Why Did God Punish “Wholly Moses!”?

Passover begins at dusk, so there’s still a few hours left to be sacrilegious. And by that, I mean irreverent towards the worship of cinema.

Well do I remember the poster advertising Wholly Moses! (1980) at the Pier Cinema in Narragansett when I was a teenager, when my friends and I were on the way to…some other movie. Why it didn’t grab us, I can’t say. It definitely seemed a rip-off of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which had come out the year before. (And it was). And I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that Siskel and Ebert panned it on their show. Though we were only 14, we took what those guys said seriously. And? I think Dudley Moore was already getting serious overexposed by that point. I think he was great, but you have to admit he came on strong. A little of Dudley Moore went a long way, and by the late 70s and early 80s, we’d gotten a LOT of him. Ironically, Moore was relatively (and admirably) subdued in Wholly Moses! as “Herschel, the guy who wanted to be Moses, but lacked the right connections”. But how could we have known? Divine revelation? A Burning Bush, perhaps?

But among the interesting facets of Wholly Moses! is that, beyond the Python influence, the film had a confluence of elements from the Mel Brooks and Saturday Night Live constellations.

Pryor reportedly showed up hours late for his one day of filming and rewrote all his lines

The Mel Brooks elements included the concept of this kind of parody PERIOD (and Brooks was to release his own, similar, The History of the World, Part One, which even had a Moses bit, the following year). From Brooks’ world came Madeline Kahn, Dom Deluise, and Richard Pryor (who co-wrote Blazing Saddles) as the Pharaoh. It also had James Coco, who, while not in any Brooks films, was in MANY Neil Simon films and plays, including the Brooks-influenced Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978).

From the SNL universe came the film’s director Gary Weis, who had directed those short films for SNL during the early years, along with Albert Brooks and Tom Schiller. And the female lead in the film was none other than Laraine Newman! Thus it’s a very specific moment in pop culture history caught on film. Nearly every single member of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players went on to bigger and better careers. Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner all became movie stars. Jane Curtin went on to bigger tv stardom. Only Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris didn’t make good in this way, and Morris sort of did. But in 1980, Newman was still up there with her peers, and we all sort of assumed she would stay there. When she was still on top she co-starred in Wholly Moses!, and she has a cameo in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1979). After this, she worked plenty in film and tv, but not with that same sense of continuity as a major comedy star.

John Ritter portrays Satan, inadvertently confirming the suspicions of homophobic “Three’s Company” foes

And this isn’t all. Big TV stars of the time, like John Ritter from Three’s Company, and Dave L. Lander (Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley) are in it. John Houseman, hot at the time from The Paper Chase and tv commercials, also! The Voice of God was portrayed by Walker Edmiston, best known as Ernie the Keebler Elf! And there were other vets, like Paul Sand (a Second City alum with a face you’d recognize in second), and Jack Gilford. And Phil Silvers shot a scene, though it got cut from the movie.

This is like a comedy brain trust! How could it fail? But the movie barely broke even at the box office. Perhaps God was not pleased! And at least they could have cast a Jew as Moses! But on the serious side, see some of my comments in the first paragraph. There was something about the movie that seemed like a critical mass of people who had passed their hot minute. At least that’s how it seemed to me as a 14 year old — passe. (I believe also there were some religious boycotts but since when has that ever hurt a movie?)

That said, I Netflixed it about ten years ago and rather enjoyed myself, as dumb as the movie is. Not only doesn’t it have the same baggage it had when it was first released, but now it’s like watching a piece of history, a neglected gem. It has all those great comedians in it, giving their all! You may disagree, but I think such a thing is never bad. Chag Sameach, my friends!