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    • J. HOBERMAN  











Mel Brooks' The Producers


When The Nazis Became Nudniks                By J. Hoberman                   April 15, 2001, Sunday    

          IT'S springtime for Hitler and Germany, winter for Poland and France,'' the uniformed tenor warbles. ''Come on,
-- go into your dance!'' His command is the cue for a stage full of goose-stepping chorines in storm trooper
caps and lederhosen hot pants to take their places in a rotating swastika formation, filmed from an overhead angle
like the climax of a Busby Berkeley musical number.

     Was ''Springtime for Hitler,'' the ''gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgarden'' that is the subject and centerpiece
of Mel Brooks's first feature film, ''The Producers,'' the big shock of 1968? Or was the spectacle of hoofing Nazis just
business as usual? Roger Ebert, then starting out as a film reviewer in Chicago, recalls his first encounter with ''The
Producers'' as something ''so liberating that not even 'There's Something About Mary' rivals it.'' But Mr. Brooks's
chutzpah was not to every taste.

     When ''The Producers'' opened several months later at a midtown Manhattan
art house, it was greeted with severely mixed notices -- including pans from New York's leading critics, Renata
Adler, Stanley Kauffmann, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. This week, Mr. Brooks's adaption of ''The Producers''
opens as a Broadway musical.   Even in 1968, ''Springtime for Hitler,'' the movie's title until the distributor Joseph H.
Levine prevailed upon Mr. Brooks to change it, was a gag that its author had nurtured for years -- an ultimate
''Show of Shows'' skit, complete with a dialect role perfect for Sid Caesar, the television star for whom Mr. Brooks
had created countless comic German characters.

     As befit a movie directed by one of the most manic writers in show business, ''The Producers'' piled shtick upon
shtick. A seedy impresario, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), who
finances his shows by romancing and bilking
elderly women, and a timorous, if ultimately crooked, accountant named Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) hatch a
scheme to defraud their investors by overselling shares in a Broadway show so terrible that it is certain to close
after one performance. (Among other things, ''The Producers'' is credited with introducing the phrase ''creative

     The partners select a musical by an unreconstructed Nazi, Franz Liebkind, who, once they have tracked him
down at his Greenwich Village bunker, enthuses that his play gives ''not the popular conception of the Führer but
the young, beautiful inner Hitler who danced his way to glory.'' (Mr. Brooks considered taking the part of Liebkind
himself, before giving it to Kenneth Mars.) Bialystock and Bloom further guarantee their show's failure by hiring a
self-confident, if dimwitted, cross- dressing director, Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewitt), and bestowing the role
of Hitler on a mind- blown method-acting hippie known as L. S. D. (Dick Shawn). As ultimate insurance, Bialystock
proffers an opening-night bribe to The New York Times drama critic. The reviewer angrily throws the hundred
dollar bill to the ground; the show, however, is a hit.

     Critics pointed out that a similar premise had been employed in two George Kauffman plays, an episode of the
television show ''Racket Squad'' and even, according to one review, a theatrical producer who was then active.
(Possibly, it was first used in one of the lost plays of Aristophanes.) But ''The Producers'' was made with an
improvisatory quality that had largely been absent from Hollywood since the wacky Paramount comedies of the
early 30's and that, unstinting in its comic aggression, gave the sense -- not altogether uncommon in the 1960's --
of putting something on the screen for the first time.

     The credit sequence presents Max Bialystock, sporting the world's most flagrant comb-over, playing ''dirty young
man'' to a succession of amorous crones. Bialystock is a sort of frenzied Groucho Marx (complete with asides to
the audience) inflated to Falstaffian dimensions. A fount of libidinal energy and rampant orality, Mostel not only chews
the scenery and devours the lens but kisses everything in range, not least the manuscript of ''Springtime for Hitler.''
(In another turn of phrase credited to the movie, Bialystock gazes out of his dirt-encrusted office window and,
spying a white limo below, longingly screams, ''Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!'')

     Mr. Brooks has said that this outrageous character was inspired by a theatrical producer for whom he once
worked, ''a guy well into his 60's who made love to a different little old lady every afternoon on a leather couch in
his office.'' Time magazine suggested that Bialystock was a parody of David Merrick -- and others have proposed
Merrick's mentor Arthur Beckhard as the model. In any case, the part was written for Mostel, a monstre sacré, who
first had to be persuaded to take the role and then proceeded to embody it with an almost terrifying gusto. (Reports
of on-set tension between Mr. Brooks and the sometimes difficult Mostel hardly seem unreasonable.)

     Mr. Wilder, appearing in only his second movie, plays Stan Laurel to Mostel's manic Oliver Hardy. The extended
one-on-ones between the bellowing Bialystock and his accountant, a flaming neurotic complete with security blanket,
are classic, although Mostel also demonstrates a touching rapport in his ''romantic'' scenes with a kittenish Estelle
Winwood, then 84.

     ''I want -- I want -- everything I've ever seen in the movies,'' the repressed Bloom explodes at one point. Mr. Brooks
wanted that and more. ''The Producers'' is nothing if not self-conscious filmmaking and, although far less flashy in its
technique than several of its contemporaries like ''The Graduate'' and ''Bonnie and Clyde'' (which also quoted Busby
Berkeley), the movie was, in its way, one more example of a Hollywood new wave. Mr. Brooks flaunted his own
historical references by evoking the movies of the 1930's, predicating gags on knowledge of such Partisan Review
heroes as Joyce, Kafka and Dostoyevsky -- as well as incorporating the sort of Yiddishisms that were a leitmotif of
Mr. Caesar's skits. (Roger De Bris is named for the Yiddish term for circumcision.)

     The words ''Jew'' and ''Jewish'' are never used. One of the movie's best gags is the Nazi playwright's obliviousness
to the evident Jewishness of his producers. Not only are their names, professions and demeanors meant to be
stereotypically Jewish, their interpreters were as well. Having created the role of Tevye in ''Fiddler on the Roof''
four seasons earlier, Mostel was a Jewish icon; in 1969, after Mr. Wilder was nominated for an Oscar for best
supporting actor, The Hollywood Reporter noted that he was now in ''dueling contention'' with Dustin Hoffman for
the title role in a movie version of Philip Roth'sjust-published ''Portnoy's Complaint.''

    Some found ''The Producers'' not only coarse but overly ethnic. Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker that it
''revels in the kind of show-business Jewish humor that used to be considered too specialized for movies.'' In its
confrontational, bad boy attitude, ''The Producers'' was a late manifestation of the ''sick comedy'' associated since
the late 50's with those, mainly Jewish, stand-up comedians -- Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine
May, Tom Lehrer and especially Lenny Bruce -- who treated such apparently unfunny subjects as mental illness,
racial prejudice, religion and nuclear fall-out. (The mostcelebrated antecedent was the Bruce routine known as
''Hitler and the M.C.A.,'' in which two German talent agents in 1930, desperate to find a dictator, discover and
recruit a handy house painter.) That the film's financing was arranged by Sidney Glazier, the Oscar-winning
producer of a movie as dignified as ''The Eleanor Roosevelt Story,'' seems like one of Mr. Brooks's bad-taste jokes.

     Was ''The Producers'' seen as an expression of Jewish anti-Semitism? Neither the New York nor Los Angeles
offices of the Anti-Defamation League have records of any complaints. ''The Producers'' is far less redolent of self-
hatred than of self-love, even narcissism. Far from self-deprecating in its Jewish humor, the movie conveys cultural
confidence: it is a rebellion against invisibility, the equivalent of dancing on Hitler's grave. Indeed, ''The Producers''
opened in New York with a full- page endorsement from Peter Sellers, himself a Jew, who called it the ''ultimate film''
and ''essence of all great comedy.'' (Four years later, Sellers announced his own never-realized equivalent to ''The
Producers,'' a movie in which the comic-strip hero the Phantom pursues the 90-year-old Hitler, to be played by Sellers,
from the South American jungle to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall.)

     ''Those of us who have seen this film and understand it have experienced a phenomenon which occurs only once
in a lifetime,'' Sellers wrote. Anarchic as it is, ''The Producers'' has an undercurrent of seriousness and even catharsis.
No movie has more economically evoked the Third Reich as a regime of failed artists and crank aesthetes embarked upon
a demented project to ''beautify'' the world -- through war and mass murder. (Magnet for a mad abundance of dancing,
singing, sieg -heiling would-be Führers, ''Springtime's'' casting call anticipates the multiple Hitlers who appear throughout
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's 1976 epic ''Hitler, a Film From Germany.'') And no movie has ever succeeded so well in
reducing that totalitarian project to travesty, to one more tawdry show biz episode. Although ''The Producers'' anticipates
the flood of Nazi kitsch that would soon appear, the musical ''Cabaret'' was already on Broadway and the prisoner of
war sitcom ''Hogan's Heroes'' was among the most popular shows on television by the time the movie opened.

     In contrast to a less vulgar Holocaust comedy like ''Life Is Beautiful,'' Mr. Brooks's succeeds in implicating the audience
in his joke. Our culture's continuing fascination with the Nazis is a factor not only of their absolute evil but also of their
status as pioneers of spectacular politics -- ecstatic mass rallies, orchestrated media campaigns, eroticized violence,
pseudo-documentaries created to glorify a pop star-political leader. There is nothing more prescient than the telegram
sent to Mr. Brooks's shell-shocked, and ultimately naïve, producers: ''Congratulations. 'Hitler' will run forever.''

Copyright © New York Times Inc.

The Producers  
                                By Roger Ebert                                  April 15, 2001, Sunday

                     Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder have a scene in "The Producers" where they roll on the floor so ferociously we expect them to chew on one another. Mostel is so manic and barbarian, Wilder so panicked and hysterical, you wonder why spit didn't get on the camera lens. The whole movie is pitched at that level of frenzied desperation, and one of the many joys of watching it is to see how the actors are able to control timing and nuance even while screaming.

This is one of the funniest movies ever made. To see it now is to understand that. To see it for the first time in 1968, when I did, was to witness audacity so liberating that not even "There's Something About Mary" rivals it. The movie was like a bomb going off inside the audience's sense of propriety. There is such rapacity in its heroes, such gleeful fraud, such greed, such lust, such a willingness to compromise every principle, that we cave in and go along.

The movie stars Mostel and Wilder as Max Bialystock, a failing Broadway producer, and Leo Bloom, a nebbishy accountant. Bialystock raises money for his productions by seducing checks out of little old ladies, who come to his office to fool around ("We'll play the innocent little milkmaid and the naughty stable boy!"). Bloom is sent to do his books, and finds that Bialystock raised $2,000 more than he lost on his last failure. You could make a lot of money by overfinancing turkeys, he muses, a glint in his eye: "The IRS isn't interested in flops."

This leads to their great inspiration: Max will venture into "little old lady-land" and raise thousands of dollars more than they need for a production that will be guaranteed to fail. The critic David Ehrenstein traces the first use of the phrase "creative accounting" to "The Producers," and Bialystock and Bloom make it into a fine art. "Hello, boys!" says Max, plopping down next to his safe and patting the piles of money.

Their formula for failure is a musical named "Springtime for Hitler," with a dance line of jackbooted SS girls and lyrics like, "Don't be stupid, be a smarty! Come and join the Nazi Party!" Their neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars) roars up to opening night on a motorcycle, wears a Nazi helmet into the lobby, and tells them, "It's magic time!" Reaction shots during the first act show the audience paralyzed in slack-jawed horror.

How did Mel Brooks, the writer and director, get away with this? By establishing the amoral desperation of both key characters at the outset, and by casting them with actors you couldn't help liking, even so. Like Falstaff, Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock is a man whose hungers are so vast they excuse his appetites. There is a scene where he scrubs his filthy office window with coffee, peers through the murk, sees a white Rolls-Royce and screams, "That's it, baby! When you've got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!" You can taste his envy and greed. "See this?" he says to Bloom, holding up an empty setting. "This used to hold a pearl as big as your eye. Look at me now! I'm wearing a cardboard belt!" It is typical of this movie that after he says the line, he takes off the belt and rips it to shreds.

Mostel was a serious actor, a blacklist target, an intellectual. His performance here is a masterpiece of low comedy. Despite a comb-over that starts just above his collar line, he projects optimistic vanity, spitting on his hand to slick back his hair before Miss "Hold me! Touch me!" (Estelle Winwood) enters for her weekly visit. What Mostel projects above all is utter confidence. He never has second thoughts. Perhaps he never thinks at all, but only proceeds out of Darwinian urgency.

Gene Wilder was a new face in 1968, introduced to audiences with a key supporting role in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), also as a character consumed by nervousness. His performance in "The Producers" is a shade shy of a panic attack. On the floor with Mostel looming over him, he screams, "Don't jump! Don't jump!" Mostel starts to hop in a frenzy, and Wilder escapes to a corner, hides behind a chair, and screams, "I'm hysterical! I'm hysterical!" Mostel pours a glass of water and throws it in his face. Wilder delivers another classic line: "I'm wet! I'm hysterical, and I'm wet! I'm in pain, and I'm wet, and I'm still hysterical!"

The movie's supporting stars became briefly famous after the movie came out, although none found equally funny material again. Mars was a bug-eyed fanatic, up on the roof with his pigeons, singing Nazi songs, later ordering an audience member to stop laughing because "I am the author! I outrank you!" To the Nazi jokes Brooks added gay jokes, with the flamboyant couple of Broadway director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and his valet Carmen Giya (Andreas Voutsinas). At one point Max, Leo and Carmen crowd into a tiny elevator, and are expelled breathless and flustered. Heterosexuality is represented by the pneumatic Lee Meredith, as Ulla, the buxom secretary, who types one letter at a time and then pauses for a smile of self-congratulation. The other great supporting performance is by Dick Shawn as the actor who plays Hitler; in a movie made at the height of the flower power period, he's a hippie constructed out of spare parts, with his finger cymbals, Campbell's soup can necklace and knee-high shag boots.

To produce a musical named "Springtime for Hitler" was of course in the worst possible taste, as an escaping theater patron observes in the movie--to the delight of Bialystock and Bloom, who were counting on just that reaction. To make a movie about such a musical was also in bad taste, of course. It is obvious that Bialystock and Bloom are Jewish, but they never refer to that. As Franz Liebkind rants, they nod, because the more offensive he is, the more likely his play will fail. Brooks adds just one small moment to suggest their private thoughts. As the two men walk away from the playwright's apartment, Bloom covers the red-and-black Nazi armband Franz has given him. "All right, take off the armband," says Bialystock, taking off his own. They throw both armbands into a trash can. Leo spits into it, and then Max does.

The best sight gag in the movie is the one at the end of a long day spent by Max and Leo walking around Manhattan and perfecting their scheme. Finally at night they find themselves in front of the fountain at Lincoln Center. The music swells. Leo cries, "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!" And then the fountain leaps up. Everyone remembers the fountain. The music and the dialogue make it into a punch line instead of just a surprise.

Like most of Brooks' films, "The Producers" is cheerfully willing to go anywhere for a laugh. In Brooks' next film, "Blazing Saddles" (1974), he produced the famous campfire scene, long before Eddie Murphy's Klumps had their troubles with intestinal gas. Gene Wilder worked with him again in the wonderful "Young Frankenstein" (also 1974), and Brooks has remained prolific; high points are "Silent Movie" (1976), with its narcissistic Burt Reynolds shower scene; the Hitchcock spoof "High Anxiety" (1977), where the tracking shot breaks a plate-glass window, and the underrated "Life Stinks" (1991), inspired by Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels."

Mel Brooks began in big-time show business as a writer for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" in 1950; Carl Reiner and Neil Simon were fellow writers. That he didn't have a career as a stand-up comedian is surely only because he chose not to.

I remember finding myself in an elevator with Brooks and his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, in New York City a few months after "The Producers" was released. A woman got onto the elevator, recognized him and said, "I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar." Brooks smiled benevolently. "Lady," he said, "it rose below vulgarity."

Copyright © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.


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