Monday, October 19, 2015
PRODUCERS, THE (1968)
(March 1968, U.S.)
Director Mel Brooks, despite the legendary comic status he holds in the history of cinematic comedy, has always been hit or miss with me. For every laugh-out-loud comic film of genius like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and BLAZING SADDLES (both 1974 - what a year!), I find myself having to contend with the equally mediocre (SILENT MOVIE, HIGH ANXIETY, HISTORY OF THE WORLD-PART I and SPACEBALLS) and the absolutely downright awful (SILENT MOVIE, LIFE STINKS and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT). Thank goodness for THE PRODUCERS! Such a satirical comedy not only glorifies the world of Broadway theater and all of its potential silliness, but in its own way, captures that very small bit of New York City pop culture in the late 1960s without all the hippies!
The film tells the story of an elaborate financial scam as it plays out in the hands of has-been theatrical producer Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel) and boring accountant Leo Bloom (played by Gene Wilder) who want to produce a sure-fire Broadway flop. The plan is that they'll raise more money from naive little old lady investors than they can repay (the shares they sell total more than one hundred of any potential profits) and then plan to abscond with the enormous profits as soon as the play closes, presumably after just one night. An intelligent and elaborate scheme, for sure, in the hands of men with brains. But this is a Mel Brooks film - brains are often in short character supply. So after reading many bad plays, the two finally settle on a lavish musical titled "Springtime for Hitler"...come on, say it just a few times to yourself...how can you help but not laugh! Bad play must ultimately follow with a bad director (that big guy that played TV's "Mr. Belvedere" wearing a dress!), bad actors and very tasteless musical numbers and dances. When you're watching scantily-dressed chorus girls dressed up with giant pretzels and giant mugs of beer celebrate the glory of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany rising as "the master race", you have every confidence that the producer's outlandish scheme is going to work like gangbusters!
But wait, all of this would only be just so funny if things didn't inevitably go wrong. After all, things going wrong is where the fun is! By the time the opening song and dance numbers are over, we enter the bad actor known by the acronym L.S.D. playing Hitler himself (played by Dick Shawn) as a flower-power-type hippie who loves to refer to all of his Nazi soldiers as "Baby". The previously-appalled audience members that haven't actually walked out of the theater yet are, lo and behold...now laughing their asses off! Yes, things are about to go very wrong for the producers because the audience apparently possesses a streak of sick barbarism that will allow them to laugh at the idea of a lavish musical about Hitler and Nazi Germany. I suppose it's not totally outside the realm of possibility - I mean, HOGAN'S HEROES was a very popular TV show in the 1960s! And so, the play is a hit and the producers are fucked ("No way out, no way out, no way out!")! Morals and decency demand that Max and Leo go to prison for what they did (they do!), but come on, do we really want them to? These are two anti-heroes at their best because we, perhaps, identify with their twisted lust for money and all the toys that can be bought with it...even Swedish blonde secretaries that don't speak English and break into sexy dances when you tell them, "Ulla, go to work!"
Mel Brooks, while always striving to make us laugh, has also always had an equal passion for musical numbers. Even in films like HIGH ANXIETY (1978) and HISTORY OF THE WORLD-PART I (1981), he can't resist throwing some musical content into it (think "The Inquisition"!). In THE PRODUCERS, however, it's essential because of the musical within the movie content of it. The music, the singing and the dancing have to be bad or we have nothing to cling to in the hopes (yes, I said hopes!) that the con of the producers will ever succeed. What makes it all go wrong, or as Max asks in bewilderment, "Where did I go right?" is that by the time we're ready to embrace and enjoy "Springtime For Hitler", the music and the dancing are over and it's just become plain, fucking funny, despite all of its vulgarity, its bad taste and its grotesque overacting! And that, my friends, is what a successful Mel Brooks is all about, like them all or not!
Oh, by the way, in August 2001 my wife and I saw the Broadway musical of THE PRODUCERS with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick just mere weeks before the events of 9-11. It was great, but I can't help but associate the two of them within the same contents of that particular summer. I suppose that's just the quirks of my own personal memories. I didn't bother with the 2005 film version of the Broadway show. Enough is too much!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Leo Bloom: "Let's assume, just for the moment, that you are a dishonest man."
Max Bialystock: "Assume away."