TV ReviewsMel Brooks, a Portrait in Full
By Dorothy Rabinowitz, Wall Street Journal
- May 16, 2013
It doesn't come as surprising or even paradoxical to learn, as we do in this manic, inexhaustibly gripping "American Masters"
portrait, that Nazi troops were among the first to appreciate Mel Brooks
's talents. His name, to be sure, wasn't Mel Brooks at the time. It was Melvin Kaminsky, a member of the armed forces of the U.S.; the time was close to the war's end, and combat engineer Kaminsky found himself within hearing range of enemy soldiers singing a German beer hall song.
He responded with a chorus of "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye," for which he received, he recalls, distinct sounds of approval from the audience across the river. It's the kind of anecdote—delivered casually and doubtless not for the first time, amid a stream of others on an infinite variety of subjects—that accounts for some of the best moments in the film, a work never in any danger of running low on charm or hilarity.
It takes the Brooksian capacity to blend a chaos of serious reflection and remembrance of things past, all regularly interrupted by asides, one-liners and, his specialty, the half-liner, into a dazzling unity, as he does here—as he's done so often. It's tempting, watching him look around the cavernous studio where he's being interviewed, to imagine all the material competing for attention inside that mind. Especially since there is, in this film by Robert Trachtenberg, a degree of the personal and biographical greater than any Mr. Brooks has provided before—that personal including, not least, the strength of his happy marriage to Anne Bancroft, his wife of 41 years. A matter Mr. Brooks underscores affectingly in a few words, and that his wife did, in her own way, with characteristic ebullience. That's evident in an old clip shown here, of an interview years into the marriage, in which she described the couple's meeting and courtship and the way Mel had pursued her. "Thank God he did," she told the interviewer, in tones that left no doubt about her feelings.
Mr. Brooks's view of his mother—widowed early, impoverished, with four children to bring up alone—is forthright: She was a hero. Though he was in analysis for six years, he says, he was never able to launch a decent attack on his mother. His consciousness of that early life of poverty has always been an essential of his comedy—a brash, assertive presence, with a touch of the triumphant about it that pops up repeatedly. Pretending to have been asked where he was born in a favorite shtick—it appears in the film—he loftily replies, "in Paris, in the fifth arrondissement." There could be no funnier, more outrageous claim for a man hailing from the poor precincts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn—and funny it is every time we hear it, because the comedian's sense of its preposterousness has never left him. That Williamsburg is today a place of fancy restaurants and high-price condominiums is and will remain beside the point.
The personal aside, this chronicle of Mr. Brooks's career is entertainment gold throughout. And nowhere more than in the flow of film clips—one ravishing scene after another from Mr. Brooks's satires—"History of the World, Part 1," "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles" and "The Producers" among them, all fitting testaments to that career.MEL BROOKS: MAKE A NOISE
Monday, May 20, at 9 p.m. on PBS* * * *
In the summer of 1944, a select group of American servicemen were dispatched to France, equipped with weaponry like tanks made of rubber, sound-effect equipment, and as much guile as they could muster for their task. Which was to deceive the German army into believing in nonexistent American troops preparing to attack from places in which no such action was planned—all to mislead the enemy.
It's a measure of the seriousness with which "The Ghost Army"
treats the story of the 23 Headquarters Special Troops that it mentions only lightly a name or two of the members of this ghost army who would in time become world famous. One of them is Bill Blass, briefly remembered by some of the veterans appearing in the documentary as an extremely pleasant fellow, talented at drawing and interested in a career in women's fashion. He would end up having one. The film, by Rick Beyer, has more important matters on its mind. Members of the unit performing close to the front lines in the battles of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany regularly risked capture as they maneuvered their rubber tanks and played recorded noises of armored and infantry units that they would send booming out from sound trucks to trick the Germans. Numerous members of this army were students from American art schools. The unit's work was top secret, its members' experiences, recounted in this film, fascinating above all for what they tell about the determined inventiveness, the all-out ambition to try everything, characteristic of that war effort.THE GHOST ARMY
Tuesday, May 21, at 8 p.m. on PBS* * * *
It takes a while to see where "Save Me"
plans to go, and that while may be the best thing about this series starring Anne Heche as Beth, an Ohio housewife given to drunken rages and, in the opening scene, murderous intentions toward her sleeping husband. In the show's first three minutes or so, Tom (Michael Landes) escapes being knifed by Beth—furious over his philandering—because she decides, instead, that there's more reliable gratification in the hero sandwich she grabs from the refrigerator and tries, unsuccessfully, to consume. In short order Beth, who has choked on the sandwich, has a near-death experience from which she wakes, a new woman. All that and there's still a lot left to this half-hour pilot.
As it turns out, Ms. Heche's Beth is just madly menacing enough to keep things interesting. Beth, it appears, has awakened to her second chance at life endowed with a direct connection to the Almighty. More to the point, to certain unearthly powers. Thanks to her drinking and general insanity, she had been up to now a woman detested both by her peers and her teenage daughter, no bargain herself. Her new powers will clearly affect all their lives. Whether for good or evil we shall have to wait for future episodes to see, but—given the joyful malignancy Ms. Heche brings to this character in touch with God—the answer isn't hard to guess.SAVE ME
Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBChttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324767004578486820323712366.html?mod=WSJ_ArtsEnt_LifestyleArtEnt_6