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Posts Tagged ‘Dick Shawn’

Mel Brooks’ 1967 movie The Producers opens in the appropriately seedy offices of seedy theatrical impresario Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel): once a successful producer, his recent shows have all been flops and he has been reduced to romancing little old ladies into parting with their money in order to keep himself afloat (‘romancing’ may be putting too fine a point on it: for frail-looking little old ladies, they turn out to be improbably libidinous).

Stumbling into the midst of this geriatric carnality comes the hapless figure of drab accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder); this is apparently an intentional reference to Ulysses, unlikely as that sounds. Bloom has been sent to do Bialystock’s books, and discovers that an accidental bit of graft has occurred: the producer raised more money than he needed in order to mount his last show, and pocketed the excess. Normally this would be an offence, but as the show was a huge flop, none of the backers are expecting to get their money back anyway. Bloom idly observes that an unprincipled producer could probably make more money from a massive flop than a genuine hit, if the book-keeping were creative enough…

This seed of corruption falls into the fertile mulch of Max Bialystock’s brain and instantly takes root. Persuading Bloom to assist him, he sets about mounting the worst play it is in his power to stage, meanwhile raising a vastly excessive budget from private investors in return for selling the profits from the show two-and-a-half-thousand times over. But what kind of show could be the sure-fire disaster the scheme warrants?

They settle upon a script entitled Springtime for Hitler, a musical comedy written by a deranged Nazi immigrant named Franz (Kenneth Mars) which sets out to show the world ‘the real Hitler… the Hitler with a song in his heart’. Directorial duties are assigned to Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewitt), a gay transvestite, while the starring role is given to a drug-addled beatnik named Lorenzo St DuBois (aka LSD), played by Dick Shawn. The stage is (hopefully) set for a disaster of colossal proportions – what could possibly go right…?

There’s a relentless ferocity about the single-minded way in which The Producers goes about getting its laughs, something which is perhaps mirrored by Zero Mostel’s uninhibited performance as Max: you could describe the film as a black comedy, a farce, or a satire, but one suspects that Mel Brooks really wasn’t thinking in these terms: he just wanted to get the audience laughing.

There’s a kind of artlessness about some aspects of the film, which perhaps arises from this. It begins with a lengthy, and really quite talky sequence set just in the office, which (once all the old ladies have been satisfied) boils down to a two-hander between Mostel and Wilder (Wilder seems somewhat subdued, and is definitely playing second banana throughout the film). Eventually it opens out and becomes more cinematic, but the feel of something with its origins in vaudeville persists: there’s something inherently theatrical about the story, after all.

The heart of the film is the opening number of Springtime for Hitler, which in addition to being a brilliant piece of black comedy is a spot-on parody of Broadway excesses: dancing SS officers and goose-stepping showgirls, performing a genuinely funny show tune. The Producers deserves its reputation for this sequence alone, but it hits a standard which the rest of the film really struggles to meet.

Doing jokes about Nazis has probably lost most of its shock value for a modern audience, anyway; this is one of the things that dates the film. What is likely to make the film slightly uncomfortable viewing for anyone discovering it these days is the cheery way in which it treats gay men and transvestites as figures of fun, and the manner in which Max’s new Swedish secretary (Lee Meredith) is blatantly objectified. In this sense at least, The Producers is actually coming from somewhere quite reactionary – the film was made in the late 1960s, but elements of then-contemporary youth culture and counter-culture are only referenced in order to be mocked.

This doesn’t stop it being amusing throughout, and often unexpectedly clever: you could even read the film as a slightly oblique examination of what it means to produce ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art; the central joke of the film is that it’s about two men in search of a flop who accidentally end up producing an enormous hit. Good art is not produced by accident, or so everyone assumes; that it happens here is the driver of the plot and the source of the humour in the film’s third act.

The trap that Max and Leo seem to fall into is that rather than simply producing something bad, they end up staging a play which enters the mythical realm of being so-bad-it’s-good. Much debate has occurred over whether this is a genuine phenomenon, and if you need to possess the dreaded ironic sensibility to appreciate it. What I think is the case is that if you self-consciously set out to make something which is so-bad-it’s-good, you’re likely going to fail and just end up creating slightly tedious dross; the collected output of the Asylum and the makers of the Sharknado films constitute a considerable corpus of evidence supporting this notion. Or perhaps Max and Leo just fail to appreciate that a bad idea well executed is far less entertaining than one produced ineptly.

In any case, The Producers has earned its place in the canon of significant movies, helped, no doubt, by winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Arthur C Clarke said he never forgave Mel Brooks for beating 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same award – the fact that two such different films were in competition for the same prize, and that 2001 lost, really does make one reflect on what function the Academy Awards are supposed to be fulfilling), and the existence of a full-on stage musical (with its own subsequent film version) as well. The fact it effectively launched Mel Brooks’ movie career (which includes, as well as comedies, accomplished films from other genres like The Elephant Man and Cronenberg’s The Fly) is also obviously in its favour. So it’s an easy film to like even if it’s an inconsistent one which in many ways has not aged well.

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