Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 113: The Producers (1968)

"'Gregor Sampsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.' Nah, it's too good..."

I can't believe I'm nearly a third of the way through my year of movies and I haven't watched a single Mel Brooks movie. Well, I have remedied that, my friends, starting at the best place possible, the beginning of his directing career. While The Producers is now best remembered as a musical, it's origins as a film are vastly more interesting.

The story goes that the film was languishing on a shelf because producer Joseph Levine didn't want to release a film entitled "Springtime for Hitler." While filming I Love You, Alice B. Toklas in New York, Peter Sellers was having a private screening party for some friends, when he stumbled upon the film, ran it for his friends, and loved it. He called Levine, and demanded that he release the film, as it was destined to be a smash hit, and Levine eventually conceded, changing the title to The Producers. The film would go on to earn Brooks his first and only Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and effectively launched Gene Wilder's film career. I don't know if this is true or not, but as we learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Zero Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a low-rent Broadway producer, who's current life sees him scamming horny old ladies for money by having sex with them. He hires a mild-mannered accountant by the name of Leo Bloom (Wilder) to audit his finances, and Bloom discovers that through some "creative accounting," a producer could conceivably make more money off of a flop than he could off of a hit show. His hare-brained scheme involves over-selling the number of shares in a particular show, promising 10 & 20 percent ownership of the show to dozens of investors, but only if the show was a sure-fire flop, with no hope at all of turning a profit. This way, everyone involved, except the producers who would have pocketed the extra cash, can write off the investment and move on with their lives.

Bialystock & Bloom set out to find the perfect script, finally settling on a script entitled "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf & Eva through Berchtesgaden" by a young Nazi playwright named Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars, in the role Dustin Hoffman had to turn down to do The Graduate). It has all the makings of the sure-fire flop they were looking for, but just to be sure, they need to find a director who's bat-shit crazy, and will ensure that the show will tank. That's when they turn to cross-dressing director Roger DeBris (Christopher Hewitt, best known to people of my generation as Mr. Belvedere) and his assistant Carmen Ghia (Andreas Voutsinas).

Max & Leo are over the moon as they see their plan taking shape beautifully. DeBris, dissatisfied with nearly everyone he sees for the role of Adolf, settles on Lorenzo St. DuBois, or LSD for short (Dick Shawn), a crazy, drugged out space cadet. This is the biggest change that was made to the musical, apart from beefing up the role of their secretary Ulla (Lee Meredith). Her "Bialystock and Bloom" kills me every time.

As you have probably figured out by now, the plan does not go the way they had hoped, and LSD's antics as Hitler endear him to an audience that is, at first, mortified by the production. The famous intermission scene has been copied a hundred ways from Sunday, including by Brooks and his late wife Anne Bancroft on the brilliant fourth season finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."One of the constants that I've noticed as I've gone back and re-watched a ton of films that have been parodied or aped over the years, is how good, concise and perfect that first execution tends to be. It's so streamlined in this film, that any attempt to copy it over the years has only added unnecessary complications to the formula.

The Producers is not Brooks' best film, but it is absolutely one of the classic film comedies of all time. Zero Mostel is a force to be reckoned with on-screen. His theatrics only enhance how grand his character is, and he can almost never go "too big" with anything he does. Wilder is every ounce his equal in the opposite direction. When he freaks out over his blue blankie, it's incredible. They are a fantastic pair on screen, and if you haven't seen their re-teaming in the film version of Ionesco's The Rhinocerous, I can't recommend that enough either.

The supporting cast is fantastic as well, with Hewitt and Mars stealing the show. Brooks would work with Mars many times after this, most notably in Young Frankenstein, but he shows his comedic chops here, and they're both fantastic. It's a shame that most people only know this film through the musical, because while the musical is great, it's got a ton of filler, and for me anyway, the LSD subplot works better than the one they used in the musical (and please don't even get me started on the film version of the musical).

If you've never seen The Producers, now is the time to do it, and if it's been a while, it's time to revisit it. Like a fine wine, it only gets better with age, and honestly, you think you know better than Peter Sellers? He knew enough to recognize brilliance when he saw it. What, do you think you're funnier than Peter Sellers? Didn't think so.

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