Sometimes you have to make fun of history. For a historian, I do this more than most of my colleagues. It may not be the most professional thing to do, but every once in a while you have to let loose. The past can be deadly serious, particularly World War II. Why do I bring up World War II? Because today’s film deals with a fictional Broadway musical that lampoons German leader Adolf Hitler, although that was not the author’s initial intention. You might also wonder how anyone can make light of a mass murder, responsible for the deaths of millions. If there is anyone who has the cultural cache to do so, it is renowned Jewish funny man Mel Brooks, writer and director of The Producers (1967).
The Producers begins with a different kind of sleaze as we see once renowned Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) seducing a series of elderly women. He is forced to seek out such patrons and schmooze them so because he has had a string of flops that he backed, and the theater is losing a great deal of money. It is while he is in the process of ingratiating himself to one of these ladies when the anxiety ridden accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) arrives to go over Max’s books. While pouring over the financials of Max’s latest debacle of a production, Leo notices a $2,000 discrepancy that Max attempts to explain away the missing funds by saying it was owed to him. Leo attempts being steadfast in trying to balance the books, but eventually gives in to Max’s desire to move numbers around. As Leo gets to back to work, a thought occurs to him, one that he makes the mistake of saying out loud. The scheme is this: Max could make more money by putting on bad show than a good one. The idea is that they find the worst possible script and crew to put it on, hype up the proceedings, oversell shares of the profits from the ticket sales, and skate town with the loot before anyone is the wiser. Leo once more recognizes the illegality, but again is won over by Max’s insistence on going ahead with what he perceives as an easy, get-rich scheme. Their first step is to find the right script, and this is the connection to World War II. They choose a play called “Springtime for Hitler,” written by Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), a former German soldier who still wears his helmet and clearly still pines for the days of the Third Reich. His intention is to show the supposedly “softer” side of the Fuhrer, and Max assures him that is the intent when the purchase of the rights of the play takes place. Next, they sell half, and sometimes full, shares of the proceeds to every little old lady in whom Max is in the good graces, resulting in them being several thousand percentages over the maximum. The final touches are added when they sign on the worst possible director, a cross-dresser named Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewett), who insists on making what is meant to be a “historical drama” into a flashy musical. The pièce de resistance, though, is the clueless hippy they get to play Hitler, the aptly named Lorenzo St. DuBois (Dick Shawn). In case you missed it, his initials make LSD. Satisfied they have done everything to ensure a complete disaster, on opening night, before the first intermission, Max and Leo retire to a bar across the street to await the fall out. Initially, the audience responds with the expected indignant horror. What brings them back to their seats is Lorenzo’s Hitler, which creates uproarious laughter. Everyone is thoroughly amused, except for Franz, who cannot understand why his Hitler keeps saying “baby.” The bigger problem, however, is Max and Leo’s. With their completely unexpected hit, they are now going to have to face a small army of septuagenarian and above investors wanting to see their returns. Matters are made worse when an angry Franz bursts into their office and attempts to shoot them. The solution to all their problems is soon presented when it is suggested that they blow up the theater. Franz, being the closeted Nazi he still is, has the necessary explosives. Being who they are collectively, they barely make it out of the building before the detonation. At any rate, their stand lands all three in jail. Had they learned their lesson? Of course not, for we close with Leo taking the same number of shares from his fellow inmates for Max’s new prison production, while Franz bangs merrily away at the piano.
You watch The Producers for the absurdity of it all. There is nothing moral about it. Max and Leo are swindlers, but they are presented in the most light-hearted manner possible. So, too, is Franz, which is weird to write. He gets quite emotional reminiscing about Hitler, even though whenever he is pressed about his true affiliations he launches into halting versions of America’s patriotic songs. I wish there was something more Catholic to say about this film. I suppose you could look at Leo’s character as a lesson as to avoid temptation. When Max is trying to woo Leo into helping him with the big con, the Broadway man says all the right things to a struggling accountant. Max feeds Leo the sweet lines about his life being a prison, that he has a right to a share of the fun, and that the fact that he is smarter than most entitles him to it all. It is the kind of stuff the enemy reminds us of when we are at our lowest. It is the kind of temptation, in other words, that leads to sin. In the case of this movie, it ends up with fraud and arson.
In sum, The Producers is a pretty amoral film. One thing I did not mention yet is how Max hires the blond bombshell Ulla (Lee Meredith) to be their secretary. She barely speaks English, and when she is told to “go to work,” she strips down to her underwear and dances. In the end, I suppose it is good that they end up in jail. Otherwise, you have a film with basically bad people doing bad things. Still, it is funny to see people making fun of Hitler.