Imagine, if you will, going to see a Broadway show in which one of the performers sings a song that features the lyrics “Don’t be a dummy, be a smarty! Join the Nazi party!” Would you get up and storm out in great disgust, or stick around when you get the very incorrect idea that this show is a satire on the Third Reich and Nazism?
Well, both reactions transpire in Mel Brook’s cult classic satirical comedy The Producers, in which two men, one a has-been Broadway producer who seduces and scams old ladies, and I mean old ladies, and the other an uptight, out of sight accountant who has a blue blanket that he rubs against his face when he has panic attacks. Neither one of them sound like successful career criminals, which probably explains why their scheme to embezzle goes so horrifically and hysterically wrong.
Max Bialystock (say that ten times fast) (played by the brilliant Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (who is indeed a wallflower and played by wonderful Gene Wilder), come up with the hair-brain scheme to purposely produce the worst Broadway (pronounced Broad-wuay) show imaginable so that they can reap the investments from their old lady backers. They approach Franz Liebkind, a former Nazi storm trooper (played to hilarious effect by Kenneth Mars), who has written a show that is a love letter to Hitler, knowing that a show about such controversial a subject matter can never become a hit show. Throw Roger De Bris (played by Mr Belvedere himself, Christopher Hewett) a completely talentless director and laughable drag queen, his excessively camp assistant, Carmen, and a leading man (played uproariously by Dick Shawn) who plays Hitler like a stoned Elvis, into the mix, and you surely have a flop on your hands. Or do you?
What The Producers does so well, is utterly satirise the entertainment industry, from the house of cards operation of the financing of a Broadway show, to the extreme snobbishness of the producers, directors and audiences who bring them to life and attend them. From the beginning Max and Leo are out of place in the hoit and toit of the world in which they find themselves, with Max’s greasy toupee and even greasier manners, and Leo’s rigid Ashkenazi upbringing. This is epitomised in the scene where Max and Leo meet Roger in his home and have to remove their shoes because his entire apartment is in white, and where before seeing Roger in a ridiculous Victorian dress and even worse wig; have to squeeze into a too small lift with a clearly excited Carmen. The entire scene is played to excessive farce, and shows the enormous egos of all involved in the OTT world of Broadway.
Mel Brooks tackles extremely controversial subject matter, from Gerontophilia to the legacy of the Holocaust and debates over America allowing ex-Nazi citizens now deemed “harmless” to become naturalised Americans.
The film begins with Max attempting to seduce an elderly women (played by the always brilliant Estelle Winwood), simply credited as “Hold Me, Touch Me”, who demands he enter into elaborate sexual fantasies with her, and who physically abuses him to comic affect. The montage later on in the film where Max sets about seducing his various octogenarian lady friends, is where Zero Mostel really shines comically, with his extremely physical style and brilliant facial expressions. He falls asleep in doorways as old ladies who are paranoid try to unlock a million door bolts, makes love in bushes in Central Park with a hilarious moaning soundtrack, and shouts sweet nothings into hearing aids.
The idea of satirising the Holocaust seems like one best left alone, but Mel Brooks leaps headfirst into the fray with his script that spares no one, and Mostel and Wilder give absolutely unfettered performances, which include dancing at a fountain in joy after deciding to heavily embezzle many people. But what Brooks exposes, is how a dictatorship as ridiculous and theatrical as the Third Reich could exist, because of a cult of personality and the desire of people to follow those who they feel can lead them into a future that prioritises their desires over others. Liebkind should be a terrifying character, especially with his extensive understanding of explosives and firearms, and the fact that he clearly enjoyed his role as a stormtrooper. But he comes across as being pathetic because of his love for Hitler and the fact that he is clearly severely mentally imbalanced. Kenneth Mars’ performances is exceptional, especially the scene in which he passionately pleads with the audience not to ridicule his supposed magnum opus.
What Brooks also exposes is something that is pervasive and mostly silent in American culture: antisemitism. Whilst the audience cringes in disgust at the opening number that looks like Busby Berkley gone mental, it is clear that Brooks is aware of most gentiles’ desire to forget World War II and the Holocaust as if it were a bad dream. Their revulsion is all for show, as is their loud protests of bad taste. When The Producers was made, many Jews and African Americans were still almost entirely disenfranchised in America, both economically and socially. Whilst Jews had become successful entrepreneurs, distrust around their economic dealings still existed, and still exists today, which was one of the primary reasons for them being persecuted during the Third Reich. The audiences’ desire to laugh at Springtime For Hitler and accept it as farce and satire, shows their eagerness to forget or downplay a period in history that still haunts the memories and conscience of many.
Overall, Brooks completely smashes any sacred views of the stage, Broadway and what it means to be a performer, producer or audience member. Like those hungry, uproarious crowds who threw tomatoes at performers during Shakespeare’s time, Brooks cares little for the pomp and ceremony of a world that often takes itself very seriously.
This is my abysmally late entry for the lovely Rebecca’s Broadway Bound Blogathon. Please visit her blog to read everyone’s dazzling entries.