By Brad Laidman | November 7, 2001

“Let’s assume for a moment that you are a dishonest man.”
Maybe the most warped movie of all time. Madness incarnate. The Producers brings up to me a wonderfully philosophical question. Should we remember the Nazis as a fierily effective evil group of people? Should we gasp with terror at the mere mention of their reign and the nastiness of their deeds, or should we instead mock them out of existence? Does the Nazis absolute evil make it perhaps necessary that we remember them as buffoons and idiots? Is that perhaps the only revenge most Jews can have?
Robert Clary came and spoke to a class of mine when I was a kid. I was a huge Hogan’s Heroes fan. I used to sing out the different cast members’ names while humming their whistling theme song. I was about ten and I wanted to ask him how he could be on a show where the Nazis were portrayed as benign goof balls after having been in a concentration camp. I didn’t have the courage though, but I’ve always wondered what he’d say.
These days the only villains around that you can freely demean or make fun of seems to be the Nazis. Disney has found out that you can’t make fun of Arabs anymore. Spike Lee is around so we can’t watch Amos or Andy. We can’t make fun of slave holders because that would be us. Lesbians: no longer really a viable villain even with Basic Instinct out there. Russians: too incompetent and weak these days they’re almost even considered our friends now. The reason nobody cares about the Olympics anymore is that there is no one left too hate. We can’t even hate South Africa anymore. Essentially, the Nazis are the one group of people who nobody will quibble over.
Some people want to let it rest and forget the whole damn holocaust, but Steven Speilberg needed someone for Indiana Jones to fight and then he needed a truly noble subject so he could finally win some awards. By the time Saving Private Ryan came around, you might well have guessed that the future viability of Dreamworks depends vitally on us hating the Nazis and any of their bugged out current day followers.
Mel Brooks decidedly wants them to go down on the goon side of history and The Producers is still his most eloquent argument. Hogan’s Heroes wanted to go there perhaps, but from watching Bob Crane and the boys you would never even know that the Nazis had even the slightest problem with the Jews. Mel Brooks wears his contempt proudly like a gold star badge of honor. The Producers manages to raise all these issues while still managing to be downright hilarious and silly at the same time. Indeed if I’ve just seen it, I’ll probably be more interested in reliving that ærial shot of the dancing swastikas in the musical within the movie, the illustriously named Springtime for Hitler, than having deep discussions of pain and the inhumanity of man versus man. Perhaps they are better remembered as wacked out clowns than for the pure evil of Ralph Fiennes shooting a few campers down from his compound window after some drinks. If anyone deserves it perhaps they do.
Then again Mel Brooks is pretty willing to make fun of everybody willing to come to the set in his way way over the top, scream at the top of your lungs, first major movie effort. Zero Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a once successful theatrical producer who having hit the skids relies on his ability to w***e himself out to rich widows just so he can keep a roof over his head. Perhaps the creepiest thing in a movie where there is a lot of competition is the sight of old ladies in heat.
Gene Wilder, plays the meek, blue security blanket owning accountant Leo Bloom, who upon reviewing Max’s books comes to the realization that a crooked Producer could make a fortune by producing a guaranteed flop. Essentially, if they were sure never to make any money, they could sell the play’s profits a hundred times over without anyone ever wondering where the money went. Of course if the play somehow became a hit they would wind up in jail, but Mostel has been producing flops for years and figures he deserves to make some money at it.
Of course, Max has to convince the reluctant Wilder, to take care of the books, which he finally does in an exultant dance in front of a blooming fountain, where Leo decides he no longer wants to just count the man’s money when he’s smarter than they are. Deciding that life owes them something all they have to do is find a play certain to close after only one night’s showing.
After an exhaustive search, the loony pair discover and purchase the work of Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), a cast off Nazi remnant and pigeon collector who names his birds after Third Reich heroes and wants the world to know how much better a dancer Hitler was than Winston Churchill. Thus began the production of that household favorite Springtime for Hitler, a gay romp with Adolph and Eva. Mostel and Wilder are so willing to prove the Jewish greed stereotype true that they wind up leaving the nut ball Nazi’s apartment wearing swastika armbands.
Max and Leo don’t leave anything to chance. They hire a transvestite no talent Director (Christopher Hewett) and give him enough money to hire the very worst in local talent. “Will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wing? We are only seeing singing Hitlers.” Apparently Ed Wood was already dead.
The Producers is perhaps a film so absurd that even Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett must have been properly impressed and amazed by its impudence, and that’s even before they hire way way out there hippy LSD freak Dick Shawn as Hitler. Maybe Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds didn’t stand for LSD, but Lorenzo St. Dubois sure does. I don’t think Shawn ever really did much else that was of this quality, even here he’s an acquired taste, but his performance in The Producers and the fact that he died while performing on stage somewhere has to leave you with a special warm spot for him in your heart. He may even be the most redeemable character in the movie. “That’s our Hitler!”
Unfortunately, for Zero and Gene, the worst play in the history of mankind turns out to be pretty damn entertaining, and pretty soon having sold 25,000 percent of the work’s profits becomes a pretty uncomfortable seat to sit in. Luckily you get to watch and be amazed at what Mel Brooks managed to get away with over thirty years ago in a film that will likely never be matched for its sheer audaciousness, puckish glee, and willingness to go any distance for a laugh. This is Bamboozled if it was as funny as it was righteously angry. Luckily no lessons are learned. Love those dancing Storm Troopers!

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