Thursday, November 15, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "THE PRODUCERS"

THE PRODUCERS (1968)

Director/Screenplay: Mel Brooks




Thank God for Mel Brooks. The first introduction I had to “The Producers,” came from an unlikely source. It was a Forensics class, that I took, for about a week, back when I spent that one year of high school at a Magnet Program High School, which is still possibly the biggest mistake I ever made. One of the students, had done an amazing one-man ten-minute version of “The Producers,” which he performed occasionally. From that point on, I know I had to see the original version. That was years ago, since then, everybody who didn’t know about “The Producers,” has since long heard about them. The movie is consistently ranked as one of the great comedies of cinema, and now it’s considered one of the great Broadway Musicals of all-time. Not only, that musical was adapted into a feature-length film of its own, which in of itself, has its own wonderful charm, although they did cut the best song from the musical in the movie, “The King of Old Broadway”, well, second-best song, but I’ll get to that.

The story, if by some miracle you don’t know, involves an a former big-time Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), whose plays have flopped so badly, that he now resorts to prostituting himself to little old ladies, who then write him checks for a play called “To Cash.” There’s a surprising amount of pain in the morally-challenge greedy Max. His search for that one hit musical is Americana personified. There’s real pain in his voice, when he looks out a window at a Rolls Royce, and yells out “When you got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!” or when he notes that “…this pin used to have a pearl the size of your eye, now look at me, I’m wearing a cardboard belt.” He then proceeds to take off the belt and rip it to pieces. This is a mere morsel, of the humor in Mel Brooks first, and quite arguable best film. His accountant, Leo Bloom (Oscar-nominee Gene Wilder), which is strangely names after the protagonist in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, comes in one day and casually notes that with a little “creative accounting,” (the first recorded use of that term, btw) you could hypothetically make more money producing a flop than a hit. You can all but see the light bulb go off in Max’s head.            

Step 1: Find the worst play ever written. They do with a musical called “Springtime for Hitler,” written by a bird-loving German, who claims he was just following orders, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars)

Step 2: Find the worst cast and the worst director to do the play. The worst director isn’t difficult, in the flamboyant Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewitt), who’s knowledge of history is about as useful as a wooden nickel. “That whole third act has to be redone, they’re losing the war!” In casting Hitler, in the movies most dated, by hilarious moments, the cast Lorenzo St. Dubois (Dick Shawn), a hippie who’s seems to have gone on way to many-, well, check the first letters of his name, and see if you can guess the kind of trips he’s been on.

Step 3: Go to Littleoldladyland and collect money to produce the play. Step 4: Perform the play on Broadway, and before anybody can say Step 5, close on Broadway, and spend the rest of our lives on the beaches of Rio. Of course, it goes without saying, this doesn’t go exactly as planned, but I won’t reveal much more.

Before “The Producers” Mel Brooks started as a writer in that legendary writers’ room on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” (The Morey Amsterdam character on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” is based on Brooks), created the “2000 Year-Old-Man” sketch with Carl Reiner and co-created the TV show “Get Smart” with Buck Henry. Before that, he fought in WWII, and has swore that his career will be devoted to making sure people laugh at Hitler. Putting on a musical called “Springtime for Hitler,” on Broadway might be the biggest piece of bad taste, ever conceived, of course that’s the idea. I recently heard Jeff Daniels note that “Mel Brooks doesn’t know the meaning of the term ‘politcally correct’, and thank god.” His observation is correct, there wouldn’t be an “Airplane,” or even a “There’s Something About Mary,” without Mel Brooks, and with “The Producers,” he won his only Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Roger Ebert tells a story, shortly after the film came out, he was in an elevator with Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft, when an old woman came onto the elevator and she said she thought his movie was vulgar. Without missing a beat, Mel Brooks replied, “Honey, it rises below vulgarity.” I don’t know what that means, but it sure sounds like a good description of him.
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