Tag: Mel Brooks

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! History of the World, Pt 1

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


Satirists are more important to civilization than you might think. While critics may highlight, underscore or outright assault a work in a mostly straightforward manner, a satirist does so through humor or hyperbole. It’s no wonder that satirists tend to be more popular, even if some periods of history were less tolerant of them than we are today. The sorts of things that can crop up on YouTube and Blip taking the piss out of a government or public figure won’t get you lined up against the wall and shot. Until they add a provision for this to ACTA, that is. Anyway, adding hindsight to satire is a great excuse for gags based on older societies, which is the basis for the entire span of the Mel Brooks opus History of the World, Part 1. In case anybody doubted Mel was a top-flight satirist when this was released in 1981, here’s all the proof you need.

Courtesy Brooksfilms

This sprawling historical epic covers the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. In each period we get at least a cursory opening narration from Orson Welles. He serves as the voice for the Stone Age section, as cavemen hadn’t yet discovered means of communication beyond grunting. During the reign of Nero, a ‘stand-up philosopher’ must try not to die on stage at Caesar’s Palace – that is to say, he needs to avoid execution. The depiction of Grand Inquisitor Torquemada shows the lighter side of the Catholic Church’s rather strict conversion practices, and the French Revolution shows us that King Louis XVI may not have been who history thinks he was. Each of these vignettes moves at their own pace without the benefit of a framing device, but there’s bound to be something in each period of history to make you laugh.

Given its structure, the film doesn’t have the coherent flow of Blazing Saddles or Spaceballs. The film plays more like a series of self-contained Vaudeville routines than it does a single narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as if you find yourself disliking a particular section of the movie, you just need to wait for the next section to begin. The exception to this, of course, is the French Revolution section at the end… or is it? Let me just skirt around that spoiler and get back to the movie.

Courtesy Brooksfilms
It’s difficult to find images that don’t give away some of the big jokes.

Another difference between this and the aforementioned films is the consistency of the jokes. Without a pervasive theme such as racism or giving Lucas a shot to the jaw (provided you can find it), some of the gags feel a bit unmoored. This is especially apparent in the Stone Age section, where the movie jumps from gag to gag as quickly as possible. Mel doesn’t always quite stick the landing, and some of the jokes seem to wobble a bit. This is my very elaborate way of saying it was my least favorite section of the film. I felt it dragged a bit. Likewise, the French Revolution section at the end may run a bit long, and in fact I get the feeling some of it may have been cut for time. Finally, it seems that Mel wanted to make sure he was involved as much as possible in his picture. Unlike Blazing Saddles or Spaceballs where he only gives himself a couple incidental roles, here he plays 5 different characters, including 2 at the same time! I hope you like Mel Brooks as a comedian as well as a writer and director, because you get a LOT of him.

None of this really causes the historical journey to jump the rails, though, and when the movie’s on it’s a scream. The Roman Empire in particular has a couple really nice jabs at inherent problems with representative government and a couple Blazing Saddles-esque moments, with a great performance by Gregory Hines and a royal tag-team of the always memorable Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise. The French Revolution is saved by Harvey Korman (that’s HEDLEY Lamarr), the character of Bearnaise and several lovely young women. And the Inquisition… well, I can’t really do the Inquisition justice here. Not without breaking into song. Believe me, it has to be seen to be believed.

Courtesy Brooksfilms

Having noticed the amount to which I’ve mentioned my previous review of a Brooksian comedic diversion, you may be wondering how this one compares. I’m glad you’re asking! With it’s occasionally dodgy composition, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein or even Spaceballs. There are laughs to be had, sure, and it’s certainly not as steeped in direct pop-culture references as anything produced by the Wayans brothers. Despite 20 more years of history having gone by since it’s release, there’s something timeless about the humor in History of the World Part 1 that certainly makes it worth calling up on Netflix. And keep your eyes out for John Hurt and the late Nigel Hawthorne. You may be surprised where Mister Ollivander and King George III show up.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.


Logo courtesy Netflix. No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

{Audio returns next week.}

Hatred is, unfortunately, nothing new. There are people even today who have built their lives, fortunes and reputations around rhetoric that perpetuates ignorance and blind intolerance. From the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazis, the Crusades to Mao’s Great Leap Forward, sooner or later somebody somewhere is going to react in a violent and ugly fashion to somebody who’s different. It falls to those of us with tolerance, love for our fellow man and enough wherewithal to keep the things that actually matter in mind to combat this fear and hatred any way we can – even if it’s just by taking the piss out of those cretins. Hence, Blazing Saddles.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The year is 1874. The location, an unnamed territory of the American West. The attorney general of the territory, Hedley Lamarr (no relation to the similarly named actress of the 70s), wants to cultivate the land with railways to earn himself even more wealth than he already has. Standing in the way of his railroad is the quaint frontier town of Rock Ridge. When their old sheriff is murdered in an attack by Lamarr’s goons, they wire the governor for a new one. In his effort to drive out the people, Lamarr conscripts a man named Bart. Bart, incidentally, is black.

At its best, comedy is a way of holding a mirror up to the more absurd aspects of modern life, calling attention to stupid things we take for granted or as the status quo through way of parody or satire. For a long time, the western was seen as perhaps the manliest of the movie genres, with rough and tumble two-fisted fighting men gunning their way to victory. Nearly every single one was white. Moreover, this was a time when minorities were just beginning to come into their civil rights, yet still had to deal with a great deal of hatred, pre-conceived notions and harsh epithets. Enter legendary comedic film-maker, biting satirist and prominent Jewish-American Mel Brooks. It takes perhaps a particular kind of genius or insanity to look at the litany of Western cinema up until this point, and say “You know what? Why don’t we have a black guy in the lead role?” You can guess how some people reacted.

Courtesy Warner Bros

This is a point covered in the movie, and in fact directly addressed in an exchange between Bart, played quite well by Cleavon Little, and the always memorable Gene Wilder as Jim the Waco Kid. I won’t spoil the line, as it’s one of many great ones in the flick, but suffice it to say Jim hits the nail directly on its racist head. The very notion of the black leading man with a white sidekick can be amusing enough to consider on its own, but with these two actors the combination’s dynamite. They have great chemistry which only makes the punchlines funnier.

Considering the amount of comedic firepower Brooks had at his disposal it’s no wonder Blazing Saddles is thought of by many as his best work. Harvey Korman adds the perfect mix of presence and insanity to Hedley Lamarr, the townsfolk of Rock Ridge are great and Madeline Kahn nearly stops the show as Bavarian bombshell Lily von Shtupp. Not because she’s devastatingly sexy, though she is in her prime here – it’s because she is, like so many other things in the movie, pointing out something just a tad absurd. Like stopping in the middle of a rustic narrative to have a good-looking woman do a song and dance routine. It’s out of place in most serious films; but here, with Lily sounding more like a dying badger than a breathless lady of the evening, it’s just funny. It takes talent to sing; it takes real talent to deliberately sing this badly.

Courtesy Warner Bros

If Blazing Saddles has a flaw it doesn’t manifest itself until halfway through the third act. A sprawling, rolling fistfight for the fate of Rock Ridge spills out of the town – and into a neighboring movie studio. What follows is one of the most complete evaporations of the fourth wall I think I’ve ever seen. Chaos is unleashed upon Warner Brothers studios even going as far as the famous Grauman’s Chinese theatre in Hollywood. It’s known that Brooks was sat down by studio executives before the film was released and given a list of changes they wanted him to make, toning down the racist language and otherwise de-fanging all of the humor. Brooks, who had final say in the cut of the film, diligently took notes at this meeting, and when it was concluded, threw his notes in the garbage. This sudden shift at the end of Blazing Saddles could be Brooks taking a shot at the excesses, expectations and general idiocy he saw in the studio system. Or he could just have trouble ending his movies.

Either way, Blazing Saddles is hysterical from beginning to end. A tightly-written script assisted by Richard Pryor (excepting perhaps that last bit) is packed with humor ranging from the aforementioned epithets to what some consider the very first cinematic fart joke. This stands with his History of the World Part 1 and Young Frankenstein as some of the funniest parodies ever made. So powerful was the imagery, humor and outright Western silliness of Blazing Saddles that it was many, many years before another serious Western was made in Hollywood. For all these reasons and more, it’s a movie that belongs on your Netflix queue. If you ever look around the world at crimes perpetuated for the sake of hate based on the color of a victim’s skin, their gender or the people with whom they fall in love, I suggest you watch Blazing Saddles. Not only will you find yourself laughing, you’ll be reminded that people who act, think and speak based on such hatreds have ignorance and ignorance alone on their side. Mel’s filmmaking, jokes and excellent cast will show you just how short-sighted, misinformed, brutish and downright stupid those morons are. And there’s a pretty great pie fight at the end, complete with Adolf Hitler.

Don’t ask. Just watch the flick.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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