I’m not Mel Brooks’ biggest fan. In fact, I think most of his genre parody films such as
Blazing Saddles and
Spaceballs are fairly awful films full of the kind of facile fart humor that I rarely find funny. But Brooks’ first film, The Producers is different – a genuinely funny satire that has a wicked, subversive streak underneath its farcical facade.
Zero Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a once-prominent Broadway producer who has resorted to seducing octogenarian ladies to get backing for his productions. Enter nervous accountant Leo Bloom (an hysterical Gene Wilder), who in going through Bialystock’s books arrives at an “academic accounting theory” that Bialystock could make a fortune if he produced a flop: raise more backing money than you need, produce a play that closes fast, and split to South America with the excess cash. But to execute the fraud, they need the worst play ever written, something guaranteed to close on opening night. Their prayers are answered in the form of Springtime For Hitler, a “gay romp with Adolf and Eva.” written by a shell-shocked ex-Nazi named Franz Leibkind (Kenneth Mars) who still wears his Nazi helmet, now covered with the shit from the pigeons he keeps on his roof.
Next to be recruited is flamboyantly gay director Roger DeBris (Christopher Hewitt), a talentless hack (“I never knew the Third Reich meant Germany,” he tells Max and Leo. “I mean the play is drenched with historical goodies like that”) who turns it into a musical. Finally, during auditions for Hitler (which lets Hewitt deliver the line “Will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wings! We are only seeing singing Hitlers!”), they acquire their lead actor, Lorenzo St. DuBois (L.S.D.), a talentless, would-be flower child. On opening night, the audience is properly appalled by the jaw-dropping overture, an amazingly tasteless display of Busby Berkeley-style kitsch mixed with goostepping. But just as Max and Leo repair to a nearby bar to celebrate the play’s failure, the audience starts laughing at L.S.D.’s blues-singing Hitler antics. “I leib ya baby, I lieb ya!”, he tells a complaining Eva Braun “now lieb me alone!” The play is a monster hit, and by intermission the still-laughing audience is singing its praises. Max and Leo aren’t left too many options: either kill the actors or blow up the theater.
The film’s central idea that an audience, mainly out of sheer ignorance, will conceivably embrace almost anything given a chance might have seemed too cynical in heavier hands, but Brooks makes it work. And though politically incorrect to be sure – it has two Jewish producers attempting to cash in on the Holocaust – it’s still far too genteel a film to offend anyone. The one drawback here is Brooks ‘ direction, as the film looks like a cross between a glossy ’60s sitcom and a stage play, but given Brooks’ background in television, that’s no surprise. (Brooks would direct another film nearly as good, if not better –
The Twelve Chairs, his sadly neglected 1970 comedy set in post-revolutionary Russia.)