The career of iconic filmmaker Mel Brooks was celebrated at Twentieth Century Fox Studios on Thursday, and it was being done in conjunction with the fortieth anniversary of one of his funniest films, Young Frankenstein. This event brought out a big crowd on the Fox Lot and Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, introduced Brooks by saying that he was one of twelve people to win an EGOT (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and the Tony) and that the 80-year-old studio was welcoming back its 2,000 year-old-man.
To commemorate this occasion, the studio painted a mural on Stage 5 where the movie was shot, and it featured stars Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Terri Garr and Peter Boyle in a scene that depicted them re-animating the creature. On the other side of the mural was an illustration of Mel Brooks who looked over the proceedings with a big smile on his face. This made Brooks remark amusingly, “That’s a beautiful, beautiful mural, really. I wish we were in Italy, it would last forever. They keep them on church walls in Italy. This will be good for 18 months and then they will get something else.”
After all these years, Brooks remains a consummate storyteller, and the crowd that gathered on the Fox Lot to see him honored was delighted to hear of how the idea for Young Frankenstein first came about.
“While I was doing Blazing Saddles,” Brooks said, “Gene Wilder, who played the Waco Kid, was in a corner of the soundstage scribbling on a legal pad. And I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I have an idea for a movie. I’ve always wanted to play this nutty, wonderful character Frankenstein, and in my concept I call him Fronkenstien because he’s ashamed of the family fooling around with occult nonsense, trying to take dead tissue and turn it into living matter.’ He says, ‘That’s my story, sucked in again to the Frankenstein destiny.’ I said, ‘That’s a good story. Do you need any help?’ He said, ‘Well I don’t know how to write.’ So we wrote it together while we were filming Blazing Saddles and most of it while I was in the editing process of Blazing Saddles.”
Brooks’ first pitched the idea to Warner Brothers, but the studio was ultimately not interested. Keep in mind that this was before Blazing Saddles came out. Brooks said that if he pitched the idea after Blazing Saddles was released, there’s no doubt that Warner Brothers would have made any movie he offered them. So instead Brooks and Wilder took it over to Columbia Pictures, but that resulted in a rather strange situation.
“So Columbia liked the idea and they said they would make it, and we made a deal for roughly $1,750,000, not even $2 million to make Young Frankenstein,” Brooks said. “And as I left the room at Columbia I said, ‘Thank you! This is wonderful! We’ll start Monday. Just one thing, just one little thing – we’re gonna make it in black and white,’ and then I left. Down the hall after me were a thundering herd of Jews screaming, ‘PERU JUST GOT COLOR!’ So we went back in the room for 6 hours of arguing about black and white or color and finally they said, ‘We’ll compromise; we’ll make it on color stock and we’ll diffuse the stock and it’ll be in black and white, and those countries that are up to color like Peru will issue it in color.’ I said, ‘Well it’s a good compromise,’ and then somebody told me it’s never black and white. It’s blackish like the show, actually bluish. I said, ‘No it has to be on Agfa black and white thick film.’ They said that’s a deal breaker and I said break the deal.”
“So that night Mike Gruskoff (the movie’s producer) got the script over to Alan Ladd Jr. who was running the feature aspect,” Brooks continued. “We met with Laddy and he said, ‘We’ll do it. What do you need?’ We said, ‘About $2 million.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you $2.2 (million).’ So Fox bought it and no interference, just support, and I have tried to be at Fox ever since.”
This led Brooks to talk about another one of his best known comedies that spoofed the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and of how Hitchcock himself was actually involved in its making.
“I made High Anxiety here and Hitchcock was helping me write it, and Hitchcock gave me a joke,” Brooks said. “I said, ‘Hey Hitch is pitching! Look at this!’ And I said, ‘What’s the joke Hitch?’ He said, ‘A guy is running, he’s at the end of a dock and the ferry is about twelve or fourteen feet away, and he leaps into the air and he lands on the deck of the ferry. Ah, made it! Except the ferry is coming in.’ That’s a great joke, and if I had the money I would have filmed it.”
“Hitchcock saw a rough cut of High Anxiety,” Brooks continued, “and he didn’t say a word and he literally waddled past me (makes waddling sounds), got to the end of the aisle, walked out the door and I said, ‘He didn’t like it? He liked it? He didn’t like it?’ I was just heartbroken and I thought it’s a failure. Next day a guy comes with a wooden box. On the box it says Château Haut-Brion, 1961. Priceless! Six magnums of Château Haut-Brion with a note: ‘Dear Mel, have no anxiety about High Anxiety. It’s a wonderful film. Love Hitch.’”
In addition, Fox permanently renamed the street adjacent to Stage 5 “Mel Brooks Boulevard” in honor of the director. The event came to an end after Brooks unveiled the new street sign for everyone to see, and he couldn’t help but say the following, “Now that they’ve got a street named after me, people are going to walk all over me. Terrible.”
Nevertheless, it was a fitting tribute to a man who has given audiences some of the funniest movies ever made.