The saddest form of cinematic endeavor in the world is a comedy that no one laughs at. Doubly so when the people involved rank among the funniest in the world. Say hello to Yellowbeard, starring three member of Monty Python and featuring the likes of Cheech and Chong, Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan and Madeline Kahn. Each and every one of them knows what they want to do here, and each and every one of them resolutely fails to do it.
Ostensibly, the film parodies the old Errol Flynn pirate movies, delivering a salty-Mel-Brooksian version of classic swashbuckling adventure stories. Graham Chapman mugs his way through the title role: scurviest scourge of the Seven Seas, jailed for tax evasion but with a giant treasure waiting for him on the outside. The Royal Navy deliberately adds another 140 years to his sentence, trusting that he’ll break out and lead them to the gold. He does so, of course, gathering a cutthroat crew and fighting off all number of rivals en route.
Said rivals form the first part of the movie’s problems. There seem to be dozens of them, each with their own little shtick and each pulling us away from the central comedic premise. Even worse, most of them try desperately to assert themselves amid their fellows, leading to a lot of frantic mugging without any viable jokes to back it up. Chapman himself gets the worst of it, using his bulging eyes and absurdist deadpan to disguise the fact that his guns are out of ammo. Without a central figure to hold us, the rest of the film falls into chaos. Director Mel Damski can’t keep a handle on his disparate cast and – bereft as he is of anything to guide them with – leaves them on their own to do what he can. He’s herding cats from start to finish, an impossible task that never once lets him up to breathe.
Blame for that largely lies in the production itself, one of the more difficult in Hollywood history. Chapman nursed the project for many years, developing multiple drafts only to see the studio impose its misguided will on the final product. Multiple casting changes bedeviled one of the key roles, and Chapman himself was barred from the editing room once shooting wrapped. The nadir was the death of Feldman in the middle of the shoot, forcing his character to be ignominiously written out.
It was a textbook Hollywood disaster, all the more so for the possibilities of what the project might have been. These guys? With pirates? How can you lose? And yet, Yellowbeard’s status as an unequivocal disaster cannot be denied. The Python boys still had The Meaning of Life, released just a few months prior, to cover their escape, while the rest of the cast was too talented to stay down for long. Yellowbeard has curried a small cult following over the years, mostly die-hard Python fans who are prepared to admit that the boys had been better, even while insisting that this effort still has merit. Nothing doing. When laughs are your only purpose, you have a very simple agenda. “Simple” is never the same as “easy” of course, and even the best comedians would be hard-pressed to salvage something from a production this snake-bit. On the other hand, the best comedians were. I’ll give them credit for the effort – the fact that anything at all made it to the screen is a miracle, let alone something with a beginning, middle and an end. Beyond that, it’s just too depressing: an inept misfire that absolutely belongs in the cinematic ash heap where it was ultimately cast.