Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968) has got to be the most manic, depraved, anarchistic, offensive comedy that’s ever worked. It’s so frenzied, not only to make you laugh but to offend every sensibility you have and sever every possible connection between itself and basic human morality. It doesn’t even have the time to explain what it’s doing; it just does it and you don’t have a moment to think about it until you’re finished watching and you’re wiping your eyes from laughter, and you think, “My God, those are really terrible people.” Terribly funny.
The movie is a sumptuous feast of bad taste and worse behavior. A movie that Brooks himself, in a famous anecdote of Roger Ebert’s, says “rises above vulgarity.” Having just seen Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), an elegant comedy with a great line, “Let us be crooked but not common,” I was struck by how the people in the middle of The Producers are twice as crooked and infinitely more uncommon, so low that no bourgeois would have them. The Lady Eve used slapstick and low humor as a pin to poke holes in pomposity; The Producers uses it like a sledgehammer, and we’re left battered and bruised, but beaming.
We first meet Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) obscured behind the glass of his office door. “Max Bialystock, Theatrical Producer,” is lettered on the glass. He’s with a woman and it seems to be getting heavy. Then the door opens and we see Max’s frenzied eyes darting around the hallway with his matted comb–over staying motionless despite his fevered head turning as he ushers his lady guest, a thrilled septuagenarian, out of the office. It’s Max Bialystock, Theatrical Producer, all right, finishing a “meeting” with a backer, one of many widowed arts enthusiasts who meet with Max to finance plays and perform kinky role–playing games. His next appointment insists on the innocent milk maid and the naughty stable boy. Max plays along with a mixture of self-loathing and exhaustion.
Białystok, the city in northeast Poland that may be Max’s namesake, was on the short list to be named the cultural capital of Europe. Max has never been on the shortlist of anything having to do with culture. He was, however, once a powerful and successful producer and now is reduced to slumming with old ladies for cash. It’s so bad he has to wear a cardboard belt, the time it would take to create it would far outweigh its usefulness, one would think, especially after Max tears it up in disgust. Into this madhouse comes Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), neurotic accountant, to add his own level of insanity. Leo alerts Max that he raised 2,000 more dollars than he budgeted for on his latest flop and announces that theoretically a producer could make a fortune on a loser if he raised way more money than he was planning to spend, and he knew the show would tank. “After all,” Leo says, amusing himself. “The Department of Internal Revenue isn’t interested in a show that flopped.” Max, who has learned a great deal about how make a failure, is immediately interested. The meek Leo backs off. “I meant no scheme,” he says, his pulse quickening. “I merely posed a little, academic accounting theory. It’s just a thought.” As Max tries to bully Leo into fraud, making him increasingly more hysterical until he’s literally screaming out, “I’m hysterical! I’m hysterical!” Max throws a glass of water into Leo’s face. “I’m wet! I’m wet! I’m hysterical and I’m wet!”
This famous scene is a symphony of screaming as Max tries to calm Leo down in the worst possible ways. It reveals a lot about the confidence Brooks must have had in his material and his performers (to even attempt this movie, he would have had to have complete confidence). On the page, this scene is indulgent and repetitive with the capacity to be an awkward bore, but in the hands of Mostel and Wilder it becomes perfection. Mostel, all screaming ferocity, and Wilder, all screeching anxiety, are both immediate and hilariously matched. For example of just how poorly this could have gone, look for the 2005 film version of the musical The Producers, which has some charms, but this scene isn’t one of them.
Max convinces Leo during a wonderful scene at Lincoln Center when Leo, overjoyed at the prospect of being somebody, screams, “I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies!” as the fountains explode behind him. The pair go out to find the worst play ever written (“Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden”) and buy the rights from its demented author, the German import Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), who is having trouble giving up on the good old days of the Third Reich. They find the worst possible director, the cross-dressing Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), who finds the ending downbeat (“That whole third act has to go. They’re losing the war! It’s too depressing. We’ll have to put something in there.”), and hire the worst possible actor, the flower-power moon man Lorenzo St. DuBois (Dick Shawn) (“But everybody calls me LSD”) to play the title character. “What have you done, LSD?” De Bris asks of St. DuBois during the audition. “Six months,” he replies. “I’m out on probation, but it’s cool now, baby.” Max puts on a brave face and calls every old lady he knows to raise $1 million, which will cover the cost of production ten times over. The two sell 2,500 percent of the profits they’ve taken great pains to ensure they won’t have.
On opening night the hobnobbers of New York’s elite are treated to “Springtime for Hitler” and watch, mouths agape at the opening title number, which is such a smorgasbord of bad manners and insensitivity that plenty of people walk out, to Max’s and Leo’s delight. “Springtime for Hitler and Germany, winter for Poland and France …” sings an Aryan god flanked on either side by blond women clad only in bikinis made of pretzels, beer steins and the black eagle of Germany’s flag. At one point the dancers march in a formation that creates a swastika (“Goosestep a new step, today!”). Max and Leo have it made. Until DuBois comes on as a spaced out, groovy Hitler and the audience begins to laugh at what they perceive to be a satirical masterpiece, which is something we’ve been watching all along. “I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?” Max despairs before sighing. “Adolf Hitler always drew a crowd.”
The idea of rendering the Third Reich toothless by mocking it is not new (Ernst Lubitsch did it beautifully in 1942’s To Be or Not to Be, though even in 1942 we didn’t know just how atrocious the Nazis were), but it takes the skill of a master to pull it off. Brooks is able to keep us away from being truly offended by a) making the material far too funny and b) never giving us a minute to think about it. Here are two Jews producing a play glorifying Adolf Hitler to make a quick buck, but you have to supply the immorality of that yourself because it doesn’t even occur to them. Many comedies about bad behavior tip their hands, trying to win some admiration for having a self-aware scumbag at the center of the film. If Max and Leo know they are scumbags, they don’t let us onto it for a second. In fact, even timid Leo’s squeamishness about their scheme has nothing to do with morality, only whether or not they’ll be caught.
Multiplying this is Brooks’ zany script, which is frantic but not out of control (I was thrilled to notice this time that Rudolpho, Max’s assumed name during “The Contessa and The Chauffeur,” a role–playing game he plays with one of the little old ladies, returns as the name of a real chauffeur). To once again compare it to the 2005 movie, Mostel and Wilder are exaggerated and over-the-top, but they aren’t mugging as if they are playing to the last row of the house, as Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are in the later picture (Lane and Broderick originated the roles on Broadway to great acclaim, but Susan Stroman, who directed both the stage and film versions of the musical, doesn’t seem to understand the difference between those styles of acting). Max and Leo are immediate extensions of what they are at their cores. They aren’t going for effect, they aren’t even going for laughs, they’re only going for their own immediate selfish needs and we love them for it.