Sunday, June 16, 2013

History of the World: Part I (1981)

Seen: On my laptop, from a digital file. Recently discovered and copied from my dad's then-unopened Mel Brooks dvd collection.

It's a little goofy to admit it but Mel Brooks has kind of been a major force in my life. He, Monty Python, and Weird Al were the main sources of comedy in my grammar school years, whom I can only assume helped shape my own highly sophisticated sense of humor. My first awareness of Mel Brooks came from my dad impersonating the Ten Commandments bit in History of the World: Part I, a joke I thought was the most hilarious thing I'd ever heard before I'd even seen the movie. And so revisiting it for the first time in at least seven years reduced me to the stupid middle schooler I actually secretly am, giggling uncontrollably at a bunch of puns and inappropriate musical numbers. That's just what Mel does to me, what can I say? I love that man. The film is an episodic parody of sword-and-sandal epics as well as period dramas, jokingly chronicling Western history in a series of ridiculous, and at times musical, segments from the dawn of Man to the French Revolution.

Skewering historical and biblical episodes with equal parts irreverence and utter nonsense, Mel Brooks brings his over the top comedic stylings to all sorts of recognizable characters, including Moses, Caesar, Jesus Christ, Torquemada, and Louis XVI. He rounds things out with a cast of comedic stars, from the heavenly Madeline Kahn to the brilliant Gregory Hines, and it's all lent a bit of satirical gravitas with narration provided by Orson Welles. Some segments are so ludicrous it's hard not to laugh just thinking about them, with Brooks' careless, blissfully lowbrow attitude made palpable: Moses dropping the last five Commandments, Madeline Kahn's "Empress Nympho" selecting her escorts to an orgy, Cloris Leachman's Madame Defarge bemoaning her phony French accent, gleeful monks tap-dancing their way around the Spanish Inquisition. Of course, my absolute favorite is the Last Supper scene, wherein Brooks' waiter calls out Judas (trying to push the bad wine), invents "Jesus" as a slur, and places himself in the center of Leonardo's famous fresco. This is the kind of stuff that gave me comedy highs as a kid, before I even fully grasped how stupid Christianity is.

Admittedly I think the script is one of his weaker efforts, as Brooks tries to have both a cohesive narrative as well as scattered episodes. If the film had completely been comprised of unconnected skits I think it would have worked better, especially since we spend too long in some time periods (I'm looking at you, Ancient Rome). And the opening caveman scenes can be cut altogether, I usually forget they even exist since they're not very funny. And too many sex jokes, I think, which makes me sound prudish (I'm NOT, so you know it must really be too much), but especially the human chess scene is like ick when the players all jump (rape?) the Queen chess piece. Brooks' tendency to repeat himself pops up more often than it should, with several jokes/stock characters re-used from previous films (I'm not talking about the "Walk This Way", I mean, that's a trademark) and some would make appearances in later films ("Jews in Space" became the "Men in Tights" song, for example).

Anyway, it's not perfect, obviously, but it is Mel Brooks, and therefore maintains a special place in my heart of hearts. Plus for the most part, it is really funny! And just try to get "The Inquisition" out of your head, I dare you!


Pair This Movie With: Oh dear I just don't know. Perhaps Robin Hood: Men in Tights? That one was my absolute favorite in middle school.


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