HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I -- At the AMC Skyline, Aspen Hill, Jenifer, NTI Marlow, NTI New Carrollton, NTI Tysons Center, Roth's Seven Locks, Showcase Fair City Mall and Springfield Mall.
Mel Brooks must think himself quite the historian. From playing the 2,000-year-old man he's gone to depicting 20 million years of humankind. His "History of the World, Part I" sweeps the centuries from the apes to the French Revolution. It's a spectacle, and one that includes all the good things and the bad things about humor, from joy to ridicule.
It starts off promisingly with Sid Caesar as chief caveman. Except for the somber tones of narrator Orson Welles, there's no dialogue; there doesn't need to be. Caesar's face says everything.
But the pace if off: a jumping between scenes makes for a nervousness that then settles down, way down, in the Roman forum -- till comes a litter with a canopied seat. When Madeline Kahn peers from behind the curtain, chewing gum, we know we're in for something, and no matter who Empress Nympho shares the screen with -- be it a phalanx of half-naked Roman soldiers or a roomful of Playboy Playmates (the vestal virgins), she steals the show -- sometimes with only a word or two. Her wine steward (gregory Hines) fills the golden chalice she extends without looking at him. He says, "Say when." She replies, with a flicker of New York accent, "Eight-thirty," and skittishly darts her eyes.
If it could only last. One keeps expecting Kahn's red head to poke out the back of a horse-drawn cart somewhere, but she doesn't appear after Rome. And Sid Caesar doesn't reappear after caveman days.
Brooks, however, has five roles. Brooks is at his funniest in the short take, as a Moses who makes you laugh and think about the human condition: Moses pants at the top of the mountain, and, after talking with God and receiving three stone tablets, stands on a precipice and calls down to the people: "The Lord has given unto you these Fifteen --" one tablet slips from his grasp and crumbles on the ground "--no, Ten Commandments."
But he's a tiresome Louis XVI, who constantly turns to the camera to say: "It's good to be the King." Yawn.
There are many puns -- "Sic transit gloria" -- "I didn't know Gloria was sick!"; the familiar nonsense routines -- "Walk this way . . . "; sight gags -- a toga sleeve pushed up to reveal an hourglass strapped to the wrist.
But the material goes too far and the laughter stops. Maybe it's the jarringly serious tone of the Last Supper, with Jesus saying "One of you will betray me," or maybe it's the black slave dancing in the forum and saying he was "born to it," or maybe it's all the jokes about homosexuals, or maybe it's the Spanish Inquisition is which Jews wearing prayer shawls and yarmulkes are strapped to wheels that spin like the insides of a slot machine. The Inquisition is orchestrated in a perverted Busby Berkely style, with a nun waterballet. There's even an Inquisition song Brooks wrote with Ronny Graham, but it doesn't match the zaniness of "Springtime for Hitler" in "The Producers."
Maybe while the "History of the World, Part I" was being researched Brooks adopted Roman rhetorician Quintilian's point of view: "Laughter is never far removed from derision."
And though he tries to show it's all in fun by shaking hands with the Inquisition's "converts," the lapses in taste go beyond the pale, and it becomes hard to recall a more offensive Mel Brooks movie.