Thursday, June 13, 2013

Classics: A Review of The Producers by Lauren Ennis

A beautiful friendship in the making
How to make a surefire comedy masterpiece: step one take a pair of amateur swindlers and make them into lovable heroes, step two have the daring to approach controversial subjects with satire, step three add infectious showtunes, step four convince stuffy old Broadway to laugh at itself, step five sit back and watch the critics work their way to your side. Screenwriter and director Mel Brooks completed all these steps and more to create his comedic classic The Producers. The film mixed the best of Old Hollywood’s screwball comedies of the 1930’s and infused it with the cynical sensibilities of the tumultuous 1960’s to create a whole new kind of comedy all its own. The Producers paved the way for Brooks’ subsequent comedies as well as numerous imitations, ushering an era that truly was springtime for comedy.
The film begins as washed up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) goes about his daily routine of seducing old women in exchange for donations for his stage failures. In the midst of one of Max’s meetings with a donor, accountant Leopold Bloom (Gene Wilder) arrives to do Max’s accounting for the last year. Leo discovers that Max has an overcharge for $2,000 in his account after raising too much money for a play that closed on its opening night. Leo assures Max that he can hide the discrepancy, as it is a relatively small amount, and offhandedly comments that a producer could make more money off of a flop then a hit. With that one comment Max sees a way out of his gigolo lifestyle and forms a plan to produce a guaranteed flop, oversell the production shares, and use the extra funds to start a new life in Rio de Janeiro. Meek Leo is initially horrified by Max’s dishonesty, but eventually determines that having “everything I’ve ever seen in the movies” is worth the risk of prison, and joins Max as a partner in crime.

The two then embark upon a quest to create the worst production ever mounted on the professional stage, beginning with a script written by devoted former Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars) entitled “Springtime for Hitler”. They continue their efforts by securing flamboyant transvestite Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewett) as director and hiring flower power spouting hippie Lorenzo St. Dubois, better known as L.S.D. (Dick Shawn), as their star. During preparation for the production, Max and Leo begin to prematurely celebrate their scheme and spend absurd amounts of money on limousines, new clothes, and a Swedish secretary (Lee Meredith) whose grasp of English is restricted to the phrases “Go to motel” and “Now Ulla dance”. When the play debuts, Max and Leo are mortified to learn that their “gay romp for Adolph and Eva” has been misconstrued as a satire and become an overnight success. They then find themselves trying to evade the IRS while being pursued by an enraged Liebkind, who is bent on avenging the fuehrer’s reputation following L.S.D.’s counter-culture infused performance.

Take that Tony Awards!
The film’s combination of non-stop gags and charismatic performances carries the already funny premise to the heights of greatness. Throughout the film, Brooks relies upon both typical slapstick gags and biting social commentary to create a truly zany atmosphere where anything can happen. For example, Liebkind’s unquestionable devotion to Hitler is made memorable through both his blatant lack of self-awareness and the way in which he serves as a parody of the dediacated followers dictators rely upon. Similarly, the contrast between Bialystock and Bloom works not only because it is a juxtaposition of two extremes, but also because both characters represent the extremes of modern society; those willing to do literally anything to succeed and those so paralyzed by fear of failure that they are unable to pursue an opportunity when they see it. The premiere of “Springtime for Hitler” perfectly demonstrates Brooks’ balance between high and low brow comedy as the cast satirically sings the praises of the Third Reich in the fashion of a Busby Berkeley style musical number.
The film’s cast members provide the story with just enough dead-pan humor and on-screen chemistry to add the necessary level of believability to an implausible premise. The interactions between Mostel’s shameless producer and Wilder’s anxious accountant are both hilarious enough to keep the plot moving, and heartfelt enough to make the audience care about the fate of the wacky pair. Mostel perfectly captures the equal parts lust for life and desperation that drive Bialystock to concoct and pursue his scheme. Similarly, Wilder plays Bloom with the ideal balance between anxious hysteria and repressed ambition. The cast is rounded out with riotous performances from the supporting players who each shine in their time on screen.
Now that is what I call a cougar!
The Producers has been on a production rollercoaster that is perhaps even more fascinating than that of “Springtime for Hitler”. The story originally began as a play entitled Springtime for Hitler that was deemed too difficult to be successfully performed on stage. In an instance of life imitating art, the public initially thought Brooks was making a joke when he told Playboy Magazine that he was working on a play entitled Springtime for Hitler, much in the same way that the audience misconstrues Bialystock and Bloom’s production for a tongue-in-cheek comedy. Despite early criticism, Brooks believed in the concept of the story and decided to take it to the screen.
After completing the difficult process of securing a production for the script, Brooks convinced producer Joseph E. Levine that he was the best choice to direct the film, despite his lack of directing experience. Throughout production, Brooks clashed with Levine, as Levine deemed Wilder too over the top as an actor and insisted that the title was too offensive to remain intact. Brooks relented on the title, eventually settling on The Producers, but refused to cast anyone but Wilder as Bloom. After several setbacks, including recasting Mars as Liebkind when Dustin Hoffman left the cast to play the lead in The Graduate and various disputes between Brooks and Mostel, the film completed production and became the underdog hit of 1968, winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The film has continued to grow in stature over the years and has since been remade into both a Tony Award winning Broadway musical and a film version of that musical (both starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as Bialysock and Bloom), proving that some jokes never do get old.

Mel Brooks once described The Producers as a film that “rose below vulgar”, but its legions of fans would argue that it rose above most comedies that came before it. Through its send-up of both history and theater, the film broke new ground in what could be portrayed as comedic onscreen and how far past the line of offensiveness a film could go. The film’s hilarious performances and non-stop gags proved to be a winning combination that has made it a comedy classic for generations. Enjoy the last official week of spring and treat yourself to an excursion into the world of theater courtesy of Bialystock and Bloom that you won’t soon forget.

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