Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One. Blazing Saddles. Zorro the Gay Blade. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Even, God help us, the movie version of The Wild Wild West (because the original TV series doesn’t qualify as a guilty pleasure). They take the sacred text of the past and whip it into a frothy smoothie rich in bawdy jokes, gross oversimplification, contemporary pop references, anachronisms and camp. And yet you find yourself watching, and giggling helplessly, because now and then there are in-jokes that only a history geek would get. Next morning you feel so guilty you reach for the Will and Ariel Durant before you shower, but you know that sooner or later you’ll be singing “Hey, Torquemada! Whaddaya say?” again.
And now Jack of All Trades is added to my personal list of shame.
Here’s the plot: In 1801, American Revolutionary war hero Jack Stiles (Bruce Campbell) is sent on a secret mission by Thomas Jefferson. He is to go to the South Pacific nation of Pulau Pulau and rendezvous with a British agent, there to work against the territorial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte. The British agent, by the way, is a drop-dead gorgeous lady and moreover a genius, with a secret laboratory full of steampunky inventions. If you’re a fan of Campbell’s Brisco County Jr. series, you’re probably licking your chops at this point.
You’re in for a shock, though, because Jack of All Trades has nowhere near the gravitas of Brisco County. Jack Stiles is big, strong, dumb, crass, conceited, crass, and did I mention he was crass? He spews out lustful one-liners like Groucho Marx. He defeats entire troops of French soldiers effortlessly, primarily because they line up obligingly to fight him one at a time. They speak in ghastly Inspector Clouseau accents and when zey laugh, eet ees like zees: “Honh honh hohhhnh!” And then there’s the theme song, presented in an over-the-top production number with patriots dancing on tabletops, straight out of a Mel Brooks movie. Yet, even as I was watching this with my jaw somewhere at the level of my knees, part of my brain was registering: “Gosh, the costumes are good anyway.”
Once I’d resigned myself to the fact that Jack of All Trades is an outrageous burlesque of history, it became a lot of fun. One example: episodes with Napoleon, played by Verne Troyer (yes, the guy who was Mini-Me) as a tiny supervillain who can fly through the air like the killer bunny from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Other cameos include Lewis and Clark as a couple of murderous hillbillies, the Marquis de Sade running a bondage resort called Agony Island, and an entrance by Catherine the Great that er…has to be seen to be believed, because it certainly can’t be described. And then there is Leonardo da Vinci’s descendant, Captain Nardo, out to raise havoc in his giant submarine, and the sentient parrot in the little pirate costume who delivers messages, and George III’s entrance in a hamper full of chickens, and New Zealander Hori Ahipene channeling Oliver Reed as Blackbeard.
Angela Marie Dotchin is elegant and witty as the British spy, Mrs. Emelia Smythe Rothschild, a dry counterpoint to Jack Stile’s crassness. Even he wears well: just about at the point when I was finding Campbell’s one-note performance seriously grating, he did a scene in drag that had me laughing out loud. It ain’t a subtle performance by any means, but it’s funny.
Universal has packaged Jack of All Trades nicely, good prints in full frame 1.33:1, and each episode runs around 20-25 minutes, so painlessly brief it’s hard to resist watching another one, and then maybe just one more, and since there were only 22 episodes made, suddenly you find they’re all gone. And you’re sorry, because now you have this unconquerable urge to run out and rent a Mel Brooks movie.
(Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2008)