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.