Film: The Producers
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
Of late, I’ve been watching a lot of seriously depressing movies, so I figured it was time for a change. I don’t remember the first time I saw The Producers, but I remember that it was really funny. Screamingly funny. Pee in your pants and almost pass out funny. So it was time to watch it again because I’d really had enough of watching things that made me want to pound my head on the wall until I fell unconscious.
The Producers is the first movie Mel Brooks ever directed, and in many ways it is his best film. It’s his most coherent film, at least. Many of his other films go off on wild, fourth-wall-breaking tangents. These tend to be funny, but off the plot. The Producers arguably breaks the fourth wall once or twice, but tends to follow a basic story from start to finish.
Our story features a Broadway producer named Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) who has fallen on hard times. Once one of the best producers in town, he currently produces only flops. To get money to produce his flops, he is reduced to seducing little old ladies in his office. During one such seduction, he is interrupted by an accountant named Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), there to do his books.
What Leo discovers is that for his last play, Bialystock took in $60,000 but spent only $58,000, making a sort of profit of $2,000. Bloom is convinced to hide the two grand and makes the observation that under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit. If he oversold the play, getting tons and tons of investors, and then produced a terrible play, there’d be no profit to split with the backers, and he could keep everything.
The two decide to go for it, and look for the worst play they can find. The find it in “Springtime for Hitler,” a play praising the Third Reich, written by a former Nazi named Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). They then seek the worst director they can find, settling on the flamingly gay, cross-dressing, and completely off the deep end director Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewitt). They then need to cast the worst star they can, getting permanently drugged oddball Lorenzo “LSD” St. Dubois (Dick Shawn). Bialystock seduces the little old ladies, they fund the show, and Max and Leo prepare to make close to a million dollars (real serious money in 1968) and head down to Rio. Unfortunately, the play turns out to be a massive hit because de Bris has turned it into a comedy, leaving Bialystock and Bloom facing a long prison term and an author who wants them dead.
It’s a straightforward story. To turn this into a comedy, Brooks needs to get as much out of every situation as he possibly can, and he does. The film is consistently funny at the start, balancing the manic energy of Zero Mostel against the near-hysteria of Gene Wilder, who could not be more perfect as the needy, nervous and painfully neurotic Leo Bloom. He’s a step or two past believable, but it doesn’t matter because he’s ridiculously funny.
The movie starts to kick into high with the appearance of Kenneth Mars, who is one of the real high points of this film. Kenneth Mars is great, and his character, like all of the characters in this film, is too far to one extreme to be a real person, but is so funny that it doesn’t matter. He wrote his play praising Hitler because he hates Churchill, and because Hitler was a great dancer. Bialystock and Bloom, two Jews, are forced to wear swastikas and sing the German national anthem to convince him, but the play is so bad, they figure it’s worth it.
Dick Shawn’s arrival is equally brilliant. He’s taken so many drugs in his lifetime that he has trouble remembering his own name, and he can’t manage to keep a thought in his head for longer than a couple of seconds.
Although all of this is great and everything is going the way Max and Leo want it to, no single moment in this film, and few moments in the history of film are as funny as the actual opening of the play and the musical number “Springtime for Hitler.” No matter how many times I see it, it never fails to make me laugh out loud to the point where I have trouble breathing. I can’t think of a single moment of film that makes me laugh harder than this one. Even the lyrics are great: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/Winter for Poland and France./We’re marching to a faster pace./Look out, here comes the master race.”
The Producers, like all good Mel Brooks comedy from his heyday, is horribly offensive and in terrible taste. That’s sort of the point. If you let yourself be offended by it, it’s there to give you offense. If you let it go, it cannot fail to make you laugh unless you have no sense of humor. This film is constantly and consistently funny, and builds to a crescendo of humor that truly and completely pays off. What Brooks figured out with this film is that the best way to defeat a tyrant isn't to engage in debate or shout him down, but to laugh at him. Laughter makes it possible to not take him seriously, and that spells defeat for any despot.
Mel Brooks made a lot of funny movies early in his career, but he was never again this focused. The Producers remains one of the funniest films I have ever seen, and certainly will be forever. The remake is cute, but doesn’t have the manic intensity of the original. Watch this. Watch it soon, and then watch it again. You’ll laugh just as hard the second time.
Why to watch The Producers: Because it’s damn funny.
Why not to watch: If you offend easily, it will offend you.