The Producers (1968, Mel Brooks)
Mel Brooks’ comedy about a washed-up Broadway producer attempting to cash in with a deliberate flop, and failing miserably at failing, is a conceptually brilliant one-joke movie. Brooks harnessed the mainstream success he’d achieved in television to get The Producers made and quickly asserted himself, more or less simultaneously with Woody Allen, as one of the leading American writer-directors of comedies. For all the frivolity of much of Brooks’ work, he is a serious and crafty filmmaker, and his movies are consistently interesting enough to be rewarding even as some of them have dated badly (as have some of Allen’s, it must be said). The Producers, which builds to an outrageous crescendo and managed to secure a screenplay Oscar for it, has aged better than one might expect. That includes me; I watched the movie a million times as a kid — it may say something about Brooks that as a preteen I always thought he was basically on my level — and once again when it was issued on DVD in the mid-2000s, but it’s quite disarming how the old truism about this sort of goofball comedy rings true: when it hits the mark, it’s hilarious; when it doesn’t, it’s at least charming and good-natured.
Fine a job as he does, Brooks may not even deserve half the credit for that. Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel both provide immediately legendary performances, illuminating barely-written caricatures as memorable and distinctly idiosyncratic creations. Mostel does essentially what Mostel always did on screen, which is not a criticism, but Wilder launches this seemingly innocuous script off into a stratosphere of crazed innuendo and off-the-rails wide-eyed internal tension. Every Crispin Glover performance, to name one obvious example, probably owes more than a little to Wilder’s Leopold Bloom. In both cases, the actors are remarkably cheery in the face of a jet-black premise that was controversial then and still is now — conniving Jews swindling people with songs about Hitler and a collaboration with a neo-Nazi — which is key to the film’s appeal.
It’s great how surreal and bizarre most of The Producers is; the character L.S.D., who ends up incompetently playing the title role in the astonishingly irreverent Springtime for Hitler, is a beatnik and a hippie as conceived by the Stan Freberg generation, but is he really? His presence is funny because he’s such a ludicrous concept of ’60s youth culture. Mel Brooks got the financing to make this movie from his work on Get Smart, a great sitcom that also gets more mileage out of odd, almost dadaist humor than the direct silliness for which Brooks is more universally remembered. Wilder’s blanket, L.S.D.’s Robert Palmer-forecasting backup band, the joyous fountain sequence and “the concierge” are touches that revel in their strangeness, and that stick out longer than the many broad ethnic gags. A major exception is Kenneth Mars’ work as the sociopathic playwright, a role and performance that marry the film’s two extremes quite well.
The Producers is more cumulatively funny than it is side-splitting in individual scenes, its best joke being a cinematic one — that the Broadway audience’s shock and admiration mirror the film audience’s voyeurism. Like many have said, the story has nowhere to go. it screeches to a third-act halt and yet the entire enterprise is so offbeat and frenetically weird I kind of wonder if that’s even a mistake. Brooks loved the characters more than he loved the story, sending them off with another delightfully perverse production number, “Prisoners of Love.” L.S.D.’s lengthy, difficult, marvelously embarrassing “Love Power” is still the film’s highlight, its most unguarded moment of 1960s oddness. Full of bad jokes, bad vamping, awkward pauses, it’s anti-humor, and shockingly ahead of its time. As brilliant as it is, “Springtime for Hitler” is just too iconic at this point to retain all of its punch, though its big finish remains spectacular.
Really, almost every scene here is funny except the now-dated secretary sequences, which were always a little slow and now feel patently offensive. In general, Brooks’ comedies treat women rather badly when they’re not portrayed by a master like Madeleine Kahn. Evidence suggests that he’s a decent man who loved his wife, so this is likely the result of both the period and of a deeper matter: yet again, Brooks’ work lives or dies by the performers acting it out. For the duration of his first feature, at least, Brooks gives the boys all of the good lines and lets them manipulate and deceive the women around them, an unfortunately antiquated element of an appealingly ramshackle, renegade feature (even as he permits a bit of surprisingly liberal homoerotic humor to sneak in). It’s not just childhood nostalgia that makes one’s feelings toward this lofty; I showed the movie to my girlfriend this spring and we both laughed throughout and often. Generations of inside jokes and cultural heft notwithstanding, the thing still works.