Note to Pie makers, this is what's called 'funny'.
Having suffered through the latest instalment of pie-cock interface 'bad taste' humour bypass paingiver American Pie: The Wedding, I figured it might be an idea to revisit a film that is not only extraordinarily funny but also knows what the proper definition of 'bad taste' is. Some moron throwing his pubes over a wedding cake is not 'bad taste', it's bloody stupid. The idea of a Broadway musical based on the glories of the Nazi party with songs like 'Springtime for Hitler' financed by conning money from little old ladies however is not only in gloriously bad taste, it's positively inspired.
The set-up is simple, as so many of the best ideas are. Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a producer of plays, fallen on hard times. As he says, he's gone from wearing 200 dollar suits to wearing a cardboard belt. To finance these disasters he beds a wide variety of little old rich ladies, taking 'investment' checks to support his inevitable failures. Into this story setup steps a neurotic and nervous accountant, sent to do his books, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). After hearing the sad story of Max's decline Leo is touched, but Max wants no pity telling him "You have exactly ten seconds to change that disgusting look of pity into one of enormous respect."
While being pressured into covering up an accounting error / minor fraud, Leo makes an interesting theoretical discovery. Under the right set of circumstances, a producer could make more money from a flop than a hit play. Music to Max's ears, as he's "being sunk by a society that demands success, when all I can offer is failure." All he has to do is raise a huge sum of money for the production of the play, have it bomb on the first night at a cost of far less than has been raised and use a little creative accounting to shuffle the funds around. Hey presto, Bob's your uncle. Of course, if the play should succeed he'd go to jail, as he could never pay back the millions that the investors would be due.
Leo isn't really cut out for a life of crime, growing hysterical at the thought and stroking his comfort blanket to calm down. That's not a euphemism. Wilder plays much the same character in most of his films in his own inimitable scenery chewing fashion. It fits better here than in many of his other films, tying in with the farce surrounding him well. For one of his earliest appearances, it's an accomplished performance although it's one of the few films he has starred in where he isn't the center of attention. Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock is one of the all-time great sarcastic, evil-tinged, deceitful yet charming slimeballs ever seen on the big screen. Mostel treats the character more as a force of nature than a mere producer, and the results are incredible. It helps that he's been given some of the best barbed comments seen outside of a Marx brothers script. "I assume you are making those cartoon noises to attract my attention. Am I correct in my assumption, you fish-faced enemy of the people?", he says to a bemused and innocent looking Wilder, who has the perfect expressions to play off these lines. It's like Max is kicking a puppy when insulting Leo, so cruel yet so funny.
After some persuasion by Max, Leo agrees to help Max with his moneymaking scheme. The perfect script would seem to elude them until they stumble on "SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER, A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva in Berchtesgarten". It reads like a love letter to Hitler. It seems ideal, nothing this outrageously offensive and Nazi sympathising could possibly run for more than one act, they think. The writer, Franz Liebkind (a deranged Kenneth Mars) is suitably nuts, an ex-member of Hitler's staff who used to take him his milk and opium at bedtime. He's overjoyed at his chance to tell the world of the true Hitler, the Hitler he knew, the Hitler he loved, the Hitler with a song in his heart. After making them swear the Siegfried Oath to present his play in the spirit it was intended, Max and Leo have their play.
Between their new 'toy', a non-English speaking Swedish secretary Ulla (Lee Meredith) whose idea of 'going to work' is putting a record on and gyrating and their chosen director, the cross-dressing Richard De Bris (Christopher Hewett), worst in the business, the play can't possibly work. Especially after De Bris decides to draw upon his background of musical direction to insert a little song and dance into the drama ("Aaahghhh! I see it! A line of beautiful girls, dressed as Storm Troopers, black patent leather boots, all marching together... Two-three-kick-turn! Turn-turn-kick-turn!")
After an exhaustive search, a Hitler Idol if you will, they settle on Lorenzo Saint DuBois (Dick Shawn) for the role, LSD to his friends, an acid riddled hippy drop out with a habit of adding 'baby' on the end of every sentence. The cast is complete, and completely inept. The only problem Leo and Max have is that people are taking their abomination in a spirit it wasn't intended. They're laughing at it. Enjoying it. Loving it. Recommending it to their friends. In their fevered attempts to fail they've inadvertently succeeded. As Max says, "How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?".
Given the trend of late to refer to things as being 'post-modern', 'ironic', and 'so bad it's good', The Producers may well be the earliest recorded film to recognise this around thirty years before Scream tried to harness the same movement. The Producers is one of the best executed farces the screen has yet seen, and the musical number in the films finale, 'Springtime For Hitler' with the famous overhead shot of lines of dancers arranged in a swastika is one of the most enduring scenes and images in cinematic comedy history.
There isn't a weak performance in this film, even despite the shallow characters that make up the ensemble. Liebkind is a comedy German, seemingly a right of the victors in any major conflict to make an arse of the losers. It's clich?d and hammy but played to such extremes that it stops feeling clich?d, if that makes any sense. The same rationale applies to the boisterous Max, ?ber-timid Leo, camp De Bris and gonzoed LSD. Everyone is played to perfection, even if it is a shallow kind of perfection.
I'm not sure what to say about the technical aspects of one of Mel Brooks' earliest directorial attempts. It's visually competent without being stunning, choreography of the final play aside, but then there's not a lot to be done to make an office look terribly exciting. One undeniable fact is that he's captured a group of actors absolutely on top of their game. Perhaps all he had to do was point a camera in their general direction and let them get on with it, but the performances are exceptional all round. The strange, co-dependant relationship between Leo and Max is a thing of beauty and both actors exude charisma in a way I've rarely seen approaching this level in any work after this.
Technicalities aside, Mel Brooks also wrote the script and it's probably his finest, and one of the worlds' finest. Few have matched it's blend of slapstick, irony and bad taste. Nothing cheap here like the dog faeces consumption in American Pie: The Wedding, this is high concept offensiveness. It doesn't offend me, but I can recognise it as offensive, if that makes sense. There's something wrong and dirty about presenting a light, carefree, happy side of Hitler and WW2 and that's what makes it funny. De Bris' throwaway comments on having to modify the third act because "They're losing the war...it's too depressing" is at once a great line and perhaps a more meaningful comment on the revisionist history of the Holocaust revisers, although given that his suggestion for a replacement is a jack-booted can-can line perhaps I'm reading too much into it.
Simply put, it's one of the sharpest scripts ever. Practically every line is quotable, one of those precious witticisms that you so dearly wish could be attributed to you. even the relatively simple lines, like Max's "I'm going to buy a toy. I worked very, very hard and I think I deserve a toy" sound far better than they have any right to. Even the minor characters have outstanding lines, and even uncredited members of the cast have memorable moments. At Leo and Max's trial, the jury foreman's verdict is given with the simple yet hilarious "We find the defendants incredibly guilty".
The Producers fulfils my two basic requirements for being a classic comedy - it's hilarious on first view and it's still hilarious on every subsequent view. When a comedy can deliver several types of humour over the course of 88 minutes without mis-firing once I think there's no other option but to give it the highest recommendation.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 TippyMarks.
Gene Wilder (Leo Bloom)
Kenneth Mars (Franz Liebkind)
Christopher Hewett (Roger De Bris)
Dick Shawn (Lorenzo St. DuBois)
Estelle Winwood (Hold me, Touch me)
Ren?e Taylor (Eva Braun)
Lee Meredith (Ulla)
William Hickey (The Drunk)
David Patch (Doc Goebbels)
Barney Martin (Goring)