On a late-’60s musical kick, Zac decided to follow up A Funny Thing… with what I think of as “The Other Zero Mostel Movie”. It was also Mel Brooks’ first appearance at movie night, as he directed (and delivered one unmistakable voiceover line in) the original version of The Producers. But first, the Nazi tie-in for the film gave me the idea to show a skit from the very final episode of The Kids In The Hall, referred to as the Censored Sketches:
Forget the home run, Joe, indeed! Let me at The Producers!
Max Bialystock was once a famous Broadway director whose mere name being attached to a project guaranteed it being a hit. But he has fallen on hard times, and is reduced to being a plaything for rich old ladies in order to get enough money to back his productions. Estelle Winwood, Max? That’s Crow T. Robot’s girl, and don’t you forget it!
But one day, in the midst of one of his October-December affairs, the neurotic and sometimes near-hysterical accountant Leo Bloom shows up to go over the books. He finds a few irregularities (naturally Max has been perhaps a bit less than puritanical with his receipts) but comes to a remarkable conclusion which he happens to voice out loud – if one were guaranteed of making a flop, a producer could make an absolute killing. The scheme goes like this: Oversell the shares to the profit from your play in return for backing money. Not 100%, not 200%, but 25,000% if you can do it. Take in all the backing money, produce a cheap play that flops, and keep the change! Of course, the play has to be a flop, because if it makes a profit, you have to pay out money you don’t have.
It is a purely academic observation by Leo, but Max latches onto it, and convinces Leo to join him in putting into practice what Bloom had merely mused about offhandedly. The first task – to find the worst screenplay in the world.
Well, they find the screenplay. It’s got the lovely title of “Springtime for Hitler”, and it’s a paean to the dear Der Führer himself. (He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! Two coats!) It was written by a lunatic former Nazi immigrant, and the two producers’ first task is to secure the rights to this piece of dreck.
Second, they must find a terrible director. Easier done than said, apparently. The flamboyant director and his gray-bearded sidekick are treated perhaps a bit too homophobically for modern taste, but I suppose that as long as one can convince oneself that the director’s shortcomings aren’t a sort of propter hoc thing, I guess it’s not the end of the world.
Finally, they need a terrible lead actor. Enter Dick Shawn, playing the exact same drugged out, clueless hep cat role he played in It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. With these three elements, the play is guaranteed to be rung up before the second act on opening night.
And sure enough, the play starts out disastrously. I’m not quite sure what an audience expects, buying tickets to “Springtime For Hitler”, but hey, they get singing, dancing, goose-stepping chorus girls and songs about the magnificence of the master race, etc.
They even get Nazi officers dancing in the shape of a Swastika. The audience is mostly on their way out the doors when Hitler finally makes the stage…and he’s such a terrible buffoon that suddenly the crowd believes that the play is a parody – they return to their seats and eat it up as the funniest thing they’ve ever seen.
Springtime For Hitler is an accidental hit.
The irate German playwright intends to kill the producers over the disrespectful adaptation of his play, but he’s a bit of a bad shot and Max manages to convince him that it wasn’t their fault. So the three of them plot together to do the last thing they can imagine will save them from owing unpayable profits to the investors – they are going to blow up the theater. The Nazi playwright dude has some explosives, which, I suppose is par for the course for expatriate genocide fanatics, but the whole thing goes awry when the German decides to check the burn speed of the fuse by lighting…well, the fuse. They get caught in the rubble of the building, tried, convicted, and sentenced, and the film ends with Max and Leo producing a musical in prison (where they are still running the same old overselling-the-profits scam). The end.
The Producers was Mel Brooks’ first film, and it was a bit uneven. I’d say that the Estelle Winwood scene in the opening credits went on far too long (we get it, we get it, he’s banging the old ladies for money!), there are quite a few dry spells, and the ending is pretty unsatisfactory. I mean, the fact that they’re running the same scam they were caught already running, in a circumstance where it couldn’t possibly work…I know it’s nice to tie the room together, but I just don’t think that’s the rug I would have chosen (RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman). And then there’s the homophobia, which seems a bit meanspirited but I suppose it reflects its era. But then there are some hilarious moments, including the “negotiations” with the playwright and notably the whole scene of Springtime For Hitler – the outlandish production, the audience’s reaction, Dick Shawn’s Hitler…it’s just 10-15 minutes of downright hilarity. And Gene Wilder is spot-on perfect in his role as the neurotic accountant, as he and Mostel play off each other wonderfully. It’s not a perfect movie (nor by any stretch my favorite Mel Brooks film) but it’s well worth seeing for what’s good in it.