History of the World, Part 1 (1981): It’s Nuts! N-V-T-S, Nuts!

With Mel Brooks, I typically find that you take the bad with the good. For every Young Frankenstein (1974), there’s Dracula, Dead and Loving It (1995). Some films I once thought classics, such as Spaceballs (1987) and Blazing Saddles (1974), do not hold up that well on recent viewings. There are moments of genius in each movie, but also moments of truly low-brow and inane humour: Bart holding himself hostage to fool the townsfolk – genius; repeated jokes about the size of Bart’s penis (he is black, after all) – yawn. It’s like watching Robin Williams do stand up – he throws so many jokes at you, some are bound to stick and some are bound to stink. But, as Groucho so helpfully informs us, “Well, all the jokes can’t be good. You’ve got to expect that once in a while.” Spoken like a man who worked the vaudeville circuit.

Synopsis: Mel Brooks and a cavalcade of comic legends present a brief telling of the world’s most influential eras, covering the dawn of man, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution (amongst others) in truly ridiculous form.

In traditional Brooks style, History of the World: Part 1 (1981) has highs and lows. In general, I’m not a fan of toilet humour – I find that kind of comedy to be kind of lazy (it’s a cheap laugh). And unfortunately, Brooks will often go toilet. Maybe this is partly a gender thing, but masturbating manimals is just not all that funny in my mind. Although I am also not the gal who endlessly forwards people videos of chimps smelling their butts, or peeing into their mouths. Maybe Brooks is that type of person, and he genuinely finds this stuff to be comedy gold – he knows his audience better than I do (as the box office has shown). All I know is that the jokes related to bodily fluids and sex are the weak link in Brooks’ films to me.

Maybe I feel this way because such jokes seem like shameless pandering. As does the continuous hiring of female actors based on their ability to wear a sweater rather than deliver a line. I have no problem with a pretty lady in a comedy, unless she has been hired strictly to be a pretty lady. Marion, the vestal virgin Comicus (played by Brooks) drools over, was clearly hired for her perky assets as opposed to her comedic timing. She can’t even fill the role of the straight man; the description of her character must have simply read “boobs.” And I find it extra-skeezy that Brooks always hires beautiful young women to play the romantic interest opposite his increasingly skeletal form. To be fair though, I’m starting to think Brooks emerged from the womb looking like a 45-year old drug addict. Yikes! So perhaps his leads aren’t always so much younger than he is, they just look it because the man has had wrinkles and ear hair since age 3.

More an issue than the fart and poop jokes, and certainly more an issue than pretty, talentless starlets (let’s face it, who isn’t used to that by now?), is how recycled some of the jokes feel. At one point, Gregory Hines’ character slips on a banana peel. I have a hard time believing that was fresh in Vaudevillian times, let along the 80s. Another groaner (and this coming from someone who is defiantly pro-pun), is the “walk this way” joke – cue Brooks and co. following the slave while copying his strange gait. The first time I saw this gag was in a Tex Avery cartoon from the 1940s. It’s all in the execution, of course, but Brooks doesn’t do anything new with it. Again, kind of lazy.

BUT…

The highs in the case of the History of the World do outweigh the lows. The majority of the cast is incredible. To contrast my complaint about most of the female characters, Brooks tosses the feminists like me Madeline Kahn, the perfect combination of sexpot and comedienne. She sparkled like she always does… breasts AND comedic timing?! “It’s twue, it’s twue!” Dom DeLuise is almost having too much fun as Nero – belching, scratching, spitting, and entirely bored with his duties. He is completely disinterested in all reigning matters, but becomes excited like a 8-year-old girl when taking his “treasure bath.” His brief performance is worth the watch alone.

To add to that, many of the skits were absolutely hilarious. Brooks as a clumsy Moses, who accidentally breaks one tablets of God’s original 15 Commandments, was a highlight. Any wagers as to what the unknown commandments were? I’m going with “Thou shalt not talk at the theatre” and “Thou shalt not worship useless people for being rich and stupid in public” (man, that last one would have been good to have down in stone). Also watch for the marijuana-induced swing dancing party of Roman soldiers, the Spanish Inquisition Broadway number (“better to lose your skullcap than your skull!”), and Brooks as King Louie the XVI playing chess with real people.

As a final note, RIP Harvey Korman. Talk about an underrated performer. His French noble is perfectly arrogant and clueless, and precisely as “dandy” as one would expect. The comedy world is duller for having lost this great comedian.

So overall verdict: as usual for Brooks, there are moments of hilarity and moments that will make your eyes roll, but the hilarity > (or at least =)  eye-rollingness. If such absurd humour is in your wheelhouse, Brooks delivers the goods. I wish he hadn’t been joking and had made History of the World: Part 2, if only to see the majesty of Hitler on Ice!

Favourite Scene: Nero’s game show gift reception – DeLuise makes the most of every second he is on-screen.

Key Quote: During the segment on the French Revolution – “We are so poor, we do not even have a language! Just this stupid accent!” (to which another revolutionary replies, “She’s right, she’s right! We all talk like Maurice Chevalier!”)

Fun Fact: Richard Pryor was scheduled to play the Gregory Hines role, but set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine before production was to start. Hines was called in for his film début.

K

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~ by K. Harker on February 28, 2011.

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