“But we Romans are rich. We’ve got a lot of gods. We’ve got a god for everything. The only thing we don’t have a god for is premature ejaculation… but I hear that’s coming quickly.”
History Of The World Part One, 1981 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox
The first impression you get when you’re looking at the opening titles of History Of The World Part One with the voice of Orson Welles narrating, and “Also Spoke Zarathustra” playing on the soundtrack is that Mel Brooks has made a serious art film. It is art, but it’s most definitely not serious. We start with “The Stone Age”; ape-like creatures rising into frame at magic hour, and then they start dancing around like idiots, under which a caption reads, “Our Forefathers”. It’s silly, but it does account for some of our more bizarre behaviors through millennia. Brooks plays with a lot of cheap gags during this segment. The first artist. The first critic. The first spear. The first funeral.
From there, we jump into a quick bit with “The Old Testament” and Mel Brooks plays Moses, who comes down from the mountain with three tablets, fifteen commandments, but he drops one of the tablets. We move into our first set-piece: “The Roman Empire”. Comicus, a stand-up philosopher, waits in line at the Unemployment Office. Secretary Bea Arthur wisely sums him up as a “bullshit artist”. His agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey), arrives with good news of a job at Caesar’s Palace (“The main room!”). Comicus defends vestal virgin, Miriam (cute Mary-Margaret Humes), against a cruel chariot master who is beating former champion horse, Miracle. They hook up with Josephus (Gregory Hines), an Ethiopian runaway slave with an uncircumcised penis and a talent for soft-shoe. They’re all about to be executed when Miriam appeals to Empress Nympho (Madeline Khan) to spare their lives.
Josephus is given a job as wine-bearer. Comicus performs his stand-up act (“The Christians are so poor, they can only afford one god!”), which indirectly insults the hedonistic, disgusting Emperor Nero (Dom De Luise). He orders Comicus to fight to the death with Josephus – a brother can’t ever get a break! They fight their way out, flee the palace and get jobs in Judea. Comicus works as a waiter at the Last Supper of Jesus Christ (John Hurt) and seems to have provided some inspiration for Da Vinci. It makes you wonder about all the low-level jobs in history. Why are we always reading about kings and senators, emperors and knaves? I’d love to read about a plumber or a book-keeper from those times, Life Of Brian-style.
We move on to another quick bit about “The Spanish Inquisition” as interpreted with a Busby Berkeley-styled musical dance number, complete with tortured Jews and swimming nuns. I remember my 5th Grade teacher, Mrs. Catherman, would sing this song all day long in school. Next up, “The French Revolution” with Brooks casting himself as King Louis (“It’s good to be the king.”) and his double, Jacques, the lowly piss-boy (a job description that doesn’t require clarification). Mademoiselle Rimbaud (sexy Pamela Stephenson) appeals to the king to release her lunatic father. The king agrees, but only if the Mademoiselle were to visit him in his chambers.
Harvey Korman is the evil Count de Monet who convinces the vacuous king to flee because of the impending siege, and to pass off the piss-boy as King Louis. For his first act, the piss-boy arranges to have the old man released from prison. Meanwhile, Madame DeFarge (Cloris Leachman) leads the revolt of the poor against the rich, and the fake king is captured and sentenced to death by guillotine. Jacques and Mademoiselle Rimbaud are rescued by Josephus and Miracle from the previous episode. When Brooks asks Hines how he got here, he gives him the one of the best lines ever: “Movies is magic!”
Proceeding, as Brooks did with Blazing Saddles, from the assumption that film is artifice, History Of The World Part One makes no argument claiming any of this is real, but there are elements of historical truth to this enterprise. The idea of the two set-pieces (“The Roman Empire”, “The French Revolution”) is that those few in power are idiots, and the rest of us do the work to keep this crumbling earth turning, but with invention and resources, we might just cause a little anarchy. Just a little healthy anarchy. The winners in history are still in power, but Brooks reminds us that all power is temporary, and he throws in a catchy song to fill up the running time. Filmed in beautiful widescreen and utilizing an oddly quaint Technicolor process, it’s astonishing to consider the majority of background imagery was accomplished with beautiful Albert Whitlock matte paintings. This is true artistry.
Unfortunately, History Of The World Part One doesn’t work as well as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, perhaps because Brooks doesn’t have the guiding influence of the collaborators he worked with on those films, but it still is a damn funny movie on it’s own terms. I was thinking of all the pain that went into these jokes. Not the pain of writing the jokes, but the history of pain detailed in these narratives. That would be a great “alterna-title” for the movie. Mel Brooks presents History Of Pain (Part One), but seriously … Where, in Blazing Saddles, Brooks (and his writers, among them Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman) pokes fun at racism with a sharp stick, here he uses kid-gloves to take shots at antisemitism, concepts of absolute power, and the fervor of religious fanaticism.
Wait! Where are you going? Coming Soon! History Of The World Part Two! Mel Brooks turns 90 next week, so starting today and extending through to next Wednesday, I will be reviewing some key Mel Brooks movies that played on cable television during this time. I hope you enjoy it! There’s a little gag here I had never noticed watching the movie many, many times in the past. King Louis is playing a game of human chess. He proclaims his “King’s Privilege” and has all of his pieces jump the opponent’s queen, after which he declares a “gang bang”. His staff is made up mostly of midgets; (or the more politically correct designation: little people, which sounds worse) because of his short stature, he wants to be tallest in the group. King Louis jumps into the fray shouting, “Whip out those little dicks!” I wonder if this movie could be made today.
“I was sittin’ flickin’ chickens
And I’m looking through the pickins’
When suddenly these goys break down my walls
I didn’t even know them
And they grab me by the scrotum
And they started playing ping-pong with my balls
Oy the agony … Oh the shame
To make your privates public for a game!”
Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.