Tuesday, July 21, 2009

“And of course, with the birth of the artist came the inevitable afterbirth... the critic.”

1981’s History of the World: Part I was one of the Mel Brooks cannon that I saw but not frequently as a kid. The movie itself follows a different structure than the rest of his work that I’ve seen, being presented as a mock history/textbook full of spectacle.

Oh, God. Describing the plot of this is…

No. I can do this. Let’s break this down one piece at a time. First, we have the Stone Age, where early man learns various things that help him to survive. Second, the Roman Empire is about a struggling stand-up philosopher and a runaway slave having adventures at the Palace and then getting the hell out of there. Third, the Spanish Inquisition gets a musical number. Then a lowly peasant becomes a body double for the king of France on the eve of the Revolution. Then, we get Jews in Spaaaaaace. Hilarity ensues for 92 minutes.

Oh, God. Deep breaths now. Deep breaths.

Chief Caveman: The great Sid Caesar as the leader of a tribe of early humans. Does fantastic comedy with only a series of grunts and hand gestures.

Comicus: A stand-up philosopher in Rome, played by Mel Brooks. Gets a job at the palace telling jokes before pissing off the emperor. Brooks has a fantastic ability to tell horribly bad jokes and puns and make them hilarious in their delivery.

Josephus: Gregory Hines plays a Roman slave from Ethiopia (125th St) and becomes Comicus’ partner in crime. Also delivers a lot of audacious humor.

Swiftus: Ron Carey is Comicus’ booking agent and sidekick.

Miriam: Mary-Margaret Humes is a vestal virgin at the palace that Comicus takes a liking to.

Empress Nympho: The great Madeline Kahn as the Empress. She delivers one liners and innuendo with fantastic timing and was one of the great funny ladies of cinema.

Emperor Nero: RMWC favorite Dom DeLouise playing the gloriously hedonistic Emperor like a drunken baby in a toga. Its fantastic.

Torquemada: Mel Brooks again as the leader of the Spanish Inquisition (what a show). Is possibly the singin’-est, dancin’-est grand inquisitor ever.

King Louis XVI: King of France and lecherous horndog (It’s good to be the king). Mel Brooks clearly enjoyed this role.

Jacques: Brooks once more as a piss boy at the French court who gets dressed up like the king as a body double in case the peasants storm the palace (of course they do)

Count de Monet: The great Harvey Korman in a relatively small role as a French noble who, in an attempt to protect the Crown of France, has the piss boy impersonate the King.

Mademoiselle Rimbaud: Pamela Stephenson as the beautiful young woman beseeching the King to free her father from prison. Thinks that Jacques is the King when she enters his chambers, and he takes a liking to her.

Madame Defarge: The great Cloris Leachman as a peasant woman rabble-rouser with a ridiculous accent.

The Narrator: Orson Welles delivers a gruff voice over full of gravitas that contrasts perfectly with the action on the screen.

Hitler: On ice!

Various other cameos, from Bea Arthur to Hugh Hefner (bet you didn’t expect those two in the same sentence, did you?)

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Like I said in the Spaceballs review, Brooks knows his way around a camera quite well. Considering the nature of parody, it bridges the gap between imitation and originality, and Brooks seamlessly delivers visuals that perfectly compliment the jokes.

The Spanish Inquisition musical number stands out as probably the best set piece and scene in the whole movie. It starts off like a rousing vaudeville song & dance number, complete with spoken word jokes interspersed with the verses, then turns into a Busby Berkley spectacle complete with a pool full of bikini-clad nuns drowning Jews. The whole scene crosses over the line of offensiveness so far that it passes into sublime comedic revelation. Easily my favorite part of the movie (and I’m Catholic)

Written by Mel Brooks, the movie throws a hell of a lot of great comic scenes at the viewer. The jokes are the typical Brooks fare of puns, dirty jokes, visual gags and wordplay, and they are great. However, I just don’t think the overall structure of the movie worked for me. Characters aren’t developed like they are in other Brooks films, and the pacing of the movie, while individually very fast, seems to stutter as far as the whole picture goes. The Roman Empire is the longest segment, with the other parts having various lengths (the Old Testament part is a total of two jokes and one character on screen, Moses). I hate to say it, but I feel like the whole movie is like a clearing house for a large number of great jokes and ideas that never developed into individual movies in their own right. Rather than lose those gags forever, they were lumped together into this gestalt form, which is good, but it also feels like a movie full of great orphaned gags saved from the trash bin.

The John Morris score is suitably big and boisterous for the over-the-top spectacle of the movie. However, the opening credits/fanfare music sounds awfully familiar. It sounds like Brooks reused that fanfare and added laser sounds when he made Spaceballs. I’m not complaining, it’s a great theme. Just pointing it out. The Inquisition number features an absolutely addictive tune and mind-blowingly insane lyrics.

Just because its not my favorite Mel Brooks film doesn’t mean I don’t love it and recommend it. The jokes are great, the visuals fun, and it’s a veritable who’s who of 70s-80s movie comedians. The movie’s fun as hell, I just don’t hold it up there with stuff I personally enjoy better. But I absolutely recommend it, if for nothing more than the transcendent lunacy of the Spanish Inquisition number.

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