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Each time I’ve watched it – and I’ve watched it many times – Mel Brooks’ The Producers has felt horribly pertinent to the present moment. One year, I found it a poignantly contemporary paean to postmodern irony; another year, it was an agonisingly topical satire of the American dream and success über alles.
But with its latest rerelease, it has never been so relevant than now, in the era of what Donald Trump calls “Brexit plus plus plus”. Those rackety campaigners Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in the back of the Vote Leave bus resembled no one as much as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, but without the charm. Could it be that they did not seriously expect or want Brexit to succeed, but figured their quixotic referendum failure would tickle the malcontent right, setting them up for lucrative and powerful careers?
Now all our government ministers look like the crooked producers in the bar over the street from the theatre where Springtime for Hitler has just reached its uproarious interval, realising that their plan has gone horribly wrong. “Gotta think … gotta think … gotta think …” says Bialystock, pushing his fists into his plump dewlap cheeks.
Springtime for Hitler, like Brexit or the 24-hour tweet-show that is the Trump presidency, is the triumph that no one can quite believe: the cosmic irony to end all cosmic ironies, the karmic punishment for our belief in rational liberal progress. However, Bialystock and Bloom do, in fact, end up in prison, at least partly for the revenue fraud involved in a conspiracy to conceal profits. They, unlike the president, were compelled to reveal their tax affairs.
The story is now well-known. Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a failing Broadway producer reduced to dallying with wealthy old ladies, getting from each a “chequey” for his latest show in return for grisly thrills. Bloom (Gene Wilder) is his nerdy young accountant with an obsessive-compulsive need to cuddle his “blue blanket” in moments of stress. It is Bloom who realises that if Bialystock raises far more money than he actually needs for a show – say, $1m for something costing $60,000 – and the show is seen to fail spectacularly, the assumed financial catastrophe will be such that neither the investors nor the taxman will think to suspect a cash surplus. They will make more money with a flop. And surely nothing will flop harder than a sentimental musical about Adolf Hitler. It is a thermonuclear detonation of cynicism.
Although one thing their show isn’t – or not quite – is antisemitic. Brooks pulls off the extraordinary balancing act of making the show avoid the subject of Judaism as such and the two men’s own unstressed Jewishness is part of how Brooks gets away with the outrageousness of the gag. (The director is called Roger De Bris, an apparent joke about circumcision, but it could just mean “debris”.) The Producers is a rebuke to the needling, insidious and humourless antisemitism of today’s social-media “alt-left”, an aspect of its eternal topicality I never guessed at until now.
The crazy, funny, shouty dialogue scenes between Mostel and Wilder still look incredible after all these years. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick sounded much smoother and more emollient in the 2005 remake based on the stage musical. The sheer madness is maybe most spectacular when Bloom has an anxiety attack while lying on the floor, because he is convinced that Bialystock will jump on him, like Nero on Poppaea. That suppressed hysteria and disbelief will run through their subsequent meetings with the crazy Nazi playwright, the creepy director and his bizarre “private secretary” dressed like a satanist from a Dennis Wheatley story.
Of course, the maniacal bad taste that is the movie’s premise means that it is almost beside the point to worry about how gay men or women are portrayed. Mel Brooks, despite the impeccable modernity of his masterpiece, was a little bit conservative and square. The 2005 version promoted their sexy Swedish secretary into an important character, played by Uma Thurman, although by objectifying this woman, Brooks was entirely in tune with 60s liberation.
Yet it is the pure sketchiness of the hippy guy playing Hitler, called LSD with the Warhol soup can around his neck, which makes him funny. Twenty years later, the actor Dick Shawn had his own moment of Brooksian tragicomic absurdity when he died of a heart attack in the middle of his one-man show, collapsed face down on stage and the audience refused to believe it was not part of the act.
The Producers still holds its grip: you find yourself gasping, like the Broadway crowd. Mostel and Wilder are sublime: pop-eyed, sweaty, their hair variously frizzing and thinning, goggling at their own terrible doomed chutzpah.
Source: The Guardian
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