The art of parody began in Ancient Greece and started out as the altering of famous epic poems to change the subject to a lighter, more comedic one. Satyr plays often parodied tragedies, consisting of a whole cast of actors dressed as satyrs. Satire was a safe way to tackle a variety of issues, as even the gods themselves could be ridiculed in Old Comedy.
Some works, like Don Quixote, have become more famous than the thing they parodied in the first place. Lewis Carroll’s satirical takes on Victorian verses for children have outlasted their long forgotten originals.
For a lot of writers and artists, parody was the only means of conveying ideas that would otherwise be too radical and challenging. Both Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks have tackled the issues of racism and political persecution through clever satires. Dozens of websites produce only satirical news, ironic imitations of current affairs and world events. With a long history spanning generations, parody is deep rooted in our society as a collective coping mechanism.
The following films are listed in chronological order.
1. The Great Dictator (1940) – Charlie Chaplin
A Jewish barber, returns home after 20 years in a medical facility. Following a war, which the Tomainian Army lost, the barber is concussed and suffers from amnesia. He attempts to re-open his barbershop in a now Jewish ghetto without realising that significant political changes have taken place in Tomania. Stormtroopers patrol the streets under a new regime run by dictator Adenoid Hynkel.
The Jews are constantly being persecuted and harassed, and when a Tomainian high ranking officer called Schultz stands up for them, he himself becomes a target. The barber, along with Schultz, and other inhabitants of the ghetto, do everything in their power to avoid capture and imprisonment.
The Great Dictator started filming shortly after the German invasion of Poland, and Chaplin has stated that had he known how horrific the Nazi crimes would be, he would not have made the film at all.
Chaplin watched a number of recordings of Hitler’s speeches, among them Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will, in order to recreate Hitler’s mannerisms and oratory style.
2. The Great Race (1965) – Blake Edwards
The Great Leslie, played by Tony Curtis, is a famous daredevil in early 20th Century. He is good-looking and always dressed in white, a true gentleman. His arch nemesis is Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, a black-clad villain with a moustache and a maniacal laugh.
When Leslie suggests an automobile race between New York and Paris, a number of people enter, including Fate and a journalist, Maggie DuBois. After a series of mishaps, the three parties end up together as the only competitors left in the race, battling the elements and encountering a variety of cultures along the way.
A number of different things were referenced and parodied in this film, with the majority of it being a tribute to early Laurel and Hardy. The Great Race touches on silent era gags, westerns, a late 19th Century adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda, and features an impressive pie fight. Filmed in five days, the scene is responsible for the demise of 4000 pies, with the cost of pastry alone being US$18000.
3. The Producers (1967) – Mel Brooks
A producer and an accountant hatch a plan to produce an unsuccessful Broadway show. They take money from investors they know they will not be able to repay, and expect to be on a plane to Brazil before anyone figures it out. Their plan goes terribly wrong when the show becomes a hit.
This was the first film Mel Brooks ever directed, and he wanted it named Springtime For Hitler; Embassy Pictures would not let him. The Nazi character Franz Liebkind in particular, caused much controversy and the film’s premiere in 1967 was a complete flop. It was received rather coolly both in the US and abroad.
The Producers has since gained the approval of critics, as well as been adapted into a Broadway musical. A film of the same name, based on the musical was also released in 2005.
4. Young Frankenstein (1974) – Mel Brooks
Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, a lecturer at a medical school and the grandson of Dr Frankenstein, the infamous doctor known for resurrecting the dead. He is ashamed of his heritage and does everything he can to distance himself from it.
After inheriting his family’s castle in Transylvania, Frederick finds his grandfather’s notes and becomes interested in his research. Along with the estate, Frederick also inherits a servant named Igor and a beautiful assistant, Inga. Together, the team successfully assemble a creature out of stolen body parts and bring it to life.
The idea for the film was originally Gene Wilder’s and after a couple of failed attempts at sparking interest from Brooks, he finally managed to convince the director to create the film. Wilder did not want Brooks to appear in the movie for fear of the director inadvertently breaking the fourth wall.
5. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones
In Monty Python’s first full feature film (not counting And Now for Something Completely Different) King Arthur, along with his squire Patsy set out on a quest to find the Holy Grail. They are also joined by the other Knights of the Round Table and together, make it as far as a castle occupied by the French. After an unsuccessful attempt at infiltrating the premises, the group decide to split up and each knight finds himself on a separate quest.
When they finally regroup, the original knights are now joined by three more, as well as some monks led by Brother Maynard. They must now finish the quest by traveling to some caves where the location of the grail is revealed.
This film was one of the most successful UK releases in the US. Despite having a relatively small budget, Monty Python and the Holy Grail did exceptionally well at the box office. It is widely considered to rank high among the funniest films ever made.
6. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – Jim Sharman
Brad and Janet are a newly engaged couple who become lost with a flat tire on a cold and rainy evening. They eventually come across a castle and knock on the door hoping to use the telephone.
Once inside, the couple encounter a number of outrageous and bizarre characters, led by a charismatic transvestite, Dr Frank N. Furter. It seems he has been working on a creation, Rocky, a dim-witted and naïve man with the body of “Charles Atlas”. The doctor brings Rocky to life in front of an audience, including Brad and Janet.
Over the course of the night, a series of encounters lead to disagreements within the mansion, with Brad and Janet finding themselves right in the middle of it all.
Generally thought of as the quintessential Midnight Movie, Rocky Horror is a tribute to science fiction and B-grade horror films. A lot of the set pieces were the same ones used in early Hammer Films, as the movie was shot at the same studios. For nearly forty years now, fans have attended screenings of this film dressed like the characters, been performing the Time Warp dance, and talking back to the screen.
7. Murder by Death (1976) – Robert Moore
Five detectives and their companions are invited to a murder mystery dinner by an enigmatic man named Lionel Twain. A blind butler, Jamessir Bensonmum, greets the guests at the door.
During dinner, Twain announces that a murder will occur at midnight, and that whichever detective solves the mystery first, will receive $1 million. The house then automatically locks down for the night.
Each detective is modelled after a famous fictional character, including Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, and Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon.
The author Truman Capote also appears in the film as the eccentric host Lionel Twain.
8. High Anxiety (1977) – Mel Brooks
Dr Richard Thorndyke, played by Brooks himself, has just gained an important position at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. He has also been experiencing a lot of strange occurrences lately.
As the new director of the institute, Dr Thorndyke meets the staff, including a terrifying Nurse Charlotte Diesel. The doctor begins to realise that there are some unsavoury things going on at the institute, at the same time as trying to help a patient’s daughter uncover a conspiracy.
Alfred Hitchcock, to whom the movie is dedicated, helped Brooks write the screenplay. Hitchcock was so pleased with the end result, that after watching the film for the first time, he sent Brooks a case of expensive wine.