“Nearly all of my films have a musical number in tribute to my affection for the great movie musicals of that era,” Brooks wrote.
Which is perhaps why, long before he ever made a movie, Brooks was already homaging that era of toetappers as he crooned one of Al Jolson’s biggest hits on the banks of a German waterway. Into the bullhorn, Brooks sang “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye!),” a song which Jolson recorded in 1922 before putting into the first-ever talkie, 1927’s The Jazz Singer.
Said Brooks, “When I finished the song, I thought I heard coming from the other side of the river (where the Germans were) a round of applause and, ‘Very well! Very good!’ (‘Very good!’).”
By the author’s own admission, the applause might have been his own imagination. Even so, it encapsulates the type of wild and chaotic energy Brooks has always injected into his humor—including in the apparent war. One might even wonder if it informed a sequence in one of Brooks’ best films, Blazing Saddles, where Nazis gathered to storm the good town of Rock Ridge are disarmed by Madeline Khan doing a Marlene Dietrich impression and singing “Ja, Ja.”
All About Me! is filled with many other fascinating anecdotes from his WWII years. He seemed quite fond of reminiscing about his time in the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program, for instance, because it was at the Virginia Military Institute (the “West Point of the South”). There Brooks was trained like an actual cadet, including in the use of a sabre and horse for cavalry charges that made him feel like Errol Flynn. He also revealed a sweet memory about returning in the 1980s to a French farm he was stationed at in 1945. Almost 40 years earlier, he had taken up a friendship with a child who used to call him “Private Mel” there. Now that same acquaintance was the gregarious owner of the farm who remembered Private Mel well.
Unlike one of Brooks’ brothers—who was a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber that was shot down in 1943, leading to him spending the rest of the war in a German POW camp where he needed to hide he was Jewish—Mel never saw direct action during the war. Instead he was able to leave home for the first time, help the Army make literal in-roads across the European Theater, and eventually begin honing his early craft as a performer and entertainer in Special Services after the war ended. He also has a story about clinging to Bob Hope’s leg after a USO show.