US (1967) Dir. Mel Brooks
“I was so careful… I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast… where did I go right?”
We can only hope that nobody tried to emulate the scam as perpetrated in this classic comedy from Mel Brooks, although there have been many cases of con artists getting investors for a fake production then fleeing with the money, which is just as bad but less entertaining.
Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) was once on the most successful and in demand producers on Broadway but was reduced to scamming old ladies into investing for fake plays to stay afloat financially. When timid accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) arrives to audit Max’s books, he notices a $2000 discrepancy in the financing of a recent flop play, to which Max admits he kept the difference to pay his bills.
Leo wonders aloud that if someone were to put on a play with a higher budget and it flopped, they could get away with much more profit that just $2000. Max takes this as legit financial advice and talks Leo into helping him find the worst play ever and getting investments for millions of dollars for big rewards when it flops. The play that will make this happen for them – Springtime For Hitler!
The second of two films that aired recently on the BBC to celebrate the 95th birthday of Mel Brooks, The Producers was his directorial debut and his big breakthrough hit but was not without controversy when it was first released in 1967. Maybe a case of “too soon” the idea of lampooning Hitler in such a bold fashion was considered bad taste and the film initially only made a negligible profit.
Fortunately, more people developed a sense of humour and it became a cult hit, now regarded as a classic that not only begat a remake but also a stage show. Brooks’ caustic wit is very much on display here, perhaps a little tempered compared to later films like Blazing Saddles and History Of the World Part 1, whilst his subversive humour is neatly tailored to the conventional setting that drives the satire.
Drawn from his own experiences with Broadway producers – one of whom was a direct influence on the character of Max – Brooks actually first proffered the title Springtime For Hitler as a joke in 1962, whilst using a musical to deflate the mythos and powers of Hitler’s hateful legacy was in response to brooks being called “Jew boy” whilst he was in the army.
Brooks’ rationale was that you could effectively crumble anything with humour and ridicule where reasoned dissertation would fail, and The Producers certainly does a good job of that. There is something a little cruel in how Springtime For Hitler was meant to refute the western media lies about Hitler and portray him as a good guy, which the US theatregoers find hilarious, but we can reconcile this because, well, it’s Hitler!
In the story, the play is written by an ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), now living in New York with his pigeons and still wearing his Nazi soldier’s helmet, talking with a strained German accent about how he wasn’t a Nazi. Clearly a fruit case, Franz is easily convinced by Max and Leo that his tribute to Hitler is a masterpiece waiting to happen but as you might expect, he is the only one taking it seriously.
Actually, Franz isn’t the only one – so is the director Max hires, flamboyant Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) who is so bad, his plays closing during the first day of rehearsals. A spoof on the pretentious bohemian arty types, you just know De Bris would be an overtly gay caricature had this been made a few years later, but here, Brooks had to be careful. Max’s Swedish sexpot secretary Ulla (Lee Meredith) would be the other contentious character to modern audiences but again, this was 1967.
Providing the final piece of this disastrous puzzle was the lead actor to play Hitler. After a myriad of talented singers were rejected, zoned out hippy Lorenzo St. DuBois aka L.S.D – geddit? (Dick Shawn) wanders into the theatre by mistake but auditions anyway. Naturally, he is terrible so Max hires him on the spot. Come opening night, Max and Leo hide in the bar across the street as the aghast audience sits through their offensive drivel, working out how to spend their fortune.
Of course, you already know – or you will from the quote at the start of this review – that the plan backfired and the show was so bad it was good, and Max and Leo have a hit on their hands. We can gather this was Brooks saying any old rubbish can become a hit if it has the right hook to it, in this case, mocking history’s most famous agitator. Ironically, Brooks couldn’t sell the screenplay under its original title of Springtime For Hitler, necessitating a name change before he could get backing.
Zero Mostel nearly didn’t play Max – his agent hated the script and never showed it to him but Mostel’s wife did like it, and had to convince her husband to do it. It wouldn’t have worked without him; his characterisation is spot on and his facial reactions make every scene, particularly my favourite with the Greek fiddler and a bottle of champagne. Mostel and Gene Wilder also make a great double act, the dichotomy of the nervous accountant and ferocious producer is almost a satirical homage to Laurel and Hardy.
Having no immediate desire to see the 2005 remake (I’ll admit to being a little curious as it is based on the stage play), I do wonder if modern sensibilities would hamper The Producers in its original form. If it does, rejoice in the fact this film exists and revel in every second of its cheeky humour and annoyingly catchy songs about the least likely subject for a musical!