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11 Facts About History Of The World, Part 1

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On June 12, 1981—35 years ago today—Mel Brooks’s irreverent take on the course of human events opened in theaters. Though critics were thoroughly divided, History of the World, Part 1 grossed a respectable $31.6 million at the box office, and left countless viewers hungry for a sequel. These 11 footnotes should get you ready for a 35th anniversary screening.

1. ORSON WELLES BREEZED THROUGH HIS LINES.

History of the World, Part 1 opens in a deceptively dramatic fashion. As we witness the very dawn of our species, a commanding voice declares “And the ape stood, and became man.” This unforgettable baritone belonged to Orson Welles. Brooks hired him to narrate the five major segments that make up the film.

Beforehand, it was agreed that the cinema legend would receive $5000 per day in exchange for his services. Figuring that he’d have to spend five eight-hour days recording and re-recording these lines with Welles, Brooks paid him $25,000 up front. But by noon on the first day, Welles had recorded every single one of his lines to perfection. “Oh my god, I could’ve paid you $5000,” Brooks lamented. After kicking himself for a few minutes, the funnyman asked Welles how he planned to spend the bounty. “Cuban cigars and sevruga caviar,” the Citizen Kane director replied.

2. THE LEAD CAVEMAN WAS PLAYED BY MEL BROOKS’S FORMER BOSS.

In 1949, the late, great Sid Caesar hired Brooks as a joke writer for The Admiral Broadway Revue, a short-lived NBC variety show. After the series ended, Brooks joined the staff of Caesar’s next program, Your Show of Shows. Working for a living legend was something the younger man would never forget. Even today, when Brooks is asked about his mentor, he often says “No Sid Caesar, no Mel Brooks.”

Twenty-two years after Your Show of Shows ended its run, Brooks expressed his gratitude to Caesar by giving him a major role in 1976’s Silent Movie. Brooks would cast the comic again in History of the World, this time as Chief Caveman, who has a zeal for music (and slapstick).

3. ACCORDING TO BROOKS, THE MOSES SCENE WAS A LAST-MINUTE ADDITION.

“Sometimes, you will get very lucky and the set will give you ideas for jokes,” Brooks said in a 2012 interview with the Directors Guild of America. One day, he was gazing out at the scenery that had been built for the caveman segments in History of the World when the gears in his head started turning. “I immediately thought, ‘Well, where do I go from here?’” Brooks recalled. Heading into the shoot, his plan was to “skip the Bible and go to Rome.’” But eventually, he realized that the Stone Age set might enable him to explore another chapter in world history. With a few minor alterations, Brooks converted his faux caves into a mountaintop, and the Moses bit was born.

4. ORIGINALLY, JOSEPHUS WAS GOING TO BE PLAYED BY RICHARD PRYOR.

Josephus, a quick-witted Ethiopian slave, is a principal character in the film’s Roman Empire segment. Richard Pryor seemed perfect for the part and, to Brooks’s delight, he accepted the role. Unfortunately, though, a terrible accident kept him out of the movie. On June 9, 1980, less than a month after History of the World began production, the comic lit himself ablaze while freebasing cocaine and had to be hospitalized. At the suggestion of Madeline Kahn (who played Empress Nympho), Brooks handed the role to tap dancer Gregory Hines.

5. TO PLAY COMICUS, THE “STAND-UP PHILOSOPHER,” BROOKS TOOK SOME CUES FROM EDDIE CANTOR.

Eddie Cantor was one of Brooks’s personal heroes. An actor, singer, comedian, and radio personality, Cantor’s talents were almost limitless. When Brooks cast himself as Comicus in History of the World, he proceeded to copy some of his idol’s manic facial expressions. “I made my eyes pop out in reactions, like he did,” Brooks says. “My Comicus was a tribute to Eddie Cantor. He was my timing, my excitement.” Even the character’s wardrobe, a “short little toga,” was modeled after the outfit Cantor wore in Roman Scandals, a 1933 musical comedy.

6. A LONGTIME PARTNER HELPED BROOKS WRITE THE MOVIE’S BIG SHOWSTOPPER

Ronny Graham and Mel Brooks first crossed paths as castmates in the hit Broadway revue New Faces of 1952, for which they co-wrote several skits. “[We] became fast friends,” Brooks said. Once Brooks decided that History of the World needed a Busby Berkeley-style musical number about medieval torture, he immediately reached out to Graham, who happened to be a successful musician.

“Together we began a fierce collaboration on a song called ‘The Inquisition,” Brooks recalled. The rest is, well, history. In the final film, Brooks takes center stage during this segment, hamming it up as the grand inquisitor Torquemada. Meanwhile, Graham makes a cameo as one of the Jewish prisoners.

7. ONE DELETED SCENE INVOLVED A NUCLEAR MISHAP.

Little is known about this segment. In an interview with film critic Gene Siskel, Brooks revealed that he’d filmed a brief scene that made light of the notorious Three Mile Island incident. “I had a father and a mother made up to look like half a dog and half a cat as a result of a nuclear meltdown,” Brooks told Siskel. When test audiences reacted poorly, this bit was removed. However, at least one journalist managed to see an extended cut which contained the footage. In his (lukewarm) review of History of the World for The Washington Post, critic Gary Arnold wrote, “there’s a routine about Three Mile Island that’s almost awesome in its lack of comic point.”

8. BROOKS HAD HIS DOUBTS ABOUT THE INQUISITION NUMBER.

In general, Brooks’ films aren’t exactly noted for their political correctness—after all, the director’s very first film was about an Adolf Hitler musical. Still, even he wondered if the breakout song in History of the World had finally crossed a line. “I don’t know how audiences are going to react to the Spanish Inquisition sequence,” Brooks told Mademoiselle. As he put it, trying to get a laugh out of any scene that involved “Jews on racks” could be “very dangerous.” In the end, history repeated itself. After The Producers was released, Jewish leaders contacted Brooks en masse with complaints about the film’s brazen Nazi gags. Thanks to that big inquisition number, History of the World, Part 1 garnered a similar reaction. “I got a lot of write-ins from rabbis,” Brooks admitted.

To those who’d written him, Brooks replied, “I’m just mentioning [the Inquisition] so people don’t forget!” Echoing his defense of both The Producers and Blazing Saddles, he went on to argue that satire could be an effective weapon against bigotry. While speaking about History of the World in 1982, Brooks said “Comedy brings religious persecutors, dictators and tyrants to their knees faster than any other medium.”

9. KING LOUIS’S SCENES WERE FILMED AT AN ENGLISH PALACE.

It’s good to be the king, but language barriers aren’t much fun. Feeling that it’d be easier to shoot the French revolution chapter in English-speaking countries, Brooks chose Blenheim Palace as a stand-in for Versailles. Built in the early 18th century, Blenheim is where the Duke of Marlborough has historically resided. An architectural beauty, the palace has also made appearances in such films as The Libertine (2004) and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) [PDF].

10. HISTORY OF THE WORLD CAME WITH A STEEP PRICE TAG—AT LEAST FOR A MEL BROOKS PROJECT.

Brooks himself claimed that History of the World’s budget—an estimated $11 million—exceeded that of his previous three films combined. Particularly expensive was the Inquisition scene, in which the set alone cost $1 million. By comparison, the entire budget of 1968’s The Producers was a paltry $941,000.

11. BROOKS NEVER INTENDED TO MAKE A SEQUEL.

With a title like History of the World, Part 1, you’d assume that a Part 2 would be hot on its heels. But Brooks has stated that he never intended to make a sequel. On June 7, 1981—just four days before the movie opened in theaters, the director weighed in on this subject in The New York Times. “Will there be a History of the World, Part 2?" he asked, rhetorically. “No. Maybe a Part 4, never a Part 2."

The misleading title—as he later put it—was meant as “a joke,” one he now regrets. “I’m sorry I did that, the kids keep writing me letters asking when we are going to see part two,” he explained while promoting his DVD box set, The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy. Still, he’s definitely thought about what new topics he might spoof in a potential follow-up—as he states in the below clip. “There’s a lot of things I haven’t covered in history. Things like the Civil War.”

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The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
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Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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11 Bite-Sized Facts About Cannibal! The Musical
Troma Entertainment
Troma Entertainment

Back in their film school days, the creators of South Park made a twisted tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein. Cannibal! The Musical is (very) loosely based on the life of Alfred "Alferd" Packer, an American prospector who resorted to eating his travel companions in the harsh winter of 1874. Below, you’ll find a buffet of bite-sized facts about this weirdly upbeat black comedy. Bon appétit!

1. IT ALL STARTED WITH A GAG TRAILER.

In 1992, Trey Parker was studying film at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where pretty much everyone knows all about the legend of Alfred "Alferd" Packer. Indeed, when a new restaurant opened up on campus in 1968, the student body chose to name it after this famous man-eater. The restaurant’s slogan? “Have a friend for lunch.” As a joke, Parker rounded up some of his fellow film majors and spent three days shooting a phony trailer for a nonexistent movie called Alferd Packer: The Musical. Included in the ensemble was Matt Stone, with whom Parker would go on to create South Park.

Once the Alferd Packer promo was finished, those who worked on it weren’t sure if they could turn this concept into a feature-length picture. Fortunately, the trailer was a huge hit. “People thought it was really funny,” Parker told The Denver Post, “so we went around … and said, ‘So do you want to invest?’” Thanks (for the most part) to donations from a few CU grads with wealthy parents, Parker and his co-stars amassed a $100,000 budget.

2. LIANE THE HORSE WAS NAMED AFTER TREY PARKER’S EX-FIANCÉE.

At age 21, Parker was all set to marry his high school sweetheart. “We had plane tickets, the dress was bought, the church was paid for,” Parker shared on the DVD commentary. Then, about a month before the wedding, he caught his bride-to-be with another man. Devastated, Parker broke off the engagement and came up with an unusual way to get even. “I really wrote this movie for her,” he said.

A major character in Cannibal is Liane, Packer’s beloved horse, who leaves him for another rider. The two-timing equine was named after Parker’s former fiancée. Some artistic license was taken here, as there’s no proof that the real Packer ever owned a horse named Liane—or that he ever wistfully sang about being on top of her.

3. AN AVANT-GARDE LEGEND WAS CAST IN A MINOR ROLE.

World-renowned for his experimental filmmaking, the late Stan Brakhage taught off and on at the University of Colorado, where he met Parker and Stone. The two convinced him to appear in Cannibal! as George Noon’s father, who gets about two minutes’ worth of screen time.

4. PARKER’S DAD WAS IN IT, TOO.

Just like Stan Marsh’s dad in South Park, Trey Parker’s father, Randy, is a geologist. In Cannibal! The Musical, he portrays the Breckenridge judge who sentences Packer (played by Trey) to death.

5. “SHPADOINKLE” WAS MEANT AS A FILLER WORD.

In addition to penning the Cannibal! script, Parker also wrote the film’s musical numbers. The first of these is “Shpadoinkle Day,” an offbeat tribute to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Parker knew that the first verse had to include a positive, three-syllable word, but couldn’t think of any that fit. So he used the made-up term “Shpadoinkle” to plug the gap until he could come up with an alternative. However, the creative team liked “shpadoinkle” so much that it stayed put and became one of Cannibal’s running jokes.

6. THEY SHOT IN THE COURTROOM IN WHICH PACKER WAS ACTUALLY TRIED.

On April 6, 1883, Packer was put on trial at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado. Over the next few days, he admitted to dining on two of his dead travel companions—one of whom he supposedly killed in self-defense (the other died of natural causes). Packer was found guilty of murder, but avoided the hangman’s noose by fighting for a second trial, which took place 30 miles away in Gunnison. This time, he was charged with five counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. However, while Packer languished behind bars, public opinion slowly turned in the cannibal’s favor. Under near-constant pressure from The Denver Post, Governor Charles S. Thomas pardoned Packer in 1901.

More than 90 years later, Parker filmed the trial scenes of Cannibal! The Musical at the still-standing Hinsdale County Courthouse. About halfway through the movie, the judge delivers a big speech in which he sentences Packer to death. His on-screen monologue was copied word-for-word from the court transcript of that 1883 Lake City trial.

7. AS THE MINERS SING “THAT’S ALL I’M ASKING FOR,” YOU CAN SEE PARKER MOUTH THE WORD “CUT.”

It goes by fast, but you can see Parker call "cut" to end the shot at the 3:06 mark in the clip above.

8. PARKER USED A PSEUDONYM FOR THE OPENING CREDITS.

Parker billed himself as "Juan Schwartz" in the cast of Cannibal because, according to the movie's website, "Trey doesn't like seeing one person's name plastered all over a movie's credits." Since he is properly credited as writer and director, he likely felt the additional acting credit was a bit too much. Incidentally, Packer called himself “John Shwartze” while evading the law before his arrest.

9. A FEW SONGS WERE DELETED.

The original cut of Cannibal! The Musical ran for two and a half hours, but thanks to some major-league editing, the runtime was reduced to a breezy 93 minutes. “There were fights about that from the get-go, but I give credit to Trey for being the toughest critic,” producer Jason McHugh told MovieMaker Magazine. “He had the maturity to know that a musical comedy about cannibals can’t be two and a half hours long.”

In the streamlining process, two musical numbers got the axe. The first was a quick little dirge called “Don’t Be Stupid,” wherein some nameless miners tell Packer’s group to postpone their journey until springtime. The other was “I’m Shatterproof,” a rap/funk song that Packer, hardened by his recent ordeals, delivers during a bar fight. Also deleted was a reprise of “When I Was On Top of You.”

10. COMEDY CENTRAL WOULDN’T BROADCAST IT.

Cannibal! was distributed by Troma Entertainment, an independent production company best known for creating The Toxic Avenger series. When South Park began to emerge as a major player on cable TV, Troma’s co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman, assumed that Comedy Central would jump at the chance to air some of Parker and Stone’s earlier work. Instead, the channel flatly refused to air Cannibal.

Kaufman was sent a rejection letter from Comedy Central, which read: “Thank you for submitting and re-submitting Cannibal! The Musical, but it is simply not up to our standards for broadcasting.” Troma forwarded a copy of this dispatch to Parker. Today, it’s prominently displayed in his office—at Comedy Central!

11. IT HAS BEEN TURNED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL ON MANY OCCASIONS.

Can’t get tickets to The Book of Mormon? Perhaps you can catch a live reenactment of Cannibal! The Musical instead. Since 1998, the movie has been seen more than 60 stage adaptations. There’s no “official” version of the theatrical show. As such, acting troupes that might be interested in performing Cannibal! have to write their own scripts based on the original movie. 

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