The key to Mel Brooks’ entire career as a comedy star, writer, director and producer is contained in two little words that take pride of place in this extravagant musical version of his original 1968 movie.
When the outlandishly camp Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) makes his debut on the Broadway stage, he is greeted by lines of dancers singing “Heil Hitler!” Fixed in the spotlight, he coyly responds: “Heil myself”.
Many will know that the joke hails from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 classic To Be or Not to Be. Brooks loves that movie so much he remade it in 1983, adding a couple of songs. But it was obviously already his model back in 1968. Lubitsch’s example had shown Brooks the way to make an outrageous comedy dealing (vaguely) with the appalling realities of Nazism – while insuring that the result would be regarded as a pure gesture of Jewish humour.
Even Lubitsch offended some sensitive souls back in the ‘40s with this flirtation with tastelessness. But the ingenuity of his plotting also lit the path for Brooks: if the story is actually about theatre, performance and make-believe – and especially about the difference between good and bad theatre, acceptable and unacceptable role-play – then the entire spectacle can be ultimately redeemed as satire.
In this sense, Brooks craves the dead opposite of what his characters want. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane), a once great Broadway producer, and Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), his weak-willed accountant, stumble upon a sure-fire way to get rich quick: raise two million dollars for a play that is sure to flop. To that end, they source the worst play, Springtime for Hitler by an unrepentant Nazi, Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell), and the worst director, Roger – who ends up replacing Franz as the star of the show.
But that “Heil myself” sets the course of destiny for all concerned. The opening night audience – at first appalled and scandalised by the monstrous froth and bubble of what Max accurately describes as a “Nazi hoedown” – suddenly construes the wildly excessive spectacle as a naughty but politically savvy commentary. And then everything unravels for the producers and their motley entourage.
For almost four decades, The Producers has survived as a singularly odd success story – first as a cult film, then a Broadway play, and now the transposition of that play back onto the screen. Every element is lovingly exaggerated to the max in this latest version: every bit of grotesque hamming pioneered by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in 1968 (“I’m wet, I’m in pain and I’m hysterical!”), every outburst of song or dance.
For some reason that escapes me, Brooks has figured that his highly cultivated mastery of Jewish schtick goes down even better with the crowd if it is doubled by a heavy-handed dose of gay-related humour – such as now rather dated references to The Village People.
Brooks is pretty good as a movie director, so I am unsure why he handed over the reins on this project to Susan Stroman (it remains, at 2019, her only film). Her essentially theatrical background ensures that The Producers is a “filmed play” from first moment to last – and often leadenly so. When the Swedish bombshell, Ulla (Uma Thurman), plaintively asks Leo, “Why did you move so far screen right?”, she may as well be pointing to the proscenium arch. In scene after scene, the actors (all of whom are encouraged to go way over the top) keep awkwardly turning to play to the camera rather than each other. And none of the sets seem to have realistic dimensions or everyday architectural properties – “stage exits” are frequent.
To a degree, the film positions this stagy clumsiness to its advantage. As a story about theatricality, it keeps signalling its own excesses and sending itself up rotten. This is especially true of its musical leanings. The songs (music and lyrics by Brooks) are the kind of deliberately third-rate dreck which The Simpsons frequently parodies (although a “Nazi ballad” sung wistfully by Ferrell over the end credits is a highlight worth sticking around for).
And yet The Producers inevitably finds itself in the same bind as the movie version of Chicago (2002). Both Brooks and Bob Fosse (who originated the latter on stage) aim for an anti-musical approach – and both, intriguingly, seized on the Third Reich (as Fosse did in 1972 for Cabaret) as the ultimate in “bad showbiz spectaculars”, just as Rainer Werner Fassbinder did in Lili Marleen (1981).
However, when it comes time for the blockbuster screen transposition of Chicago or The Producers, it seems that the numbers have to be really show-stopping affairs (not just second-degree travesties), and there has to be a sentimental and redemptive Heart of Gold beating somewhere amidst all the conniving, cheating and betrayal. It is in the desperate, final-reel fumble for a feel-good upswing that this reincarnation of The Producers really goes off the rails.
However, there is no doubting that it is a weirdly compelling movie event. And a testament to the less-than-subtle genius of Mel Brooks, who has been able to string out that “Heil myself” gag for so long, and with such strident energy.