Judge Joel Pearce is in disguise, you stupid tart!
A shipload of laughs.
Although I didn't see Yellowbeard as a kid, my fiancée almost peed herself with excitement when she found out that it was coming out on DVD and that I got to review it. (Note: she asserts that she was nowhere near to actually peeing herself). Like so many comedies from the era, this film hasn't aged that gracefully, but it still holds enough charm that fans will want to get the quality upgrade on the (finally) released DVD.
Facts of the Case
The dread pirate Yellowbeard (Graham Chapman, Monty Python and the Holy Grail) is captured, but refuses to divulge where his massive treasure is hidden. There are a number of parties interested in that information, however, including his treasonous first mate Moon (Peter Boyle, While you Were Sleeping) and Moon's henchman, Gilbert (Marty Feldman, Young Frankenstein). Yellowbeard is also being chased by secret service Commander Clement (Eric Idle, Nuns on the Run), aided by blind agent Pew (John Cleese, A Fish Called Wanda).
While these would be difficult odds for even the most bloodthirsty pirate, Yellowbeard is aided by his enthusiastic wife Betty (Madeline Kahn, Young Frankenstein) and his gardener son (Martin Hewitt, Endless Love). The race is on, but only one group can claim the great treasure.
When a masterful comedic actor like Marty Feldman passes away on set, one has to hope that the movie he was making at the time of his death will stand as a testament to that actor's career. This certainly wasn't the case for John Candy (Wagons East), but Yellowbeard certainly isn't a disaster on that scale. It is, however, a poor indication of the immense talent that it contains, from Feldman, to the ex-python cast members, to Cheech and Chong, and the smattering of other funny people scattered throughout the film.
In fact, it shares many weaknesses with so many of the comedies that came out in the same era. The '70s saw many developments in comedy, as a variety of sketch comedy troupes were shaping how we would understand contemporary comedy. Monty Python's Flying Circus arrived from Britain, and SCTV and Saturday Night Live were on the air. Edgier content was coming out thanks to films like Up in Smoke. By the early '80s, movie studios were fighting to take advantage of all this talent, and many films came out starring these groundbreaking comedians.
Some of these films hold up as comedy classics. A Fish Called Wanda and Ghostbusters both came out of these groups, as well as numerous other classics (Mel Brooks's movies comes to mind). Unfortunately, many other filmmakers forgot that creating narrative film is very different from creating sketch-based comedy. Along with a handful of classics, the market was loaded up with sloppy behemoths of comedy, weighed down by an oversaturation of talent and a lack of writing quality.
Yellowbeard is a prototypical example of this phenomenon. It is, at times, hilarious, and contains all of the pieces of a great comedy. These pieces never come together to make a great film, though, almost as though all of these funny people spend their time trying to fight for the central spotlight. The story is too segmented to work as narrative comedy, but not segmented enough to work as sketch comedy. A lot of the jokes fall flat, sometimes whole scenes at a time.
Of course, it doesn't really matter, because films like Yellowbeard aren't designed to be anything other than silly fun. There are few comedy masterpieces, simply because they aren't designed to be taken seriously or thought about afterwards. Films such as this are designed to be a mild diversion from life's constant troubles, and darned if Yellowbeard doesn't do a decent enough job at that. There are still plenty of laughs to be had here, and at 96 minutes it doesn't have a chance to overstay its welcome. There are plenty of quotable lines, several great sequences (Pew versus the room full of thugs comes to mind) and some delightful characters. At the end of the day, it's hard to ask for more from the genre. If you are reading this review because your Yellowbeard VHS broke a decade ago and you're wondering whether you will still enjoy the film, I can assure you that you will. You might remember it better than it actually is, but it's still better than some of that other stuff from the '80s that you used to think was cool (leg warmers with stretch pants, anyone?).
Ah, but how is the transfer? Well, the good news is that the DVD does contain a high-definition remaster of film, in its original widescreen ratio. Now, it doesn't look especially great, but it looks a hell of a lot better than the VHS copy you recorded off cable. In fact, considering the age and budget, it doesn't look half bad. The sound is pretty basic. Sony has cleaned up the original mono track, and the dialogue is always easy to hear. It sounds flat and lifeless, but that's what mono is all about (usually). For those of you eager to hear a commentary track with the cast, see multiple featurettes on the production, and get a peek at all those hilarious deleted scenes, I have some bad news. This release is strictly barebones. In fact, it's so bare that Sony didn't bother including an animated menu or scene selection. The disc is just a blank image with a list of subtitle languages and a button to play the film.
Fans of Yellowbeard will be happy to see it finally out on DVD. It's not a great edition, but it's here. Go get it. If you have never seen Yellowbeard before, but are intrigued by the star-studded cast, my recommendation is more tentative. This is not a great film, especially considering the talent involved. Check it out if you're interested, but don't expect to find yourself in the middle of a comedy classic.
Yellowbeard is guilty, but if we put him in jail he'll just break out again. In the end, he seems harmless enough.
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