This Week in 1981: 'History of the World: Part I' Drops Wisdom
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. (So said one of the Marxes, Groucho or Karl, I forget which.) Mel Brooks took the latter approach and came up with one of his most memorable comedies, 'History of the World: Part I,' released 30 years ago this week (on June 12, 1981).
The film consisted of old-fashioned sketches, vaudevillian riffs on well-known historical periods, but it's so deliberately dated that it still feels fresh today. Its impact continues to this day, echoing through the acting careers it launched, its irreverent approach to history and its catchphrase so, um, catchy, that Brooks has continued to use it in just about everything he's done since.
Brooks wore many hats in the production. He wrote it, directed it, produced it, wrote the songs, and played five parts in it. He also rounded up his usual repertory company (including Dom DeLuise, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman) for supporting roles. (Narrating the segments was booming-voiced Orson Welles, by then in the Morgan Freeman stage of his career.)
The Roman sequence, the longest part of the film, gave two actors their film debuts. One was Gregory Hines, as the heroic slave Josephus. The part had been written for Richard Pryor, but after the comedian notoriously set himself on fire in 1980, the role went to Broadway hoofer Hines instead. His low-key comic charm in the role led to another two decades of success in leading roles in movies and TV, until his death in 2003.
The other was Mary-Margaret Humes, a former Miss Florida who's plan to break into show business involved renting a billboard near the 20th Century Fox lot and plastering it with her picture, name, and phone number. The tactic worked; Brooks saw the billboard and cast her as Vestal virgin Miriam. After 'History' opened, she became a busy TV actress, most famously as Dawson's mom throughout the five-year run of 'Dawson's Creek' a decade ago.
'History' was a hit, with its $11 million budget returning $32 million at the box office. Brooks capitalized on its success by exploiting its catchphrase, "It's good to be the king." (The line was spoken several times during the French Revolution segment by Brooks, both in the guise of King Louis XVI and Jacques, the piss-boy who serves as his body double.) After the film's release, Brooks recorded a hip-hop single called 'It's Good to Be the King,' rapping in character and reaching No. 67 on Billboard's Dance Tracks chart. (Could this have been the first rap song celebrating bling?)
Brooks liked the phrase so much, he used it again, with slight variations, in 'Spaceballs,' 'Robin Hood: Men in Tights,' and the Broadway version of 'The Producers.' He also reused the music from 'History's' 'Jews in Space' song in 'Men in Tights.'
Brooks' no-laugh-is-too-cheap approach to history continues to be influential; 2009's 'Year One,' the Jack Black-Michael Cera spoof of the ancient world, clearly owes a huge debt to 'History of the World: Part I.' Even Brooks' title was a joke, an obscure reference to a projected multi-volume ancient history written by Sir Walter Raleigh, who managed to finish only Part I before he was beheaded. Still, the end of the movie featured a mock trailer for a Part II that Brooks never intended to make. Thirty years later, we're still waiting for Brooks to follow through with 'Hitler on Ice' and 'Jews in Space.'
1942 (June 18): Thumb-wielding film critic Roger Ebert is born. Thanks to his TV show with fellow Chicago-based critic Gene Siskel (and later, Richard Roeper), he'll become America's most influential movie reviewer, a position he maintains to this day (despite the loss of his voice) via Twitter.
1943 (June 16): Charlie Chaplin, 54, makes Oona O'Neill, 18, his fourth wife, leading the bride's outraged father, playwright Eugene O'Neill (who was the same age as the groom), to disinherit her. The marriage lasts until the silent actor's death 34 years later and produces eight children, including acclaimed actress Geraldine Chaplin.
1945 (June 15): It's a wedding of MGM musical royalty when 23-year-old Judy Garland marries 42-year-old Vincente Minnelli, who had directed her in 'Meet Me in St. Louis.' Their productions together would inclue 'The Pirate,' 'The Clock' and Liza Minnelli.
2003 (June 12): Movie icon Gregory Peck dies at 87. Besides his Oscar-winning role as Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' his five-decade career included such films as 'Gentlemen's Agreement,' 'Roman Holiday,' 'Moby-Dick,' and both versions of 'Cape Fear.'
2008 (June 17): Hollywood dance legend Cyd Charisse dieas at 88. Her classic musicals included 'Singin' in the Rain,' 'The Band Wagon,' 'Brigadoon,' and 'Silk Stockings.'
Funny folk blowing out the candles this week include D.J. Qualls and Jason Mewes (the former is 33, the latter 37, both as of June 12), Tim Allen (58 on the 13th), Steve-O (37, also on the 13th), 'Juno' scribe Diablo Cody (June 14 was her 33rd birthday), Jim Belushi (57 on the 15th) and 'Airplane' star Julie Hagerty (56, also on the 15th). Neil Patrick Harris was 38 on June 15; his 'Harold and Kumar' co-star John Cho turns 39 the next day. The 17th sees cake served to Will Forte (41) and director Bobby Farrelly (53).
Milestone birthdays this week: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen turned 25 on the 13th, as did Kat Dennings. The same day was also Chris "Capt. America" Evans' 30th and Stellan Skarsgard's 60th. Jake Busey hit 4-0 on the 15th. Lost Boy Jason Patric is 45 on the 16th, and Joe Piscopo is 60 on the 17th.
Isabella Rossellini and Carol Kane were born on exactly the same day; both turn 59 on June 18. Other celebrants this week: 'A.I.' star Frances O'Connor (44 on June 12), Aaron 'Kick-Ass' Johnson (21 on the 13th), Malcolm McDowell (68 on the 13th), Ally Sheedy (49 on the 13th), Spy Kid Daryl Sabara (19 on June 14th), Courteney Cox (47 on the 15th), Helen Hunt (48, the same day), angry-rapper-turned-cuddly-family-movie-comic Ice Cube (42 on June 15), 'Twilight' vampire mom Elisabeth Reaser (38 on the 15th), oft-resurrected mummy Arnold Vosloo (49 on the June 16th), Greg Kinnear (48 on the 16th), and Thomas Haden Church (51, also on the 16th).
'Green Lantern' Trailer No. 2
'Green Lantern' (PG-13)
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett
Directed By: Martin Campbell
What's It About? In this adaptation of the venerable DC comic series, test pilot Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is recruited to join an interstellar police force and armed with a green power ring that can conjure up any kind of weapon he can think of. Lively is his love interest, and Sarsgaard is a disfigured mad scientist who tries to use the ring's power for evil.
Why Should You See It? Who doesn't love Ryan Reynolds? Plus, Campbell is pretty good at launching/rebooting action franchises (see 'Goldeneye,' 'The Mask of Zorro,' 'Casino Royale').
You Might Like It If You Like: 'X-Men: First Class,' 'Batman Begins,' 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy
Peter Sarsgaard and 10 More Butt-Ugly Comic Book Villains
'Mr. Popper's Penguins' (PG)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury
Directed By: Mark S. Waters
What's It About? This adaptation of Richard and Florence Atwater's kiddie-lit classic stars Carrey as a workaholic, divorced dad whose family and business troubles are compounded when he inherits a brood of flightless birds.
Why Should You See It? You're a little kid, and you've already seen 'Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.' Also, you know Carrey will tie himself into pretzels trying to entertain you.
You Might Like It If You Like: The 'Ace Ventura' movies, '101 Dalmatians,' 'Happy Feet'
'The Art of Getting By' is about a tentative teen romance in Manhattan between a smart slacker (Freddie Highmore) and a cheerful overachiever (Emma Roberts).
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews | Highmore and Roberts: Child Stars Made Good
'Page One,' a recent Sundance favorite, is a documentary about the inner workings of the New York Times, as the paper navigates an uneasy transition into the age of social media and do-it-yourself journalism.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Cinematical's Review
•'Super 8' - If E.T. and the Cloverfield monster had a baby... that'd be one hideous-looking baby. Showtimes & Tickets: Standard | IMAX | Trailers & Clips | Reviews
•'Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer' - If Ramona, Harriet the Spy, and Lindsay Lohan's 'Parent Trap' twins had a baby... well, you get the idea. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews
•'Road to Nowhere' - This noir marks 'Two Lane Blacktop' director Monte Hellman's first movie in eons, prompting the question: Is he secretly Terrence Malick? Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews
New on DVD: 'Battle: Los Angeles' is just as no-nonsense as its title. It's alien invaders vs. Marine grunts on the streets of L.A. Imagine if last fall's similarly low-budget saucers-invade-L.A. saga 'Skyline' had had more of a 'District 9' faux documentary feel. Something to watch with Dad on Father's Day, maybe? Buy or rent the DVD | More new DVD releases
On Our Netflix Queue: Actually, most people probably just rent 'Field of Dreams' for Father's Day. But if Dad likes gangster movies, how about 'Road to Perdition'? Tom Hanks and Paul Newman both give majestic performances (and Daniel Craig and Jude Law are good, too) in this artful drama about how fathers and sons struggle not to disappoint each other. Buy or rent the DVD
On TV: A year later, some of us are still confused by 'Inception.' Fortunately, it debuts on premium cable this weekend (HBO, Saturday, 8PM), so you can ponder its enigmas once more, this time in HD. Check your local listings
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.