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With: Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Ron Carey, Gregory Hines, Pamela Stephenson, Shecky Greene, Sid Caesar, Mary-Margaret Humes, Orson Welles (narrator)
Written by: Mel Brooks
Directed by: Mel Brooks
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 92
Date: 06/12/1981

History of the World: Part I (1981)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hysterical Accuracy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I was a kid, somewhere around age 14 or so, my parents went out for an evening and left my brother and I by ourselves, along with some friends. We flipped on the TV and were happy to discover that Mel Brooks' History of the World - Part I was on cable. We would not have been allowed to watch it under normal circumstances, so we were very excited. I stationed myself between the TV and the window so I could keep an eye on the driveway, lest my parents come home early. Watching the movie in this way, totally forbidden with the threat of getting caught at any second, made it a hugely exciting and memorable experience. By some happy stroke of luck, my parents did not come home until just a few minutes after the movie finished. For years afterward, my friends and I continued to quote lines from the film and laugh amongst ourselves.

I shudder to think what the film must have looked like then, panned-and-scanned, and squished onto an ordinary-sized television set. Now I have had the opportunity to see it again in widescreen, on a beautiful new Blu-Ray, and it doesn't even have a tenth of the power it did back then. Hearing some of those old, beloved one-liners again made me smile, but they did not have the power to make me laugh anew.

Here Brooks had the opportunity to do away with cumbersome plot and focus on funny little segments. But he makes the mistake of dragging certain segments on a bit too long, notably the Roman segment, and cramming in more plot than jokes. And the jokes themselves are usually nothing more than well-placed blasts of bad language, designed more to shock than to be funny. The shorter segments, like the cavemen era one starring Sid Caesar and the Spanish Inquisition musical number, still work. And I really liked seeing Brooks behaving badly as King Louis XVI, occasionally stopping to address the camera, "It's good to be da king."

But the movie drags on too long between funny bits, despite the good efforts from a strong cast. Gregory Hines makes his movie debut here -- and gets to perform one dance -- but mostly he's forced to endure some juvenile dialogue and antics. Madeline Kahn appears too briefly and makes the best of one rather lame joke, turning a chorus of "no's" and "yes's" into a hilarious crescendo. The gorgeous Pamela Stephenson is easy on the eyes during the French Revolution sequence (I discovered that since this movie, she has retired from acting, is currently married to actor Billy Connolly and is a doctor of psychology). And, oddly enough Orson Welles agreed to do some serious narration, juxtaposing the comedy on the screen. I hope that, at least, Welles got a decent paycheck out of it.

As for the Part I, Brooks apparently never planned on making a sequel, and merely includes the "trailer" for Part II as part of a spoof on the idea of sequels.

Fox released History of the World: Part I as part of a Mel Brooks Blu-Ray box set in 2009 and it's now available as a single disc. It comes with two new HD, making-of featurettes, as well as a trivia track and trailers.

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