Vintage Cable Box: “History Of The World Part One, 1981”

Vintage-Cable-Box-Cover-Image

“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-1-nerfherder

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!”

Priceless

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.

Advertisements

Vintage Cable Box: “Deal Of The Century, 1983”

New VCB Logo

“For I do not do the good that I want. But the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”

deal-of-the-century-movie-poster-1983-1020676130

Deal Of The Century, 1983 (Chevy Chase), Warner Bros.

An uncomfortable satire that crosses the line between ludicrous and oddly prescient, Deal Of The Century is a cold war romance about America’s obsessive love for military firepower. The first images in the film we see are an advertisement for the Peacemaker, a stealth-like drone craft capable of untold destruction and designed (it seems) specifically to neutralize conflicts in small Central American territories. The advertisement is disturbing not only for the child singing, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, but for the images of infants cradled in their mothers’ arms. Breaking down the demographics, Vince Edwards (with an imposing hawk-like profile) presides over a conference with advertising executives on how to sell this sleek instrument to the public and (more importantly) to nations in the market to buy.

In what is obviously a comment on consumer culture, we focus on slick arms dealer Eddie Muntz (Chevy Chase), as he peddles his wares. He eyes a lusty Sigourney Weaver in a bar; a fellow American lost in San Miguel, a fictitious sovereign Republic led by flighty fascist dictator, General Cordosa. His pitch to shady mercenaries is not unlike the approach of a used car salesman, but he prides himself on selling quality merchandise. Although Muntz considers himself an independent businessman, there is a disturbing bit of foreshadowing which predates the Reagan Administration revelations of selling arms to both sides during Nicaragua’s Iran–Contra affair. Caught in the middle of a helicopter fire-fight during a sale, Muntz is wounded, and loses his money and his merchandise. Design flaws are discovered in the Peacemaker’s offensive program (it appears the drone can suffer water damage and go hay-wire), which causes havoc at a demonstration for representatives of the Pentagon.

While recovering from his injuries, Muntz meets destitute broker and Peacemaker salesman Wallace Shawn, who promptly kills himself.  Muntz steals his $300 million contracts, and takes up his assignment to meet with General Cordosa.  Coming back to the States, Muntz’s friend, former Air Force pilot Ray (a diffident Gregory Hines), picks him up at the airport.  In his absence, Hines has become a born-again Christian who swears off selling weapons and embraces pacifism.  Weaver, revealed to be Shawn’s widow, seeks out Chase in an effort to steal back the contracts.  Edwards approaches Muntz and Weaver to gain their assistance in selling off his Peacemakers to General Cordosa. Muntz appeals to Ray to go in with him on one last job.  Ray is conflicted, and in a momentary fit of rage after a minor collision with an angry couple, he torches their car with his latest acquisition, a military-grade flamethrower.  By itself, this is a brilliant scene.

Ray begs Muntz to reconsider selling the Peacemaker to Cordosa because of the destruction it will cause.  Muntz likens his job to that of selling a product and nothing more, so Ray, in good conscience, cannot allow this sale to happen.  Ray steals a fighter jet and attempts to destroy the Peacemaker himself.  Unfortunately, the movie fails as a comedy, because of the deadly serious nature of the source material (a thought-provoking screenplay by Paul Brickman).  Director William Friedkin shoots the film as a drama with humorous moments.  The material is too moody to aim for the techno-terror style of the same year’s WarGames or the farce of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.  There’s a lack of warmth to the enterprise.  Though Weaver and Chase are attractive enough, they lack chemistry, and their romance feels forced, as if it were shoe-horned into the narrative.

ism5bpuuylodlbup

Chase is intensely interesting as a man with no politics, with no compunction about selling weapons of mass destruction to opposing sides in a conflict, and no religion, when he comes into conflict with Hines and his burgeoning spirituality. It’s downright eerie how all of these weapons are now being used in common practice. Every day, we hear stories of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the loss of innocent civilian lives, women and children in the fiery fray. While the film, as a satire, doesn’t comment on the morality of using drones, it does poke holes in the supposedly “fool-proof” design of such weaponry. Deal Of The Century (for me) would’ve been much more effective as a straight-out black comedy than a meandering, unbalanced political satire about the mixed morality of capitalism and the destructive consequences it can foster.

Support the troops, not the drones.  Happy Memorial Day!

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.