THE PRODUCERS, loved to the point of worship by many, remains subject to taste, the refinement/honing/suspension/lack thereof depending on the viewer. A few slices of zany performance to the side, it wears out welcome in a hurry, then keeps on whacking you in the face with a mallet. I’m no longer a fan, so we won’t be giving the “uproarious” 1968 farce overmuch play here. Hart drek.
Repellent has-been Broadway producer ‘Max Bialystock’ (Zero Mostel) pushes his talent for suckering to the extreme when his hysteria-prone accountant ‘Leo Bloom’ (Gene Wilder) helps him come up with a plan to stage “Springtime For Hitler”, a property so bad it’s guaranteed to fold after the first intermission; Max and Leo then absconding with the invested loot. Failure becomes success…
…which is what happened with this one-gag-fits-all 88-minute assault from Mel Brooks, who wrote it, then directed for the first time. Reviews ranged from ecstatic to emetic and the $941,000 elongated skit did scant business. Then, it gained traction in colleges and 2nd-run theaters, buoyed by a plug from Peter Sellers (have acid, will fall down larfing), followed by an Oscar win for Brooks’ screenplay. 33-year-old Wilder, a stage actor in his second film appearance (after a funny bit in Bonnie And Clyde) pulled down an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actor. Though the movie had a disastrous premiere in late 1967, it didn’t get released until November of ’68. *
“Shut up, I’m having a rhetorical conversation.”
Mel’s idea is clever and audacious (Jewish groups in America were outraged, as were many Nazi-battered-senseless citizens in Germany), but he starts it on SHRILL! and never lets up. Mostel’s obnoxious, nonstop mugging goes beyond challenging into God-Please-Make-Him-Stop. Wilder—who’s very good—got the role when Dustin Hoffman elected to fly to California to audition for The Graduate. It was a lucky break for both of them, because as good as Hoffman is–or would become–Wilder took a backseat to no-one when it came to managing both internal panic and stifled hilarity with a straight face, and he somehow holds his own against Mostel: he’s also innately more appealing than the different-intensity Hoffman, whose slighter frame would anyway have been overpowered by Zero’s brazen attention-hogging. The most enjoyable work—it’s all outrageous—comes from the truly unhinged Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn, and camping-like-crazy Christopher Hewitt and Andreas Voutsinas.
“And I give a flower to the big fat cop / He takes his club and he beats me up / I give a flower to the garbage man / He stuffs my girl in the garbage can / And I give it to the landlord when the rent comes ’round / He throws it in the toilet and he flush it down / It goes into the sewer / With the yuck runnin’ through ‘er / And it runs into the river that we drink / Hey, world, YOU STINK! Ugh! Man it’s later than you think! Girl you got just one more chance/ Come on baby while I dance!”
Perhaps you find it all still hilarious and endearing: fair enough, to each their funnybone. Once upon a time (probably fortified by pot) I thought much of it was ripe with silly chuckles, but now, apart from still appreciating the wild weirdness of Mars and Shawn, it mostly leaves me exhausted. As critic Danny Peary observed in his “Guide For The Film Fanatic”, things evaporate when the offensive–to the theater audience, funny to us—bad material in the play suddenly becomes riotously funny to the crowd, thanks to Shawn’s crazypants Hitler. The movie ceases to be tolerable, because now there’s nothing amusing (to us) in what’s then going on in the play. The movie’s crude conceit folds up; hardly anything after that raises a smile as it staggers to a finish.
With Lee Meredith (19, debut, set up to her flaunt her va-voom bod with dance gyrations and general ogle-slobber: however, we can deal), Estelle Winwood (bright-eyed at 90), William Hickey, Renée Taylor, Frank Campanella, Bill Macy (debut).
Remade with great success in 2001 as a Broadway musical, and once more in 2005– with less acclaim—as a feature version of that play.
* Cogerson gives it a gross of $6,700,000, which seems way too high, per other sources, including Variety, reporting rentals of $1,600,000, which would roughly correspond to a gross of around $4,000,000. Only Leo Bloom knows the real tally.