Tuesday, January 24, 2012

THE PRODUCERS: Zero Bats a Thousand and Mel Hits a Home Run!

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Comedy Blogathon. Please click here to see the entire gleefully, hysterically, deliriously funny line-up.

Great drama, action, and romance are fine, but there is no greater gift to the world than the pure joy of a good laugh that comes from way down deep.

May I seriously say that Mel Brooks is a genius? Yes? Thanks. But first, I have to stop laughing. In my lifetime there have been two great comic filmmakers who I think merit that word "genius" - Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Now Woody, for all his hilarity, imbues his work with heartfelt meaning and ponders the hell out of the human condition. Mel, on the other hand, ponders nothing, imbues his films with offensive and tasteless jokes and sends no message, other than have an outrageous good time and laugh until you fall off your chair. And I frequently do! He is pure joy. Period.

It was hard to pick which Mel Brooks movie to write about for this blogathon: Young Frankenstein? Blazing Saddles? Even a more obscure favorite of mine, The Twelve Chairs? Each would easily fill the bill. But, in the end, I chose The Producers because, for me, it is just about perfect. After all, when a film has Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, dancing Hitlers and Dick Shawn, how can it miss?

The Story
Max Bialystock is a broken down has-been hack of a Broadway producer who eeks out a living romancing "Little Old Ladies" who happen to have beaucoup cash to invest in his failed productions. Meek little accountant Leo Bloom discovers a minor "irregularity" in Bialystock's books. Max encourages Leo to "bury" it, but Leo has an epiphany of creative accounting and realizes that, in the ultimate Ponzi scheme, a producer could make more money with a flop than a hit by overselling shares in a production. If it flops, no one gets paid and the producer can keep the extra cash. Leo fears jail, but Max soon has him on board with the promise of the glamorous life of a Broadway producer. The two are now partners in crime. Their mission? Find the worst play ever written to ensure a flop of epic proportions.

Soon the duo finds their play: Springtime for Hitler: a Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, written by ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. Max and Leo get the rights to this abomination from Liebkind, who claims his Hitler was just  misunderstood. Max fleeces the Little Old Ladies for all they are worth and Bialystock and Bloom, after hiring Roger De Bris, the worst director on Broadway, are ready to mount their production. All they need is their Hitler.

They find him in Lorenzo St. DuBois (otherwise known as L.S.D), played to perfection by Dick Shawn. LSD's Hitler is a tripped-out Hippie with an earring who could barely complete a thought, much less conquer the world. Add the totally tasteless musical centerpiece "Springtime for Hitler," and the boys seem to be on their way to a guaranteed flop. It can't miss, or can it?

Of course it can. The play is so bad it is good and Bialystock and Bloom's dreams of wealth go up in smoke. But, you can't keep good men down, and the final scene shows them up to their old tricks in prison, fleecing the guards for shares in their inmate sensation, "Prisoner of Love."

The Cast
This once-in-a-lifetime cast is headed by Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock. While the entire cast is superb, Zero is the heart and soul of this romp through mayhem and questionable taste.
Zero's back story as a black-listed artist in the 1950s whispers in the background of the movie. Although by 1968 Zero's career was once again in full flower, his past struggles with McCarthyism were not forgotten. As the larger-than-life Max, he presides over the film like a Borscht Belt puppet master.  He is one of the last looks at the great heart, spirit, and soul of a comedy tradition that was almost past.

Gene Wilder, in his first important role is unforgettable as the neurotic, nebish-y, yet slightly subversive Leo Bloom.
As the poor soul with the blanket fetish, Wilder adds a great deal of humanity to the film. His ultimately loving father/son relationship with Max is touching and he gets to utter the priceless line: "I'm wet! I'm wet! I'm hysterical and I'm wet! I'm in pain! And I'm wet! And I'm still hysterical!" Yes, Gene, you are!

Dick Shawn as LSD is a complete hoot. His Hitler is a Fuhrer who is an incompetent buffoon. He steals each and every scene he is in.

Kenneth Mars as crazed playwright and pigeon-keeper Franz Liebkind and Christopher Hewitt as the flamingly gay director Roger De Bris are outrageously funny.

Oh, and please, let us not forget Andreas Voutsinas as the ever helpful Carmen Ghia, as well as all the the lusty "Little Old Ladies" (including a very funny Estelle Winwood).

Some Classic Lines:
Max: "That's it, baby, when you go it flaunt it!"
Franz Liebkind: "Not many people know it, but the Fuhrer was a terrific dancer!"
Franz Liebkind: "Hitler...there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in ONE afternoon! TWO coats!"
Leo: "Let's assume, just for the moment, you are a dishonest man.
Max: Assume away!"
Leo: "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!"
Max: "Ooooooo I WANT THAT MONEY!"
Roger De Bris: "Will the dancing Hitlers wait in the wings? We are only seeing the singing Hitlers."
Max: "Leo, he who hesitates is poor."
Max: "How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?"

Springtime for Hitler:
Once you see it, you never forget it (especially the Busby Berkeley swastika formation). Written words can't do it justice. You just have to watch:
(P.S: you can tell that it's 1968 - people still dressed for opening night. Now, they can show up in their pajamas.)

When The Producers first premiered in 1968, it was met with decidedly mixed reviews. However, its perfection could not be denied. It went on to win Brooks the 1968 Academy Award for best Story, Writing and Screenplay, has been selected for preservation by the National film Registry, and, in 2001, was transformed into a super-smash Broadway play. I was privileged to see the great Nathan Lane as Max and he did Zero and Mel proud. Again, I fell off the seat laughing. I really did! But, skip the 2005 film -it is not nearly as good as either the original play or the 1968 film.

The Producers also holds the distinction as being the first place the term "creative accounting" was used. Do you think this film was required viewing at Enron?

And in the end....
Come to think of it, I was wrong. There is a bit more at work here than zany and hilarious foolishness. Mel Brooks is the ultimate Jewish comedian and, by mocking the darkest villain of his lifetime, one who would have silenced the joy Brooks has brought to the world, he, and his entire cast, did something courageous as well as outrageous. Laughter in the end wins. Bravo, Mel!
Sometimes, the Academy really does get it right!
To sum it up, The Producers is vulgar, tasteless, hilarious and a work of comic genius. And, just so you know Mel always had his head on straight, Roger Ebert tells a story of being in an elevator with Brooks and his wife, Ann Bancroft, at the time of the film's release. A woman got into the elevator, recognized Brooks and said, " 'I have to tell you Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.' Brooks smiled benevolently. 'Lady,' he said, 'it rose below vulgarity.' "


Caftan Woman said...

Your passion for "The Producers" really shines through in this article. It is jaw droppingly tasteless, ultimately triumphant and very, very funny. And funny is what it is all about.

Your description of Mostel and his characterization really touched me.

PS: I'm another fan of "The Twelve Chairs".

Page said...

I agree about Mel and Woody's 'genius' title.

The Producers was raunchy but boy was it hysterical! I liked the film so much so when I found out it was being remade and Nathan Lane and Broderick would be taking their Broadway show back to the silver screen, I was thrilled. Sadly, it didn't compare to the original. An example of why you can't duplicate genius nor should you try.

Your screenshots were a fun walk through memory lane. Just as funny every time I see them. And the lines you chose gave me a good laugh.

A nice contribution the the Blogathon FlickChick!

FlickChick said...

Caftan Woman - there is indeed something very touching aobut Zero in this film. For all of his unsavory attributes, he's like a big, loveable teddy bear. No wonder the Little Old Ladies adore him! Glad you are a fan of the Twelve Chairs - Dom DeLuise is a scream

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Page. Having seen the stage show, I can tell you it was hysterical - but the movie was a bomb.Nathan Lane is a larger than life performer who doesn't always translate well to the screen.On stage he is magic.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

One of my favorite films from the 1960s. Your review was right on! Everything is great and, oh, so funny. The cast is superb, with Mostel giving the performance of a lifetime. Springtime for Hitler was just so irreverently funny.

Samantha said...

Loved the movie...loved your review.

Kevin Deany said...

Hands down one of the funniest movies ever made, bar none. I considered writing this one up, but didn't think I could do it justice. You did, and in a most enthusiastic and engaging manner.

I too saw the stage show in previews in Chicago and it was a real treat. I also like the movie version of the stage show and saw it twice at the theater, both with very different reactions.

The first time the audience was really with it, and laughing throughout the entire movie. The second time there was dead, and I mean dead, silence throughout the whole movie.

whistlingypsy said...

I feel a bit disappointed that I can’t add to the admiration for this film. I will admit to being among those who have never seen a Mel Brooks comedy (I know, shame on me). Your glowing review and obvious affection for the film and the cast have me determined to change this immediately. I look forward to experiencing something you already know from the heart, but I also look forward to experiencing something you can never do again: watching “The Producers” for the first time. Thanks for introducing me to a film that is certain to be a new favorite.

Rick29 said...

Delightful review of a comedy classic! I rank it just behind YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as Mel Brooks' best film. I sometimes think that Mel has trouble ending his films (e.g., BLAZING SADDLES), but THE PRODUCERS benefits from a logical narrative and the performances are grounded in a touch of realism. But it's the zaniness that makes THE PRODUCERS so entertaining--starting with outrageous musical within the movie. Furthermore, I think people often forget how hard comedy is to do. The remake of THE PRODUCERS is OK, but lacks the sparkle of the original. This was a great pick for the blogathon and a most entertaining review. How can one not like a film where a character proclaims: "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!"

DorianTB said...

FlickChick, Team Bartilucci has loved Mel Brooks' films for years, with THE PRODUCERS being our #1 favorite (a tough decision, considering how many wonderful film's he's made). Your affectionate review with all its fun lore was a pleasure to read! BRAVA, my friend!

Vinnie and I blogged about both the film and Broadway version AND the film version of the Broadway version back in March 2011, including our personal anecdotes about the whole experiences. I must say I think your blog about it is my favorite! However, if you're interested in seeing it for yourself, feel free to check out the link below! :-)


Great post, FlickChick. and a wonderful choice for the Comedy Classics Blogathon!

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Kim - Springtime for Hitler - it just doesn't get any better than that! It gets me every time.

FlickChick said...

@ Samantha - thank you so much.
@ Kevin: thanks for the interesting tale of 2 audiences. The 2nd one kind of sounds like the audience in the film - NOT amused!

FlickChick said...

Hi Gypsy - oh, I do hope you will give it a try - and be inn a very open frame of mind when you do! And please - let me know what you think!

FlickChick said...

@ Rick - I agree that "Young Frankenstein" is a better film - but there is just something about the outrageousness of this film that makes it that much funnier to me. The remake film is nowhere near as good as either the play or the original film.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dorian. I knew you and the other half of Team B had a great sense of humor! Your taste (or lack of) proves it!

Dawn said...

I have to add my name to the short list of people who have never seen a Mel Brooks comedy. Your awesome review has made wanting to see one of his movies..

FlickChick said...

Oh Dawn - you must at least see Young Frankenstein! or Blazing Saddles! or, of course, The Producers! I hope your funny bone will be tickled.

Classicfilmboy said...

My favorite Mel Brooks film! The man who came up with Springtime for Hitler deserves and Oscar and a Tony. Thank you for choosing this one for the blogathon.

FlickChick said...

Classicfilmboy - you are a man of good (or is that bad) taste!

John Greco said...

Flick Chick,

This film is probably tied with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as my favorite Mel Brooks film, can't get enough of either. I first saw it back in 1968. I can remember some in the audience were shocked, and the theater I watched it in was on the Upper East Side of New York, where folks are not shocked that easily. The SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER number brought out a slew of nervous laughter from the audience, after all, we were not suppose to laugh at Hitler, his crimes were too horrible. And yet, there is Hippy Hitler (Dick Shawn) and an entire production number worthy of MGM.

I saw the play in previews in New York about a week before it officially opened. Extra added attraction that afternoon was unexpectedly having Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and Gene Wilder sitting not too far from us in the audience.

A fantastic choice and a wonderful post.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, John. It sounds like the audience reaction to the film was much like the audience reaction in the film! And - how special to be able to see the show with Mel, Ann & Gene. I know someone who - in a round about way - knows Mel and he was absolutely devasted when he lost his wife. He has said that being involved in the Broadway show helped him a great deal.