Mel Brooks has made a career out of poking fun at other filmmakers and the conventions they deploy. This sweet and largely underutilized form of parody was often done with love and affection, but it could still leave a mark. Just ask some Western fans about Blazing Saddles (1974) or George Lucas about Spaceballs (1987), the latter of which he gave his blessing to but insisted that Brook never merchandise or use to compete with the Star Wars toy line.
Yet for all of Brooks’ frivolity, there was only one time he was desperate to get the approval of his spoof’s subject matter: Alfred Hitchcock. Unlike all the other satires and ribbings in Brooks’ oeuvre, the 1977 film High Anxiety was not a parody of a whole genre or certain commercial trends in filmmaking. Rather it was both a back slap and a blown kiss to one singular storyteller, a man whose style was so distinct that even before “auteur theory” was popularized, the phrase “Hitchcockian” had entered the pop culture lexicon. There was only one Hitch.
So when the filmmaker and his creative team lit on the idea of making what became High Anxiety, Brooks felt obligated to seek Hitchcock’s approval before even shooting a frame. He recounted as much in his new memoir, All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business.
Brooks didn’t approach the man he would come to call “Hitch” until after he had a rough outline of the script in place, penned by himself, Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, and Barry Levinson. And according to Brooks today, if Hitchcock didn’t give those early goings his blessing, “I probably would have abandoned the whole notion.”
Luckily for all audiences, that isn’t how it turned out. Hitchcock was immediately flattered to have Brooks’ attention this late in his career, especially after seeing Blazing Saddles, which Hitch reportedly told Brooks was “miraculously funny.” They met for an extravagantly decadent lunch. It turned out to be the first of many weekly meetings, as Hitchcock gave acute notes and suggestions to Brooks throughout the pre-production process. Hitchcock even pitched a dryly amusing sequence that did not end up in the finished film.
Wrote Brooks, “He told me the following: ‘Our hero is running from someone who’s trying to kill him. He’s running full tilt, full speed. The killer is right behind him and closing in. He comes to a dock and sees a ferry. The space between the ferry and the dock is about eight feet. He leaps with all his might and comes crashing to the deck of the ferry. He just makes it. But unfortunately, instead of going out, the ferry is coming in.’”
It reads like a darkly acerbic visual gag that could fit into one of Hitchcock’s own movies. According to Brooks, however, it was too expensive to shoot. Nevertheless, Brooks still went out and shot a funny movie in his own style, all while emulating some of the best scenes in Hitchcock’s legendary career. The shower scene from Psycho (1960) is enacted with a disgruntled bellboy and Brooks’ dad body standing in for Janet Leigh; the violent death heard over a phone from Dial M for Murder (1954) is turned into a case of mistaken-kink as Madeline Kahn interprets the choking sound as a welcome come-on; and the ending of Vertigo (1958) is arguably improved upon when Cloris Leachman flies from the bell tower like she’s Wicked Witch of the West.
Germs of many of these scenes began incubating in Hitchcock’s office, but when Brooks came back with a finished film that was constantly being rewritten, he still was anxious to get the master’s final review after the film opened in December 1977. That same month, Hitchcock attended the premiere, sitting next to Brooks for the entirety of the film.
“I had my own high anxiety awaiting his reaction,” Brooks recalled. “He didn’t laugh. He just sat and he watched. He only broke up once. When the birds let go and plastered me with their droppings, then I could see his shoulders shaking. When the film was over, he got up and walked out. He didn’t say he liked the picture. He didn’t say he hated the picture. He didn’t say anything. He just left.”
Brooks was devastated. He needn’t have been.
Shortly after the movie’s premiere, Brooks found in his office a huge box covered with silver paper and a red ribbon. It was a gift wrapped case containing six bottles of Chateau Haut Brion 1961—a very old, and very expensive French wine. The bottles also came with a note.
“My dear Mel,
What a splendid entertainment, one that should give you no anxieties of any kind.
I thank you most humbly for your dedication and I offer you further thanks on behalf of the Golden Gate Bridge.
With kindest regards and again my warmest congratulations.
Barring perhaps the notices that catapulted both the 1968 film version and 2001 Broadway musical version of The Producers into the stratosphere (the former coming thanks to a full-page ad taken out by Peter Sellers after the New York Times eviscerated the movie), that might be the best review in Brooks’ career. It certainly was one of the most unusual.
Brooks wrote more about his adventures with Hitchcock, including the time he rather naughtily kicked his idol “in his tush.” You can read about that and more in All About Me!