersion, you should hear my Yiddish accent.