Classic Film Review: An Essential French Farce — “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” (1973)

You may think you’ve seen every pull-out-all-the-stops, spend all the money, make-a-laugh-a-minute romps the cinema had to offer in the “Mad Mad Mad World,” “Italian Job” ’60s and “Silent Movie” to “1941” ’70s.

But if you’ve missed the French farce “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob,” hang your head in shame, or at least mild embarrassment. This riotous, sight-gag/punchline-packed comedy has slapstick and satire, lampooned bigotry and packed enough political bite that someone hijacked a jet demanding that it be withheld from release back in 1973.

Pre-“Blazing Saddles” and “Airplane!,” “Rabbi Jacob” could make a claim to having more “gags per minute” than any film anybody had ever seen. And a lot of them, I’m happy to report, still land. It’s still one of the funniest films of the ’70s.

It stars famed French clown Louis de Funès, a Gallic Red Skelton, Jim Carrey or Marlon Wayans, as at home with a punchline as he was making a funny face. The journey his character takes here is one from racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia to some sort of “enlightenment,” played out through 95 slapshticky minutes.

But he isn’t the title character. Rabbi Jacob is a New Yorker whose noisy send-off for his first return to France since before World War II opens the film. Rabbi Jacob is going to Paris to preside over a grand nephew’s bar mitzvah. The Hasidic rabbi is played by the great Marcel Dalio, a Jewish star of pre-war French cinema (“The Rules of the Game”) who fled to Hollywood when the Germans invaded and became a Hollywood character actor and bit player. He was the croupier in “Casablanca,” “Frenchy” in “To Have and Have Not.”

But the esteemed rabbi, whose congregation picks up his Yellow Cab and lifts it over a traffic jam to get him to the plane, is absent for much of the picture. The movie’s about a manic, mean and motor-mouthed factory owner, Pivert (de Funès) who gets mixed up in an assassination attempt on the eve of his daughter’s wedding and winds up impersonating the Rebbe before the long night and day that follows is done.

First, crazed Pivert has to jam his Citroen DS, with a motorboat lashed to its roof (motor included), through a traffic jam, scaring his poor chauffeur Salomon (Henri Guybet) to death. Of course they end up in the water, but not before Pivert has insulted every nationality (“I HATE the English…Belgians…Swiss…Germans.”) he almost runs into, and not before he’s gone full-on racist when they pass an inter-racial wedding.

“Darkies” in a “Rolls Royce,” he fumes. What is France coming to?

Imagine his shock when he takes so long on their drive that Salomon gets out of the car and refuses to operate anything mechanical or electrical as they’ve passed over into Shabbat. He’s devout, and his boss never knew he was Jewish any more than he knows his schtickle from his shtreimal, or kosher from pisher.

That’s how the loony tune winds up on his own, stumbling into the Yankee chewing gum works where he interrupts Col Farès (Renzo Montagnani) and his Middle Eastern minions who are about to execute Third World revolutionary Mohamed Slimane (Claude Giraud), who has been stirring things up back home.

As Pivert gums up the gumworks, Slimane takes Pivert hostage and they’re stuck together (ahem) trying to make their getaway, with Pivert in more and more trouble with the law as they do.

And then they disguise themselves as Hasidic Jews and darned if they aren’t mistaken for Rabbi You-Know-Who.

Sight gags are literally everywhere in this Gérard Oury (“The Brain,” “The Sucker”) comedy. Pivert calls his dentist wife, and all the dentures in her office chatter in unison. Pivert makes his getaway on a luggage conveyor belt, only to be gawked at by Japanese tourists wearing ’70s double-breasted jackets and Olympus cameras.

Mistaken identities wreak havoc, Hasidic beards and Payos (side curls) are yanked, guns shoot bubblegum bubbles and redheads are hit on — constantly — by the revolutionary Slimane, who has…a thing. Apparently.

The bigot has a car backfire in his face at the inter-racial wedding he’s so put out by. Sooted-up, he’s mistaken for a member of the wedding party. Ok, SOME of this stuff isn’t aging well. “Moi? RACIST?”

But the dialogue? Ever tried to fake your way through prayers, kvelling and kvetching in Hebrew, with a bar mitzvah as your encore? Pivert’s best argument for not being shot by the assassins today is “my daughter’s wedding.” His counter offer (in French with English subtitles)? “Tomorrow you can send me a letter bomb!”

And on and on it goes, building towards a mid-Paris finale at the Hôtel des Invalides with everybody on the film’s payroll, the Paris Republican Guard on horseback and a helicopter hovering into the mayhem.

That chopper in the courtyard and a spirited dash through the city on a smoky, noisy moped, with the stars doing their own high-speed helmetless driving, reminds you “They don’t make’em like this anymore.” Because no insurance company would indemnify half of it.

But for us, looking at the wide lapels, ugly hats, the sea of now-classic Austin Healeys and Citroens, Triumphs, Minis and Mercedes filling the sky with yellow exhaust, the casually-lit cigarettes in the casually-unguarded De Gaulle Airport as a French snob shakes some of his prejudices and makes faces as he does, is a real blast from the past.

Best of all, “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” is now streaming on Film Movement. Have at it, and have a laugh as you do.

MPA Rating: G, slapstick gunplay

Cast: Louis de Funès, Claude Giraud, Suzy Delair, Henri Guybet, Renzo Montagnani and Marcel Dalio

Credits: Directed by Gérard Oury, script by Gérard Oury, Danièle Thompson, Josy Eisenberg and Roberto De Leonardis.  A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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