Service with a smell

Shlock with a side order of schtick

Published: Jun 28 2019, 01:01:am

Sunday, June 28, 1981.

HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I. Music by John Morris. Written, produced and directed by Mel Brooks. Running time: 92 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. classifiers warning: “religious ridicule, frequent coarse language, some suggestive scenes.”
HISTORY BUFFS, PLEASE COPY. Herewith, an event of note not noted in Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part I.
    The modern American comedy era began on February 25, 1950. It was a Saturday evening, and the time was 9 o’clock.
    The place, as much as I (as a film critic) hate to admit it, was a television studio. From New York, the National Broadcasting Company presented Saturday Night Revue.
    One of the small screen’s most ambitious undertakings, Revue really was Saturday night live. SNR was made up of two elements: an hour of  The Jack Carter Show, live from Chicago, and 90 minutes of Your Show of Shows, out of New York.
    It was, of course, the New York portion that survived and made broadcasting history. The nostalgic will remember the names of the regulars — Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris — but it was a trio of Show of Shows writers who went on to shape the way we laugh today.
    Grinding out the gags on deadline were Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Simon has since become a star of stage and screenwriting by the simple expedient of adapting his Broadway hits — Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Sunshine Boys, California Suite, Chapter Two — for the movies.
    Allen, not content with mere writing credits, has become a triple-threat artist, writing, acting in and directing his own screen comedies. His efforts have been rewarded with an Academy Award bonanza (for the writing and direction of 1977’s best picture winner Annie Hall), and a cult following.
    Then there is Mel Brooks. The evidence offered by their various careers suggests that Brooks was the movie buff behind all those Show of Shows feature film parodies.
    Like Allen, the hyperactive Brooks works hard at being a triple threat.  He hit it big with a series of rapid fire movie parodies, starting with the 1974 western spoof Blazing Saddles.
    The Brooks style has begotten a comic school. Brooks buddy Gene Wilder made his directing debut with the 1975 parody The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, and followed up with The World's Greatest Lover (1977) satirizing Hollywood’s silent era.
    Brooks's buddy Marty Feldman directed himself in the French Foreign Legion film spoof The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977). Brooks himself has offered audiences 1974’s Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977).
    To date, Brooks has doubled as writer/director on seven feature films. His best was his first, 1968’s The Producers, a laugh riot that won him a screenwriting Oscar.
    His worst, the witless History of the World: Part I, is currently [1981] on view. A film without point or apparent purpose, the new movie represents the nadir of the style, an exercise in bad taste whose preoccupations are neatly summed up in the B.C. classifier's warning: "religious ridicule, frequent coarse language, some suggestive scenes.”
    The question of taste, good or bad, in humour has less to do with the target than the technique. The 1979 Monty Python comedy Life of Brian, for example, bore a “religious ridicule” warning, but was hilarious all the same. With savage efficiency, Brian lampooned the excesses of Hollywood’s overblown biblical epics and mindless zealotry, not the essential tenets by which the truly religious live.
    By contrast, last year’s [1980] Dudley Moore film, Wholly Moses!, tried to generate laughs by equating religious inspiration with self-serving opportunism. The results, aside from being dreary and dull, were in execrable taste.
    The difference between the efforts of the Carry On gang and the Monty Python team are less differences of subject than of handling. As Laurence Olivier once observed, “a well-timed fart can be funnier than the wittiest line Noel Coward ever wrote.”
    Time it badly, and you have the kind of odors that emanate from Brooks 's latest picture. An attempt to wed borscht-belt ethnicity with baggy-pants burlesque routines, the film would have been better named Carry On Schlepping.
    History: Part I offers audiences seven schticky skits — The Dawn of Man, The Stone Age, The Old Testament, The Roman Empire, The Spanish Inquisition, The French Revolution and Coming Attractions — and more familiar faces than I have room to list. The only name who can take any pride in his History: Part I credit is special-effects expert Albert Whitlock. The bantam-weight matte artist has given Brooks’s pay-toilet picture a multi-million-dollar look.    
    The U.S. Catholic Conference, on the other hand, has given it its big C (for "condemned”) rating. In its review, the Conference notes that "Brooks seems to view urination as intrinsically funny.”
    According to my own notes, I laughed only once during the show. This means that the picture wins my big F (for "failure").

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1981. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I did not enjoy writing a negative review of a Mel Brooks movie. I consider The Producers one of the all-time great film comedies. The picture was dangerously funny. The first time I saw it, I damn near died of laughter-related asphyxiation. His outrageous send-ups of westerns, classic horror films, silent movies and Hitchcockian suspense all reflected a deep understanding and affection for their place in the popular culture. Then, with History of the World: Part I, he stopped being funny. In the above review, I held off on saying that until I’d made it clear just how important he was.
    Back then, I offered a history of “the modern era of American comedy.” Today, I’d have to add that a post-modern era was already underway, and that it too was coming out of television studios. In June 1981, Saturday Night Live was looking forward to its seventh season, while Second City TV was about to begin its fourth. Between them, they introduced a new generation of actors, ideas and attitudes to our comic world. Brooks directed four more features: a leaden Star Wars spoof called Spaceballs (1987), a problems-of-rich-people picture, Life Stinks (1991), the swashbuckler farce Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). The hits had stopped coming.
    But wait. In the first year of the new century, Brooks offered theatre audiences a new, musical version of his first great success, The Producers. A 2001 hit on Broadway, it made it to movie theatres in 2005, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprising their original stage roles. A song-and-dance version of Young Frankenstein followed in 2007, and again the music and lyrics were credited to Mel Brooks.    
    Last week, the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony winner was back on the Great White Way performing for two nights (June 17–18) in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre’s Residence on Broadway series. His unscripted one-man show played to full houses. Today (June 26), Mel Brooks celebrates his 93rd birthday.