#2 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.
Going from John Ford’s final movie, starring Anne Bancroft, to the first film of Anne Bancroft’s husband, Mel Brooks. It makes sense. Trust me.
Using his connections he had made while working on the Sid Caesar led Your Show of Shows, Mel Brooks found a way to take his perennial joke of a project titled “Springtime for Hitler” and turn it into a movie when he convinced producer Sidney Glazier to raise the $600,000 necessary for production. Hiring noted Broadway actor Zero Mostel and the up and coming comedic actor friend of Bancroft’s Gene Wilder, Brooks wrote and directed a comedy classic. A hilarious and surprisingly tender look at a pair of nobodies who try to shortcut their way to financial wealth using offense as their tool, The Producers keeps a silly grin on my face from beginning to end.
Max Bialystock (Mostel) is a has been Broadway producer, producing flop after flop with the money he gets by romancing little old ladies, organized with framed pictures he keeps in an armoire with code names like “Hold Me Touch Me”. Into one of these little trysts in his office walks Leo Bloom (Wilder), a neurotic accountant sent to look over his books. One of the fun parts of this opening is how the credits work. Part of the frame gets frozen, framed in white with red lettering. This is often accomplished while focusing on Zero Mostel’s face, and the comic timing of the moments is rather impeccable, getting us extended views at some of Mostel’s most amusing grimaces and sighs of exasperation.
When the two men are alone, Bloom starts looking through Bialystock’s books and discovers that $2,000 from his previous play, a flop, was missing. Bialystock convinces Bloom to make it disappear since no one else cares and all he got out of it was a Turkish bath, and Bloom starts off on an accounting theoretical exercise where Bialystock raises a million dollars for a one-night flop. Using the appeal of New York City and the promise of life at the top, Bialystock convinces Bloom to give up his little gray life in the little gray box at the accounting firm to help him execute this plan. What’s most interesting to me about this section is that it really creates a relationship between Bialystock and Bloom that’s almost fraternal while also twisted and corrupt. The two men really do grow to appreciate each other over the film, and it starts here. Bialystock may be appealing for dishonesty, but the appeal is also something Bloom needs.
Their search comes to an end when they discover the unproduced play titled Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden written by the barely closeted former Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). Mars as Liebkind is one of the constant joys of this film. There’s a small detail in his perpetually worn German infantry helmet, a bullet hole, that could explain his degree of insanity, but whatever the reason, his insanity is almost intoxicating in its amusement. He’s terrified of being found out as a Nazi, despite the helmet, goes on long winded diatribes about how Churchill was not as good a dancer as Hitler, and how the world did not know the true gentleness of his Fuhrer. With the exact wrong play signed, the pair go to find the exact wrong director and exact wrong cast. For the director, they hire the Ed Wood inspired Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewitt) who is amazed by the historical tidbits in the play like that the Third Reich meant Germany. For the cast, they lead with Lorenzo St. DuBois (Dick Shawn), or LSD as he’s called, a crazed hippy who is exactly the wrong type for someone to play Hitler. Well, someone to play Hitler seriously.
And then the play opens, and the opening number, titled “Springtime for Hitler”, of course, is one of the most deliriously hilarious things I’ve ever seen. I actually was the one who found out about The Producers in my family first, finding a copy of a Mel Brooks film I’d never heard of at the library when I was about 10 and taking it to my dad, and even now, more than twenty years later, I’m still in stitches as this thing plays out. It’s such an outrageous display of bad taste that I find hilarious, and watching it each time is like watching it anew.
Of course, the plan goes wrong when the wrong play, the wrong director, and the wrong cast combined to create the right end product of a comedy rather than a drama. Liebkind is, understandably, upset at the end result of his love letter to his Fuhrer, and Bialystock and Bloom work with him to try and blow up the theater to end the tyranny that is plaguing them for different reasons. It, of course, does not go as planned.
And then the movie gets sweet again, and it remarkably works. Bloom really grew to appreciate the corrupt and dishonest Bialystock, and his appeal to the court that Bialystock never did him any harm is surprisingly touching in a twisted little way. There’s a moment where, after having fought in the detritus of their plans, the two reconcile, and it’s handled almost wordlessly and sweetly. Brooks really did seem to love these two characters in all their faults, and it comes through in the film.
The movie was suppressed by its producer, Glazier, upon completion because he had no idea how to sell something so obviously offensive, but the key to Brooks’ success here is that the offense can seem like its directed at the audience but is actually directed elsewhere. We watch two men do something outrageous and criminal without ever hating them and also enjoying their destruction at the same time because the offensive material doing it is so funny. I should also point out at how well directed the film is. Brooks was a first-time director who came out of television, and his framing is economical and clear but also, at times, surprisingly sophisticated. More than once, characters will be in the bottom corner of the screen and into the top corner, towering over them, will be another character who instantly dominates not just the frame but the whole scene on purpose. There’s an understanding of spatial relationships and what they imply that you don’t often get from first time directors.
This is one of the jewels of first films from a director. Confidently directed, wonderfully performed, and uproariously funny, The Producers is a comedy that has stood well the test of time.