I was fortunate enough to have seen the late, great, Zero Mostel in person on Broadway many years ago, starring in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. He was absolutely fantastic. I've never forgotten it. Zero was made for live performance. He had such a graceful way of moving - you catch it in the film too - a way of seeming light as a feather while looking large as a buffalo. Once seen, never forgotten.
But that's okay, after a few moments, he grabs hold and doesn't let go. Exactly as he grabs the very bewildered, milquetoast, Leo Bloom, played perfectly by Gene Wilder in this - I think - his greatest role. (I'm sorry, but YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN comes second.)
Max Bialystock is a once renowned Broadway producer down on his luck - his acumen for hit shows a thing of the sorry past. He has a miserable little office overlooking the Great White Way where he was once king of the bright lights. Reduced to shouting rude things (at the top of his lungs) out the window when he sees Broadway notables in Rolls Royces. "Flaunt it, baby! Flaunt it!"
Estelle Winwood. 'Hold me, touch me."
How is he getting by these days? Well, you may ask. Turns out that Max has a talent for hanky-panky with rich old ladies who hand over their money to him thinking they're investing in his next great Broadway production. He collects enough money from his revolving bunch of wrinkly crones by promising them bliss - not to mention a Broadway hit from which they will recover their investment.
That's the sad and ugly truth.
Max is a sleazy con man. These scenes of 'amour' are so reprehensible...uh, delightful, that they make you squirm - while you're laughing. Yes, your sense of propriety will be outraged. Max is simply dreadful. Hilariously so.
One fortuitous day, into this sordid spider's sphere, comes a little fly - accountant Leo Bloom. He has been sent to check Max's books. He knows nothing about show business or producing. But soon enough, he realizes that if you could get your hands on a really bad show and were sure of its failure, you would never have to return the backers' investment. The tax laws for show failures are pretty hazy.
Ergo, you could sell shares in the show ad infinitum. BUT the show has to fail. If you had a hit on your hands, the backers would, naturally, want to collect on their investment and since you've sold more than a hundred percent in shares, you'd be rightly accused of fraud and sent to jail.
But Leo is just musing out loud - isn't he?
Unfortunately, Max overhears his mutterings and from that moment on, there's no stopping him. Together, Max tells him, they will be rich beyond the dreams of avarice. All they have to do is find the worst show imaginable - a real stinkeroo. Then Max will go to work on his stable of old ladies and voila!
Surely he - Leo - can't want to continue being a repellent little accountant when life has suddenly offered him a chance to HAVE IT ALL!!
From that moment on, Max - at his deliciously devious best - lures poor, schleppy Leo, to the Dark Side. So much so, that Leo is seduced into making a life altering decision - he plays hooky from work! Gene Wilder is superb in these scenes as the weak, pathetic, hysteria-prone schnook who can't quite elude the Max Bialystock landslide.
Max and Leo spend the afternoon together. They go to Central Park, they eat hot dogs al freso, they go for a boat ride, they even go to a strip show from which poor Leo emerges in shell shock. Finally, at the end of the day, they hit Lincoln Center and we get the famous scene of the fountains heralding Leo Bloom's emancipation. "I want...I want... I want EVERYTHING!!"
So the search begins for the worst stage play ever written.
This is the play!
Max and Leo hold up in that dark little office hour after hour, wretched play after wretched play, until finally they stumble across SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER by an unknown writer named Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). The play is a Berchtesgaden 'romp' supposedly showing the 'lighter' side of Hitler.
Instantly Max and Leo know this is the play that will make them rich. The show won't run ten minutes. You think?
Off they go to sign up the playwrite, meeting him on a Manhattan rooftop where he tends his pigeon coops. The first thing Leo says is, "He's wearing a helmet." Max says, "Pretend you don't notice." (Or words to that effect.)
The ultra wonderful Kenneth Mars as Franz Liebkind.
Soon, they're back in Franz's apartment drinking schnapps and singing German songs. Franz is assured the play won't be insulting to the Fuhrer who, after all, everyone knows was a much better painter than Winston Churchill.
Soon as the contract is signed, Max sets off to earn the dough necessary for the production of SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER. Little-old-lady-dom never knew what hit it. Max soon sells about two hundred percent of the show, rents a huge office and hires a bouncy, sexy secretary who can't speak English. But she sure can dance the 'frug'.
Ulla (Lee Meredith) the secretary who can't speak a word of English and obviously doesn't have to.
Then the casting begins, after first signing the worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris (the wonderful Christopher Hewitt whom we first meet wearing a long, tight evening gown). Roger doesn't know the whole thing is a flim-flam and takes the job offer seriously. The dope thinks the play will make a great musical.
Open casting for the part of Hitler and other cast members, brings out every nut in New York, but eventually Max, Leo and Roger find their perfect Hitler in Lorenzo St. Dubois (L.S.D.) - Dick Shawn in thigh high suede boots. He is guaranteed to be a disaster.
But see, here's the thing: the more Max and Leo try to make sure their play is a big flopperoo, the more they do what's necessary to make it a hit.
Opening night, the audience is stunned into silence by the first act - dancing Nazis singing, 'Springtime for Hitler and Germany. Goose step's the new step in town...lalalalalala!'
'Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party.'
Max and Leo retire almost immediately to the bar across the way to toast their new found success...uh, failure.
Unfortunately, things do not go exactly as they planned. Is that laughter they hear?
And that's not all. Once Franz Liebkind finds out the true nature of the show, he arrives at Max's office with a Luger.
THE PRODUCERS was written and directed by the one and only Mel Brooks, who is himself Jewish. His reasoning? Laughter is the best cure for hatred. Makes sense to me.
Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are superb and together with a top notch cast of loonies, they make the whole thing work.
(The film was also the basis for Mel Brooks' smash hit Broadway musical of a few years ago.)
To see a trailer of The Producers, please use this link.
The Springtime For Hitler and Germany dance number.
Guaranteed to offend everyone.