Though reviews on this film are mixed (some say it is a potty-mouthed dud, others say it contains a belly full of laughs), Harold remembers working on History of the World Part I with Mel Brooks very fondly and one of the film's where being an "illusionist" came in handy. "It's what we have to be: illusionists. Of course, this is just the flickering shadow on a screen," said Harold.
Harold remembers one particular scene where he had to create an illusion to overcome a logistical set problem:
"An example of what we used to do before the computers and the special effects people found out that they can do anything, there was a Mel Brooks picture called History of the World, Part I. We had two stages at MGM, and one of the stages had a pool or a tank, as we call it. This was great because the script called for an Esther Williams type number."
"But, it turns out that we couldn’t get those two stages, so we went over to Paramount and looked around and found out that there was a stage but the pool was beneath it, underneath. It was a problem because we wanted to reveal these nuns. I said, “We can do a hanging miniature,” which is something that we’ve been doing for years. On this miniature platform, a five-by-eight platform in front of the camera that covered the pool, we painted the flagstone on it, and underneath we put the green moss and drippings and everything like that. Now on the big set, before we took the floor away, I had four tremendous chains. We replaced them with small chains to match the chains which we had on the real set. We placed this platform in front of the camera and raised it and had the girls dive into the water, and it came off. It was just, you might say, a primitive way of doing things, but it worked. We did that many times, for many pictures, with the foreground and a hanging miniature."
"When we cut to this shot, as Torquemada says, 'Send in the nuns,' this miniature started to rise and rose right out of the frame, and there were the nuns in habits aligned along the pool. When they took off their habits and had their white bathing suits, they all dove into the water and did an Esther Williams number. The thing was fairly well convincing. He [Mel Brooks] appreciated it, and he went along. But they don’t seem to do these things anymore, which are cheap. They go to real expensive digital stuff."
Here's a look at the finished scene with Harold's miniature:
Mel Brooks remembers working with Harold on this film and on Spaceballs. "Harold Michelson could see what you were doing, and he knew, without interfering too much and costing you any money, how you could improve it, how you could make it a little better. That was the genius of Harold Michelson. 'Let's make this a little better.' He always did."
Tonight, our film opens at the Brattle Theatre in Boston while continuing its run at the Quad Cinema in New York City and next week, starting May 12, three Laemmle's Theaters will debut the film in Los Angeles. See our Screenings tab for details about all of the upcoming opportunities to see the film on the big screen. #HaroldandLillian #ClassicFilmFriday