Mel Brooks was born in 1926, prior to the advent of talkies and television. He grew up worshiping the vaudevillian likes of Groucho Marx, Al Jolson, and George Jessel. Given the anarchic, anything-for-a-laugh quality of his best movies ("The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein"), you'd think Brooks' allegiances would be tightly aligned with Groucho. But while he's on the record with his affection for the Marx Brothers' work, he was especially enamored of Eddie Cantor.
For most people in this day and age, Cantor is a name more than a personality. The worst that can be said about him is that he was a song-and-dance man who, like Jolson, mimicked African-American entertainers in blackface to bolster his appeal. But Cantor was a born, trailblazing Jewish entertainer, and his comedic rambunctiousness kicked down the door for people like Brooks, who lacked the patience to craft a meticulously structured screwball masterpiece like Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" or Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby" (Cantor's most lasting contribution to popular culture might be his composition of the Merrie Melodies theme "Merrily We Roll Along").
So when Brooks had firmly established himself as a comedy superstar in Hollywood, he found a way to pay his idol back in the haphazardly hilarious "History of the World, Part I."
Honoring A Highly Problematic Past
Brooks takes on a number of roles in his buckshot travestying of history (my personal favorite is his wildly debauched King Louis), but he invested his portrayal of the stand-up philosopher "Comicus" in the Roman Empire segment of the film with the mug-happy shtick made famous by Cantor. Or so I'm told. To be honest, I've only seen his work in clips. Cantor hasn't translated to our times like the Marx Brothers have. But maybe there's buried treasure here.
According to James Robert Parish's "It's Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks," the filmmaker cites Cantor's performance in the 1933 musical-comedy "Roman Scandals" as pivotal:
"When I played 'Comicus' in the Roman scenes of my film 'History of the World: Part I,' I thought of myself as Eddie Cantor. I wore the short little toga and I made my eyes pop out in reactions, like he did. My 'Comicus' was a tribute to Eddie Cantor. He was my timing, my excitement."
"Roman Scandals" is currently available to rent on AppleTV, YouTube, and Amazon Prime. While we're waiting for the Hulu premiere of Brooks' "History of the World, Part II" on March 6, 2023, perhaps we should do Mel a solid and give this relic a watch. Although, judging from the blackface images from the film I just ran across, you might be better off skipping it altogether.
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