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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Producers

To end my tribute to Gene Wilder, I turn to his first major role, one that made him a star--Leo Bloom in The Producers. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and it is one of the funniest performances I've ever seen.The film, too, is one of my favorites, and I've seen it several times.

In retrospect, one might think the The Producers was an immediate sensation, given its legacy and the success of the Broadway adaptation. But Mel Brooks, who harbored the idea for years, struggled to get it made. He eventually had to change the title from Springtime to Hitler, the name of the show within the film, to the eventual title. "Bad taste" was the most common complaint, and though Brooks won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the reviews were mixed.

Zero Mostel, the great Broadway ham, stars as Max Bialystock, once the "king of Broadway," but now a struggling producer who seduces little old ladies as investors. When Wilder, a meek accountant, comes to check the books, he realizes that one could raise an infinite amount of money for a play, but if it is a flop, the investors would not expect a payoff and the extra money, kept off the books, could be kept. Mostel is immediately for it, but Wilder, who has never broken a law, is aghast. Here Brooks introduces the central idea of the film--Bloom's awakening, so to speak, with friendship.

They conspire to make a flop, picking a play by a Nazi which is "a love letter to Hitler" choosing a director with no taste, and casting a hippie burnt out on drugs as their lead. After the opening number, a vulgar musical number that salutes Hitler, the boys think they've succeeded. But the play is so bad that it's funny, and the audience mistakes it for comedy. "No way out," Wilder chants.

There is so much funny in here it's hard to know where to start. Brooks must be commended for pushing the envelope and going places that shouldn't work but do. For example, the gay stereotypes of Roger De Bris,  (which means circumcision) and his assistant, Carmen Ghia, should be offensive, but are played so joyfully that they're not. Also, Dick Shawn as L.S.D., the hippie, is a dated stereotype, and was removed from the Broadway production, but I still laugh at his "Power of Love" number, just because he sells it so completely. And Kenneth Mars, as Liebkin, the author, does the same--a man who is still a Nazi, and brags that Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill, also goes way over the top, but is still kind of sweet.

But it's Mostel and Wilder's show. They make a winning twosome. The film opens with about a twenty-five minute set piece in which Wilder walks in on Mostel with a very funny Estelle Winwood and their sexual role playing (the milk maid and the stable boy) and then engage in a tussle over the plan. Wilder, whom Brooks thought resembled Harpo Marx, gave him some great silent moments, such as when Mostel asks him, "Did I hurt your feelings?" and Wilder hilariously pouts and nods. But this scene is so rich in dialogue I wish I could quote it all. My favorites are when Mostel proclaims, "I'm wearing a cardboard belt!" or Wilder falls on his keys, or the great Wilder moment, "I'm in pain, I'm wet, and I'm still hysterical."

Brooks knew his comedy, from slapstick to double-take, Much of The Producers' humor is Brooks cutting to reaction shots, especially the slack-jawed reactions of the first part of "Springtime for Hitler." Some criticized him for this, because using reaction shots is basically telling the audience how they should feel, but I laugh at them every time. One thing that doesn't work, but we have to let it go, is that the play is not that funny that it would induce hysterical laughter from an audience. In real life, they would have walked out and stayed out.

A few other great lines: When Mostel tells Mars to kill the actors, and Wilder says, "You can't kill the actors, they're human beings, not animals!" and Mostel replies, "Oh yeah, you ever eat with one?" Or when Mostel hires a Swedish sexpot (Lee Meredith) to be a receptionist, and Wilder asks, "What will people say when they see her?" and Mostel replies with a Tex Avery-like wolf whistle. For literary types, there's the gag when Mostel is reading bad plays and reads the first line of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach." He tosses it aside and says, "Too good."

A few interesting notes from Wikipedia: Brooks originally wanted Peter Sellers as Leo Bloom (the name, of course, comes from Joyce's Ulysses) but he never returned the call. Dustin Hoffman was to play Liebkin, but begged Brooks to let him audition for a little thing called The Graduate, and Brooks, thinking he wouldn't get it, let him.

Brooks still, for a laugh, will pull out a comb and do a Hitler impression. His theory is that if you make fun of something, it will lessen it's power. We can only hope that works with Donald Trump, or one day someone will be performing "Springtime for Trump."

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