The first time I laughed after Sept. 11 I was listening to a radio interview with Rudy Giuliani. New York's then-mayor was trying to persuade tourists to return to the city. As an inducement, he noted that, in the wake of the terrorist attack, it might be a little easier to get tickets to The Producers. That's an outrageous joke, especially from a mayor and especially under the circumstances. It's a gag dark and outrageous enough, actually, to be worthy of The Producers, in which Hitler is seen as a hoot.
Hizzoner was specifically referring to the stage musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick that had taken Broadway and much of the country by storm in 2001. It was, fans knew, based on the 1968 movie written and directed by Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles). Riding the coattails of the stage show's success, we now have two filmed versions of The Producers in the marketplace. A new movie based on the Broadway musical opened in Orlando on Christmas Day. Co-produced and co-written by Brooks, it's directed by Susan Stroman, who also directed the play. Meanwhile, a two-disc "deluxe edition" of the original film has just been issued on DVD.
The original is a classic, with a feeling for pointed exaggeration and finely calibrated madness that's like something out of the theater of the absurd. The new one, for the most part, is just broad and loud closer to Rob Schneider or Adam Sandler than to Beckett or Ionesco.
But comparing these two Producers, which span nearly four decades, says a lot about what was, and is, outrageous. Mel Brooks doesn't mind offending people. In fact, he seems to enjoy it.
"My favorite expression is: When you go up to the bell, ring it or don't go up to the bell," Brooks says in a documentary about the making of the original Producers that's included on the new DVD set. He's talking about his satisfaction in making a statement that shakes people up.
The loudest bell in the 1968 film is its take on the Nazis. The plot concerns Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel, in a superb performance), a bombastic, if washed-up, Broadway producer; and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder, also superb), a mousy accountant-turned-producer. Together, they hatch a scheme to produce a surefire flop by gathering the world's worst play, director and cast. The producers plan to wildly oversell shares in the show, thereby making a fortune. (Of course, if the show is a hit, they'll go to jail.)
The play they select, Springtime for Hitler, is a love letter to the Führer and his Reich.
"At the time it was made, it was really quite shocking that somebody would do a funny movie about the Nazis," says actor Kenneth Mars in that documentary. In the original Producers, Mars is brilliant as Franz Liebkind, the mad Nazi playwright who pens Springtime for Hitler.
Brooks says he'd wanted to call the film itself Springtime for Hitler, but "many of the exhibitors, they would not put Hitler on the marquee."
Using Springtime for Hitler as the title of a mainstream movie might, come to think of it, still be a problem today. But we are a lot further away from WWII, and we've gotten used to Mel Brooks. A film with comical Nazis doesn't cause a stir nowadays (especially if the intent is to ridicule them) not at a time when mayors make jokes as dark as Giuliani's.
The original film's satirical targets also include the youth culture of the late 1960s. The actor who is selected to play Hitler in the play-within-the-film is a hippie flower child with the druggy name of Lorenzo St. DuBois or L.S.D. (In an obvious jab at Pop art, Brooks had him wear a Campbell's soup can on a string around his neck.) Comedian Dick Shawn is very funny as L.S.D., but the references are dated and the character was dropped from the Broadway musical and the new film. Instead, Liebkind is chosen to play Hitler (initially, at least).
One outrageous aspect shared by all versions of The Producers is the very idea of two Jewish producers who are money-grubbing enough to put on a play in praise of Hitler. For some reason, this is practically never mentioned, perhaps because Max and Leo assume the play will flop and because they are, finally, our heroes.
A louder bell that Brooks rings concerns its gay characters, who are presented as caricatures in both the original film and the new one. Roger De Bris, the man chosen to direct Springtime for Hitler, is the stereotype of a flaming queen who, when we first encounter him, is in drag. (He's on his way, it's explained, to the Choreographer's Ball.)
In the 1968 film, he has a swishy, rather feline assistant. In the new film (and in the stage show), his entire production team is comically gay (including a very butch lesbian). Back in 1968, jokes about gays weren't considered risky. They were considered normal. But by 2001, in the wake of AIDS and shows like Angels in America and its sequel, making fun of gays, especially in the New York theater, had become politically incorrect. Ever the bell-ringer, Brooks, with his collaborators, added gay jokes for the Broadway musical, including the catchy song "Keep It Gay."
Somehow, he got away with it, maybe because his campy tone made the stereotypes less offensive. In any case, the phenomenal success of the show may have helped to loosen things up a bit: Recently on the Late Show With David Letterman, Nathan Lane himself was part of an elaborate production number that poked fun at Brokeback Mountain.
In all versions of The Producers, there's a bevy of "little old ladies" that Max romances to bankroll his plays. We laugh about this, but these horny grannies aren't necessarily the butt of the jokes: Max gets what he wants, but so do they.
Then there is the intriguing issue of Ulla, the Scandinavian hottie who's hired by Max and Leo as a secretary-cum-chorine. In the 1968 film, Ulla (Lee Meredith) is a promiscuous bubblehead who, though never actually nude, shows a lot of skin. Like gay jokes back then, this sort of character wasn't considered the least bit offensive.
Today, it is. Or, rather, it would be if Ulla still were that same kind of character. In the new film, Ulla (Uma Thurman) only seems to be a dumb blonde: Secretly, she's savvy. No longer a nympho, she develops a sweet, monogamous relationship with Leo. And although Thurman really flings herself around the room in the "When You Got It, Flaunt It" number, she stays quite covered up. She's got it, but she doesn't flaunt it at least not the way Meredith did.
So what's the lesson here? Sacred cows come and go, and the definition of "outrageous" keeps shifting. Gays and Nazis may still be fair game, but women today are handled with care. Even an incorrigible iconoclast like Mel Brooks sometimes backs off from the email@example.com
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