Waiting for Mel Brooks

Entertainment presents itself in many forms while one waits in line outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to hear Mel Brooks discuss his 1968 outrageous comedy “The Producers.”

Act I

The sea of humanity on that sacred Hollywood ground is a character study all its own; the faces in the crowd are worth watching and listening to until the real thing comes along.
On any given day there are as many tourists as there are stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — and they travel in packs. They’ve come to worship at the footprints and handprints of the immortal gods and goddesses of celluloid. Fans of all races and creeds posing with wax figures of the stars or snapping photos of the Michael Jackson, Superman, Batman and “Star Wars” stormtrooper impersonators.

The scene today, though, is part of the Turner Classic Movies’ first classic film festival in Hollywood, April 22-25.
Those of us with basic cable TV service can see and appreciate classic movies on TCM. The majority of these films are in black and white, which to a young audience just becoming familiar with classic films must seem like the Middle Ages, the way my generation viewed silent movies.

Through that weekend, TCM screened 50 classic films on the big screens at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Egyptian Theatre and other venues.

The long line is starting to move, and just in time. A self-proclaimed prophet is standing on a soapbox with microphone in hand ranting about the Ten Commandments.

Thankfully, the attention is diverted from him when through the crowd glides a vision — an attractive twentysomething woman in a summer print dress of black and white with matching parasol. She is smiling at everyone she sees — like “Windy” in that song by The Association. She stops for a moment when street corner troubadours begin to serenade her.

“Pretty romantic stuff,” I say to her. She answers with a look on her face that has suddenly become melancholy: “I have, what, 20 more years of this?”

Just like that, she’s gone.

Act II

It’s a packed house inside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to see Mel Brooks, one of many movie greats participating in Turner Classic Movies’ (TCM) Classic Film Festival. An 83-year-old man says he drove from Nevada to attend some of the events. He was particularly interested in seeing the MGM movie musical mermaid of the 1940s and 1950s, Esther Williams.

A thirtysomething woman named Tracy (“Like Katharine Hepburn’s character in ‘The Philadelphia Story.’ “) is from the Bay Area. She drove to the festival with her sister. They have split up in order to cover as many events as possible.
She is quick to show the digital photos from the Vanity Fair party the night before. There’s one of her sister with TCM primetime host, Oscar historian Robert Osborne. There’s another one of her sister drinking champagne with actress Diane Baker.

Tracy won’t be able to get a photo with Mel Brooks, though. The woman on stage introducing the comic genius announces that photos will not be permitted during the discussion. Except for the selected few in the camera well seated directly in front of the stage.

Maybe they are tourists chosen at random to capture a Hollywood figure that’s not in wax.

Act III

The first thing you notice about Mel Brooks is his enthusiasm. Such energy for a “2,000-Year-Old Man.”
Now in his 80s, Brooks hasn’t lost a step; he’s still that funny kid who probably entertained family members with jokes and impressions when they were gathered in Brooklyn for the holidays.

Brooks put the original in “original screenplay” and won an Academy Award for “The Producers.” There certainly was nothing like it before and maybe only a few since that come close to succeeding at making you laugh while you should be feeling guilty.

The plot concerns down-on-his-luck Broadway producer Max Bialystock (played by the master of over-the-top, the late Zero Mostel, whom Brooks said was both “terrible and wonderful — remarkably talented”) and nebbish and neurotic Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder, who was Oscar-nominated) who discover through a little “creative accounting” that they could make more money producing a flop rather than a hit on Broadway. To make that happen, Max woos little old widows for their money to finance the musical that on paper should become a sure-fire disaster: “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgarden.”

Brooks detailed the genesis of the movie, including how producer Joseph E. Levine wanted to fire Wilder after a few weeks, even offering Brooks $30,000 to make it happen. Brooks stood by Wilder, telling Levine he’d fire him for $60,000, knowing the movie mogul wouldn’t pay out that much.

Brooks said he intended to call the movie “Springtime for Hitler” because he wanted a title “that would drive the Jews right out of their seats.” He was talked out of it when the film’s distributors said they wouldn’t put Hitler’s name on the marquee. “They didn’t want to give that (expletive) any billing,” Brooks said.

Brooks noted that the movie had a tough time finding play dates and, consequently, an audience. But thanks to strong word of mouth “and a lot of brave Jews for loving it” the movie became a hit in New York, Chicago and L.A.

But not everyone was a fan of the movie. Brooks recalled that one New York Times critic said the movie was “gag writing” while wondering what’s next, comedies about Hiroshima and cancer? Brooks’ response: “That’s the job of critics. We kill things.”

One little known fact about the movie is that Dustin Hoffman was cast to play the role of Franz Liebkind, the demented transplanted Nazi who is the over-zealous author of the play. However, before shooting started, Hoffman informed Brooks that director Mike Nichols wanted him to come out to Hollywood to test for “The Graduate.” Brooks gave Hoffman the OK to bow out, thinking the actor “is a mutt — nobody’s going to hire him.” Of course, Hoffman got the part of the younger man seduced by the older Mrs. Robinson, played by the late Anne Bancroft, Mrs. Mel Brooks.

Brooks was just getting warmed up (though it’s impossible to imagine him ever cooling off) when it was time to wrap up the discussion. There was no Q&A following the talk, maybe because many in the movie savvy audience would have a hundred questions for him.
uch as, so what do you have against subtlety?

Epilogue

Prior to the discussion at Grauman’s, Brooks received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside the Egyptian Theatre.

I’ve got to remember to go over there and get a photo.
Who knows, maybe “Windy” will glide by.

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