The Producers–one of Mel Brooks’ most charming comedies– is best known for its audacious premise. When straitlaced accountant Leo Bloom examines the very cooked books of Max Bialystock, an oily, washed-up Broadway impresario, he has an epiphany. By overselling shares in a show, a producer could make a fortune on a sure-fire flop. (If the show tanked, no one would expect to recoup their investment.) Inspired, Bialystock ropes Bloom into staging a musical written by a crackpot ex-Nazi, memorably titled Springtime for Hitler. The plan goes wrong when the show “goes right,” and becomes a hit with audiences who see it as a hilarious satire.
The Producers sparkles because it ties the pleasures of swindling to the equally risky thrills of making theater. (The fact that, decades later, Brooks was able to adapt the film into a hit musical affirms its fundamental theatricality.) When Gene Wilder’s Bloom finally agrees to go along with the plan, it’s perhaps one of the most memorable moments in all of cinema. He and Bialystock are seated at the fountain in Lincoln Center Plaza, which spontaneously erupts as soon as Bloom signs on. Then the pair run around the fountain hooting with glee; and the setting, which was then a brand-new temple to the arts, indicates the link between financial and theatrical flim-flam.
The improvisatory fun of both fraud and the theater are joyfully manifested in Zero Mostel’s portrayal of Bialystock. He’s a delightful throwback to a certain era of the theater, when men casually risked fortunes on wild dreams of glitzy shows, jazzy numbers, and dancing girls. Bialystock is now reduced to seducing old ladies in order to make ends meet, and in a gloriously goofy opening sequence, we see him tirelessly hustle to embody each woman’s fantasy, improvising and hoofing as hard as any great actor or Rockette. Bialystock has an infectious joie de vivre that also seduces Gene Wilder’s perpetually anxious Bloom. When you treat life as one great performance, you can get away with anything, and make everything a laugh.
Much of the film is a fun-house mirror version of the “let’s put on a show” plot of the backstage musical. Even though Bialystock and Bloom’s aim is to make the worst possible choice at every step, you feel the same infectious, anticipatory fun of those more sincere films. The Springtime concept is so audaciously offensive that you can’t help sitting on your hands and wondering how it’s all going to come together. Some of the biggest laughs come when Bialystock and Bloom hold auditions for the role of Hitler. The montage of bad mustaches and heavily accented shouting exaggerate the pompous bluster of the man himself. It follows Brooks’ belief that the best way to combat Nazism is to laugh at it and expose its inner puniness. The guy who finally gets the role, a hippie with Elvis-esque mannerisms, is a still-sharp portrait of some of the pretensions of the 60s downtown performance scene.
All this anticipation culminates in the opening night performance, and the titular “Springtime for Hitler” number, a genius piece of balls-to-the wall satire whose outrageousness springs from its savvy use of musical theater tropes. It starts off like the opening of a Ziegfeld Follies, with a lot of beautiful showgirls striking glamorous poses on a staircase. Only these showgirls are pasted with spectacularly kitschy German iconography, wearing pretzels and foaming beer steins as pasties. Just when you think this brazen joke has gone as far as it can go, it keeps getting more audacious and ridiculous, with lyrics like “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi party.” Leggy jack-booted SS girls in hot pants transition from tap dancing to full-on goose stepping. At the end, the big laughs come from Brooks’ clever use of theatrical conce he ends with a Busby Berkeley–esque bird’s-eye view, showing the dancers’ bodies arranged in the shape of a swastika. If the song wasn’t so catchy and the visuals so perversely alluring, Brooks couldn’t land all of his punches. The belly laughs that come from the unabashed, over-the-top spectacle still summons up some of the spectacularity that Hitler’s propagandists (including film director Leni Riefensthal) used to craft his image.
With this number, Brooks, following Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch, takes the gamble that mockery and laughter can be effective tools against fascism. In the turmoil of late 1960s America, with its political violence, Nazism might have had a slightly musty feel to it: enough to shock and offend, but not a clear and present danger. Perhaps in a way, then, watching today makes the experience deeper, as fascist-friendly twerps make flaccid attempts at spectacle and iconography; when the need for ridicule is also laced with the possibility of danger. Its resonance speaks to the depths that underlie Brooks’ cruder humor. A delicate balance of satire and nostalgia, gleeful juvenility and human connection, makes The Producers endure.