History of the World: Part I is funny about twenty percent of the time. The eighty percent of the time, it isn’t funny, it’s either because the jokes are too homophobic, sexist, racist, or punny. If you’re not laughing out loud, you’re ready to hiss.
Since twenty percent doesn’t quite qualify as a mishmash, it’s good the film’s a technical success. The matte paintings alone are an achievement, but Woody Omens’s Panavision cinematography is a delight. Writer, director, producer, and usually star Brooks does an okay job with the direction. Of course, if he doesn’t, he’s got Omens, editor John C. Howard, or composer John Morris to cover for him. But—at least as far as direction—Brooks is solid.
The film’s a pageant, starting in the Stone Age with a profoundly ahistorical 2001 sequence led by caveman Sid Caesar. Orson Welles narrates the whole movie, but never more than the caveman sequence. Welles’s outtakes are probably hilarious. Following that sequence, it’s off to the Ten Commandments and Brooks. It’s a short, funny scene, which Brooks brings back later. Despite Moses, the Last Supper, and the Spanish Inquisition, History’s pretty hands-off with religion, even though every time Brooks touches on it, the scene’s a winner.
Especially the Spanish Inquisition musical number.
But History spends the most time in Ancient Rome and the French Revolution—also note there’s no American history—which go on so long Brooks, the writer, needs rescuing. Literally.
In Ancient Rome, Brooks is a stand-up philosopher who gets a gig at Caesar’s Palace. The casino. Get it? He teams up with escaped slave Gregory Hines and vestal virgin Mary-Margaret Humes (who deserved an Oscar for pretending to lust after Brooks) for misadventures involving emperor Dom DeLuise and empress Madeline Kahn. Kahn’s mostly great. DeLuise is fine, but way too many of the jokes in his scene—it’s a billed cameo—are homophobic. Brooks, the writer, often runs out of ideas once he gets to a scene and tries to cover it with bad jokes and cleavage.
The Spanish Inquisition musical number comes between Rome and the French Revolution. It’s Brooks’s best writing in the film and, since it doesn’t have a chance to go stale, his best performance.
The French Revolution sequence involves Brooks playing both the King and the King’s pissboy, who holds the bucket for nobles to pee in. When the Revolution’s clearly on the horizon, noble Harvey Korman has Brooks, the pissboy, stand in for the King at the guillotine. Korman’s good—though Andréas Voutsinas’s much funnier as his sidekick—while Brooks is one-note. Pamela Stephenson plays a busty young woman who needs to curry the King’s favor (physically). When she discovers the pissboy isn’t going to force her, they have a few scant moments to become love interests before the Revolution—led by Cloris Leachman as Madame Defarge (which could’ve been the whole movie)—knocks down the door, leading to another chase sequence.
The finale’s contrived and hurried—despite a gigantic cast and elaborate production, Brooks entirely runs out of ideas before the ninety-minute mark. It only worsens in the epilogue, which promises Part II and completely deflates Part I.
The best performance is easily Hines, followed at a distance by Kahn, Voutsinas, and Korman. Both Stephenson and Humes are fine; they’ve just got terrible parts. Stephenson’s better, though. Despite the more objectified, exploitative part, she’s got some character, while Humes is just… madly in love with Brooks.
History’s got its moments, but nowhere near enough. Especially since the bad jokes are really bad. Again, thank goodness Brooks has his crew to make up the difference.
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