Watch The Critic: The Oscar-Winning, Animated Film Narrated by Mel Brooks (1963)

One day in ear­ly 1962, Mel Brooks was sit­ting in a New York City the­ater watch­ing an avant-garde film by the Scot­tish-born Cana­di­an ani­ma­tor Nor­man McLaren when he heard some­one in the audi­ence express­ing bewil­der­ment. “Three rows behind me,” Brooks told Ken­neth Tynan for a 1979 New York­er pro­file, “there was an old immi­grant man mum­bling to him­self. He was very unhap­py because he was wait­ing for a sto­ry line and he was­n’t get­ting one.”

Brooks had made a study of old cur­mud­geons ever since he was a boy grow­ing up in a Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood of Brook­lyn. In a 1975 Play­boy inter­view he described his eccen­tric Uncle Joe, who would say to him when he was five years old, “Don’t invest. Put da mon­ey inna bank. Even the land could sink.”

Lat­er, as a young come­di­an learn­ing his craft on the borscht belt cir­cuit, Brooks paid close atten­tion to the elo­cu­tion and tim­ing of the old Yid­dish come­di­ans. After work­ing as a writer for Sid Cae­sar’s ear­ly tele­vi­sion pro­gram, Your Show of Shows, Brooks and fel­low writer Carl Rein­er hit it big as per­form­ers in 1961, with their “2000-Year-Old Man” rou­tine. Rein­er was the straight man inter­view­ing an old man played by Brooks. In one famous scene Rein­er asked, “You knew Jesus?” Brooks replied, “Yeah. He was a thin man, always wore san­dals. Came into the store but nev­er bought any­thing.”

So when he over­heard the old kvetch in the movie the­ater giv­ing a run­ning com­men­tary on his own bewil­der­ment, Brooks rec­og­nized the comedic pos­si­bil­i­ties. He approached direc­tor Ernest Pintoff, whose Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed 1959 short The Vio­lin­ist had been nar­rat­ed by Rein­er, about mak­ing a movie. Pintoff hired artist Bob Heath to cre­ate the ani­ma­tion, and chose Bach to set the high­brow tone. Brooks was 36 years old when he cre­at­ed the voice of the 71-year-old man. As he told Tynan, the com­men­tary was ad-libbed:

I asked my pal Ernie Pintoff to do the visu­als for a McLaren-type car­toon. I told him, ‘Don’t let me see the images in advance. Just give me a mike and let them assault me.’ And that’s what he did…I sat in a view­ing the­atre look­ing at what Ernie showed me, and I mum­bled what­ev­er I felt that old guy would have mum­bled, try­ing to find a plot in this maze of abstrac­tions. We cut it down to three and a half min­utes and called it The Crit­ic.

The film was a crit­i­cal as well as a pop­u­lar suc­cess, win­ning the Acad­e­my Award for best ani­mat­ed short film of 1963. Putting The Crit­ic into per­spec­tive, Samuel Raphael Fran­co of J, the Jew­ish news week­ly, wrote in 2009:

The film is a rel­ic of quin­tes­sen­tial borscht belt humor.…It is also a valu­able soci­o­log­ic por­trait of the pre­dom­i­nant cul­tur­al atti­tudes of Brook­lyn’s first gen­er­a­tion of Russ­ian-Jew­ish immi­grants. The influ­ence of Brooks’ devel­op­ment as a com­ic as a tumm­ler for the crowds in the Catskills sur­faces right away in the first line, “Vat the hell is dis?”

The Crit­ic has been added to the Ani­ma­tion sec­tion of our Free Movies col­lec­tion, and also to our list of 30 Free Oscar Win­ning Films.

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  • Seth Lefkow says:

    Hey, the old man is my grand­fa­ther — could nev­er see a movie with­out com­ment­ing. He also screamed on the tele­phone as if the cord was hol­low and he had to shout to be heard.
    Could nev­er lose a card game with my grand­moth­er with­out telling her “You got more luck than sense”.

    I miss him.

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