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Double Take

The Producers

book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
a musical at the St. James Theatre, New York City

At the climax of Mel Brooks’s 1968 comedy cult classic movie The Producers—the opening night of an intentionally awful musical about the Third Reich called Springtime for Hitler—the show’s grandiose producer, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), tries to alienate the Times theater critic by ostentatiously offering him a bribe: he hands the prim man a complimentary ticket wrapped in a $100 bill. (As even those who haven’t seen the film are likely to know by now, Bialystock wants the play to bomb so that he and his partner, a timid accountant named Leopold Bloom, can abscond with the backers’ money. Figuring the play will close after its first performance, they’ve sold 25,000 percent of the show, never dreaming they’ll have to pay the investors back. Naturally, the show’s a hit.)

In the case of the phenomenally successful new musical based on the film, the ticket would make a far more tempting bribe. The day after it opened last month to ecstatic reviews, the producers of The Producers raised the top ticket price to $100 (a Broadway record); but for the present, tickets are much harder to find than hundred-dollar bills. “That beloved Broadway phenomenon: the unobtainable seat,” the editors of the real-life Times were moved to gush in one of two editorial-page comments devoted to the musical’s huge success. By the Sunday after opening night, $50,000 worth of tickets were being sold every ten minutes, according to one of its producers; nearly $3 million in tickets were sold on a single day. (Another record.) When the Tony Award nominations were announced on May 7, the fact that The Producers received fifteen of them (another record) seemed like a foregone conclusion—as if recognition of a musical’s actual qualities ought to follow naturally from its box office success, rather than the other way around. A Bialystockian view of things if ever there was one.

Inevitably, the phenomenal success of The Producers has spawned a cottage industry in ruminations about its appeal. Attempts to explain what one critic, writing for a British audience, calls the “cultural repercussions” of the musical’s success have appeared in print from London to the East Village.1 Many of these writers attribute the show’s popularity to its refreshing refusal to abide by “politically correct” standards: it mocks, with gleeful evenhandedness, Nazis, Jews, dumb blondes, gays, lesbians, blacks, Irishmen, old people, and (lovingly) theater people. “For a show that is attracting family audiences,” the Times‘s former theater critic and current Op-Ed page columnist Frank Rich wrote three weeks after the play’s première, “this one is about as un-Disney as you can get…. It hasn’t been pre-tested with focus groups but insists on speaking only in the singular voice of Mel Brooks.”

And yet despite the fact that it’s based on Brooks’s most famous movie (a critical failure for which he nonetheless won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1968), and boasts seventeen new songs, with music and lyrics all by Brooks (in addition to the memorable “Springtime for Hitler” production number and the finale “Prisoners of Love,” which he wrote for the movie), the new Producers doesn’t sound like Brooks at all. For the seventy-five-year-old Brooks, the show’s success represents the highly satisfying culmination of a sixty-six-year-old dream: in an article that appeared in the Times Arts & Leisure section the Sunday before his play opened, the writer, comedian, and director reminisced about being a stage-struck boy in Brooklyn during the Depression and being taken to his first show. But despite its ostentatiously un-PC trappings, the show represents not so much the defeat of what Rich calls the “show-business corporate-think that creates such bland pop culture” as—subtly—its triumph.

The Producers began its life forty years ago as an idea for a novel. Brooks, who’d been a well-paid writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, claimed that he’d never considered himself to be a writer, but instead thought of himself as a funny “talker”; nonetheless, he found himself thinking about a novel based on the kind of scenario that only someone who’d spent a significant number of years in analysis, as he and Caesar had, would find irresistible: what happens when someone with a highly overdeveloped superego—the Bloom character, “a little man who salutes whatever society teaches him to salute,” as Brooks recalled in a New Yorker profile by Kenneth Tynan that appeared in 1978—runs headfirst into someone who’s a walking, talking Id. “Bite, kiss, take, grab, lavish, urinate—whatever you can do that’s physical, [Bialystock] will do,” he told Tynan. The novel was to focus on a dynamic point that barely survived in the movie: how the two vastly different men would end up influencing each other, with Bloom instilling in the grandiose, greedy Bialystock “the first sparks of decency and humanity” and Bialystock breathing some life into gray little Bloom. As Brooks worked on his book, however, he realized that nearly everything he was writing was dialogue. “Oh, shit, it’s turning into a play,” he recalled thinking.

His instincts were right. The film version is, essentially, a three-act play. In the first act, Bialystock, who raises money for his disastrous productions by providing sexual thrills to old ladies, and Bloom (played by Gene Wilder in his second film role—the first was as a victim of Bonnie and Clyde) form their unlikely partnership one day while Bloom is doing Bialystock’s books and suddenly realizes that they could, theoretically, make more money with a flop than with a hit. In the second act, the two mismatched partners set about finding the most appalling script (“Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden,” composed by an ex-Nazi who raises pigeons on the roof of a Greenwich Village tenement); the most inept director (the ultra-queeny Roger DeBris, who “never knew the Third Reich meant Germany” until he read the script—“it’s drenched with historical goodies like that!”); and the most incompetent lead actor, a burned-out hippie named L.S.D. (They also spend some of the old ladies’ money on a buxom Swedish secretary named Ulla, who gyrates around the office dancing whenever Max tells her to get to work.)

The climax of the second act is what Brooks referred to as a “big neo-Nazi musical number right in the middle”: a fully staged performance of the show’s opening number, “Springtime for Hitler,” which DeBris turns into a Busby Berkeley spectacular, complete with chorines goose-stepping in swastika formation. Initially appalled, the opening-night audience ultimately finds the play hilarious, it becomes clear that it will be a hit, and Bialystock and Bloom realize that they’re ruined. In the haphazard dénouement that is the third act—Brooks likes his Maguffins, but tends to lose interest in his endings—the two desperately decide to blow up the theater, are caught, tried, and convicted (“incredibly guilty” is the jury’s verdict), and end up in prison. The film closes with the two men producing a musical called Prisoners of Love, excessive percentages of which they sell to their fellow prisoners—and to the warden.

The Producers was the first film that Brooks wrote and directed. He’d go on to make others, some of which, like the sublime horror-movie parody Young Frankenstein (“that’s Frahn-ken-steen,” the baron’s embarrassed grandson keeps telling people) would be more polished and better put-together than his debut. But the deliciously anarchic, gleefully grotesque energies you get in The Producers, which find expression in the many repellent closeups of Zero Mostel and the choppy, hectic pacing and camera work, were to become hallmarks of Brooks’s directorial style, such as it was.2 Even in the funniest Brooks movies there’s an improvisatory feel; in Brooks the director you always sense the presence of Brooks the onetime Borscht Belt comic—he started working the Catskills hotels while still in his teens—frenetically firing off whatever gags he has at hand, whatever would work.

This seemingly ad hoc style was less noticeable when the comic and parodic energy had a consistent object; this is why Brooks’s best films are the tetralogy of genre parodies: Young Frankenstein (horror), Blazing Saddles (westerns), High Anxiety (Hitchcock), Silent Movie (silents). But in the least successful movies, precariously thin plotlines—a billionaire makes a bet that he can survive in the streets of L.A., for example, which is the donnée of the 1991 film Life Stinks—are clearly little more than excuses for stringing together gags (jokes about bums, say), some of which, as in any stand-up routine, are better than others. Other films, like History of the World, Part I, which zips merrily from the Stone Age through the seventeenth century (“It’s good to be the King,” Brooks, as a particularly goatish Louis XIV, keeps saying as he shuffles around Versailles, goosing buxom courtiers), are transparently little more than revues.

And, like a stand-up, Brooks likes to re-use successful material: in Young Frankenstein, the humpbacked Igor’s hump keeps moving from one side of his back to the other; in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, it’s King John’s mole that switches from left to right, to the strangulated dismay of his associates. The hoary “walk this way” gag appears not only in the original The Producers and in Young Frankenstein but in the new musical as well, where the mincing walk of Carmen Ghia, Roger DeBris’s fey assistant, comes in for predictable mockery. (Effeminate gay men are particular targets for Brooks’s humor, and nowhere more so than in the new musical. In this context it’s worth noting the striking frequency with which jokes and stories about “fags” come up in the Tynan profile.)

The problem is that, precisely because the gags are recyclable, they’re not organically connected to anything else; as a result, the movies, however funny, feel slapdash and disjointed at best—the jokes may be funny, but they never really build to anything. I recently watched all of Brooks’s films again, and, having looked forward to the hilarious bits I’d remembered, was surprised at how many longueurs there were. As with a Catskills comic, you tend, with Brooks’s films, to recall the brilliantly funny moments and forget the rest.

Despite the mixed-to-terrible notices The Producers received when it opened in 1968 (“amateurishly crude,” Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker; “a violently mixed bag,” “shoddy and gross and cruel,” Renata Adler wrote in the Times), Brooks’s film soon established itself as a cult favorite. Today, it’s not unusual to see it counted among the funniest movies ever made.3 This popularity surely owes a great deal to the same crudeness, grossness, cruelty, and amateurishness that the critics complained about. Unlike Woody Allen, with whom Brooks is often lumped in discussions of comic moviemaking, not least by himself (“Listen, there are one hundred and thirty-one viable directors of drama in this country. There are only two viable directors of comedy”), Brooks has made no attempt to become more “artistic,” more ostentatiously polished. To Allen’s intellectual artiste, Brooks has been more than happy to play the outrageous clown; like Bialystock, he gives audiences access to their ids. (However ably it parodies old favorite westerns like Destry Rides Again, Blazing Saddles is most famous for a scene that follows a cowboy meal of baked beans to its logical, if protracted, gastroenterological conclusion.)

  1. 1

    See Matt Wolf, “Let’s Hear It for Hitler,” The Observer Review, April 29, 2001; Frank Rich, “HIT-ler,” The New York Times, May 12, 2001; Joyce Purnick, “Dissecting the Mania on 44th Street,” The New York Times, April 23, 2001; Michael Feingold, “Glitzkrieg,” The Village Voice, May 1, 2001.

  2. 2

    Almost prehistoric” was the verdict of the distinguished film editor Ralph Rosenblum, who worked on The Producers and has reminisced none too flatteringly about his sole collaboration with Brooks, whom he characterizes as a bullheaded amateur who had no idea how to use the resources of the camera to create humor. The movie’s cinematographer, Joe Coffey, eventually gave up his efforts to educate the nervous first-time director; he blew up at Brooks in public, screaming “You can’t do that, it’s not cinematic!” See Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen, When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins (1979; reprinted by Da Capo, 1986), pp. 193–209.

  3. 3

    See, for instance, Kathryn Bernheimer, The 50 Funniest Movies of All Time: A Critic’s Ranking (Citadel, 1999), pp. 54–56.

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