A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 464 – The Producers (1968)

The Producers (1968) – June 7th, 2011

Some time back we watched the newer version of this. The movie based on the musical based on this movie, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. At the time, for some inexplicable reason, we didn’t own this one. The original. How could that have happened? But after we watched the musical version we went out and bought the original, just like I said we would. And it had been ages since I’d seen it. I remembered it quite clearly, but I had seen the musical many more times and far more recently, so it was a ton of fun seeing where it all came from.

We did just watch another Gene Wilder movie very recently, which was unintentional. I just needed something familiar and fun tonight and this was the right length. But it is so good to see Gene Wilder here, a little more unrestrained than he was in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That potential for wildness is realized here, with Wilder as Leo Bloom going from meek and terrified to hysterical and screaming in a heartbeat. And I admit, after the movie was over, we put in the musical and it’s impressive to see how well Matthew Broderick captured Gene Wilder’s performance while making it his own, because Wilder’s performance is fantastic. And there’s no way it could be the same performance, since the original movie is quite different, but it’s a great example of maintaining the essence of a role while altering it in all the right ways for a slightly different medium.

To be honest, in many ways I prefer the musical, but there’s no denying that the original movie is a thing of beauty and genius. The sheer unmitigated gall of making a movie that features a musical called Springtime For Hitler is unparalleled in my viewing experience. I mean, they made the musical version of this movie later, but there wouldn’t have been one at all without the movie itself and I honesty can’t believe it got made. Of course, it almost didn’t, and needed its title changed and some high placed help, but it did get made. Somehow this movie, a movie about a couple of guys producing a guaranteed flop that’s a musical about Hitler, got made. It’s a comedy! It’s a farce! It’s Mel Brooks.

This was Brooks’ directorial debut, though he’d done writing before this. Still, you’ve got to give the man credit – he started with a bang. That said, while he’s certainly had successes since, this has got to be one of his best known and most lauded works. It’s the outrageousness of it. That anyone would come up with this idea and make it. As soon as you hear the words “Springtime for Hitler” you have the same reaction everyone else in the movie has except for, perhaps, Max Bialystock. Max’s reaction is glee, since he’s looking for a horrible script. Everyone else reacts in disbelief and shock, which is understandable!

I realize I’m doing a lot of babbling about this movie and seemingly expecting that everyone will just know what I’m talking about and really, I do. This is such a classic, I assume people know it. But really, if you know the musical better, you know a much expanded version of the story. The original is really fairly straightforward. Max Bialystock, failed Broadway producer who’s living off of money he bilks out of little old ladies in return for ‘playing’ with them, is visited by accountant Leo Bloom. Bloom comments about a means to make a fortune on a Broadway flop by overselling shares in its profits. If it makes no profits then there’s no money to pay back and they’d get to keep the excess capital. Of course, if they play succeeds, they’d go to jail for fraud. And that right there is the basis. The musical has a whole plot giving Bloom a background and dreams but the original didn’t really care much. Bialystock talks Bloom into it and soon they’re looking for the worst script, the worst director, the worst actors, and in the process they somehow manage to make a hit.

In the original it really does seem to be a case of them unintentionally but at the same time intentionally making a satire. After all, they don’t set out to make one, but they do intentionally put in place all the right parts. The director they pick is delusional. The script is, obviously, one of the most potentially offensive pieces of writing ever. And then they cast a spacey cross between a beatnik and a hippie as Hitler. The combination is enough to make the entire thing cross over from horrible into hilarious. Not that the movie itself isn’t hilarious to begin with, but the movie depends on the most horrible musical ever made turning into the funniest musical ever made and it happens. It happens and it’s all Bialystock and Bloom’s own faults. They do it all to themselves. They are the architects of their own doom. It’s fantastic and simple and you can see it coming even if they can’t.

There are some truly fantastic performances in this movie, but there’s a reason the roles everyone knows are Zero Mostel as Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Bloom. Not only do they give fantastic solo performances but they also play off each other wonderfully. And that chemistry really makes the movie work, since most of the movie involves the two of them. The actual performance of Springtime for Hitler is almost an afterthought. We all know how bad it’s going to be, and how doomed Bialystock and Bloom’s plans are, so is it really important to see the musical on stage?

Oh, oh yes, it is important. If only for the title number. While the acting of the two leads is really important for making the whole movie work, the title number makes the whole movie amazing. Unfortunately, I am working first thing in the morning and I am going to have Springtime for Hitler stuck in my head. It’s inevitable after watching this movie. You can’t escape it. It’s an incredibly catchy tune and it’s a horribly clever song. A horribly clever and horribly offensive song. The overhead of the dancers, the ridiculous costumes and that song. It showcases just how fine a line the musical is treading between offense and satire, and that’s important here. Because the movie could just be silly, but if you’re going to go proposing an idea like this you should go all out to make sure it’s clear that it is satire.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most brilliant bits of farcical satire I’ve ever seen. And it’s clearly aged well. Even the original version holds up fairly well, aside from the price of the hotdogs. It’s a ridiculous movie, but it’s a ridiculous movie with a fantastic cast who give amazing performances. It’s a ridiculous movie with amazingly sharp writing and a tight little plot that’s just simple enough to carry the sort of humor and edge that it’s aiming for. I sort of feel bad for Mel Brooks, starting off with this. It’s always going to be amazing and pointed and it’s spawned a musical and a remake and I suppose you just have to bask in that sort of glow and be glad it exists.

June 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Producers (1968)

June 7, 2011

The Producers (1968)

This is our second Gene Wilder movie in less than a week. All weeks should be so full of insanity. This is also the second time that we’ve watched the original movie that a musical we’ve already reviewed was based on, and it’s a very strange way to do things. We’ve seen the movie of the musical that Mel Brooks adapted from this movie many times. I’ve become very familiar with the performances of Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the roles of Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock. It’s disorienting to see the original performances of Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel.

In Mel Brooks’ original Oscar winning comedy the plot was actually simpler and more straight forward than the later musical. There’s no romantic subplot with Leo and Ulla. Leo never runs away to Rio. It’s just the story of a failed Broadway producer and his timid accountant who strike upon a scheme to produce a guaranteed flop. They find the worst play ever written. Then they hire the worst director in all history. Then they hire the worst actors they can find.

It’s easy to see how this was adapted into a musical that won a record 12 Tony awards – nobody who has ever seen this movie can have avoided having the musical number “Springtime for Hitler” stuck in his or her brain. For that one piece of pure irreverent genius this movie instantly becomes an impossible to forget classic. Certainly that’s what stuck in my mind about the movie long after I had first seen it. That’s not the best thing in the movie though – what really makes this movie come alive are the performances of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

Zero, as Bialystock, is all smarm and sleaze. From his paunch to his crazy combover he’s the the very picture of a desperate man on the edge. Then there’s Gene Wilder (he’s so young here!) as Leo Bloom. Wilder’s usual desperate energy is perfectly channeled in the role of the timid, panic prone accountant who doesn’t have the courage to ever stand up for himself until Max showed him how to live for himself. What fascinates me is that according to the trivia the two actors got along like water and oil and swore never to work together again. Their on-screen chemistry is fantastic and caries the film.

It strikes me that most of my favorite interactions between Bialystock and Bloom from the musical are verbatim from the original movie. I might be more familiar with the newer version, but it’s the original that created all these moments. When Leo is in pain, wet and still hysterical. When he accuses Max of being a fatty fat fat. Broderick and Lane do add some to the roles and make some effort to make them their own (particularly in light of the fact that they’ve probably played the parts hundreds of times on Broadway before the movie version we own) but they’re ultimately doing an interpretation of these perfectly acted moments, and they’re using almost exactly the same script.

This is the original. It’s a little rougher around the edges, but you can’t deny that it’s simply fun to see Zero and Gene doing their thing. I’m so very glad we own this. Now we have to go get a whole bunch more Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder films. (Why do we not own Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles?)

June 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment