Down-on-his-luck theatrical producer Max Bialystock is forced to romance rich old ladies to finance his efforts. When timid accountant Leo Bloom reviews Max's accounting books, the two hit upon a way to make a fortune by producing a sure-fire flop. The play which is to be their gold mine? "Springtime for Hitler." Written by
Scott Renshaw <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The DVD release of "The Producers" sends me every viewing back to 1968 when I first saw this brilliant, barrier-smashing comedy. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder were the perfect pair to bring to life the adventures of a Broadway faded impresario, now a con man, and his neurotic, hyper, accountant accomplice.
Together they fleece old ladies, something Mostel's Max Bialystock was doing before the auditor, Max Bloom, came by to check the books. Mostel's seduction of the old, the awful and the ugly has no equal in movie physical comedy.
The scheme: put on the worst flop imaginable and when it closes virtually after opening night the two scammers snare riches: the investments they don't have to return. But if the show is a hit...
The producers' vehicle, "Springtime for Hitler," both brought audiences to a new level of appreciation for the malleable, creative power of film and...it made some viewers genuinely nervous, even upset.
Following Steve Allen's observation that a formula for comedy based on history is Tragedy+Time, director Mel Brooks brought to the screen, less than a quarter century after World War II ended, Dick Shawn as a campy fuehrer surrounded by the Nazi counterpart of the Rockettes. And Max and Leo are clearly Jewish in character if not so openly identified.
Kenneth Mars grabs laughs as the author of "Springtime for Hitler," an unreconstructed, Hitler-adoring flake who raises pigeons on the roof of a Manhattan tenement while accoutered in the odd leftovers of Wehrmacht uniforms.
When I fitted in seeing "The Producers" in its opening week I sat in the middle of an audience that was, to a certain extent, as befuddled as the film's playgoers watching the first part of the intended-to-outrage musical comedy about the Third Reich. Not only were SS uniforms, swastikas and photos of Hitler on the "stage" but the movie theater audience also digested, perhaps for the first time, a send-up of an uproarious gay couple, two real queens. One is effeminate to the core, the other is a cross-dresser (and a faultlessly garish one at that). This kind of stuff hadn't been done before in a Hollywood flick.
1968's audience had many who well-remembered World War II and some had fought in the conflict. I knew people who admitted feeling that the horrific global battle against Hitler had been trivialized by Brooks and his extroverted cast - until they could no longer hold back guffaws that segued rapidly into uncontrolled laughter.
That "The Producers" is also now a runaway Broadway hit is no surprise and I'd love to see a DVD release with Lane and Broderick. However fine they would be, it's the original that broke barriers.
The DVD has a number of worthwhile features including a fascinating "Making of..." segment. Peter Seller's short, famous encomium is read and there are the usual other additions. An outtake presenting an alternative blow-up of the "Springtime for Hitler" theater is interesting, largely because it shows how perceptive Brooks was in scrapping it for the shorter scene actually used.
"The Producers" is, in some ways, a subversive movie. Without stridently proclaiming a new aesthetic, it is exactly that and so it's a timeless classic. This is not satire about Nazism, Hitler and the Third Reich. It's treating as suitable material for slapstick and quick gags the detritus of an evil time.
But it's also a bit dated, no subject is taboo today for comedic treatment, and many who see it for the first time (as my teenage son did tonight) will enjoy the movie without getting the full impact of its assault on conventionality.
Is there any historical topic that will not, in the passage of time, be employed for pure comedy? Is it possible that the next generation will laugh at a comedy parodying Auschwitz? I hope not but I also can't be sure.
Many years ago I refused to watch "Hogan's Heroes" on TV because I personally knew former U.S. POWs. But that show, with Werner Klemperer as Colonel Klink, was very popular. "Hogan's Heroes" was to TV what "The Producers" was, and is, to film. And both made a mark that will be emulated as future generations go beyond satire to humorous treatment of matters most today consider beyond the pale of acceptability as a vehicle for laughs.
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