“Getting the audience to cry is easy, just kill the dog” – (Unknown, because I can’t remember)
Comedy, by its nature is something you should never take too seriously. To laugh and to cry, those are two of the oldest traditions in Western storytelling, with roots dating back to the Ancient Greek tragedians and comedians. I spent some time last year doing university work on Ancient Greek theatre, and one thing I discovered has helped me greatly in understanding how to appreciate comedy. The thing I find endlessly fascinating about it is that it takes such considerable work and careful refinement to be funny, but you can never indulge in the big dramatics of emotional weight. Comedy is meant to appear easy, effortlessly done and at the end of the day, just a joke. And comedy depends so much closer on context, the jokes that split sides 50 years ago would be met with crickets today, but the enduring power of even the oldest tragedies still seems timeless. I’m sure there’s a few comedians out there who hate that word: timeless.
Comedy then, tragedy’s bastard younger brother, is seemingly condemned to not being taken seriously. Which always makes me smile in a sad way, because I honestly believe that to be a good comedian requires you to be a good tragedian. To really understand what’s funny, what’s a joke and what to take the piss out of, you’ve got to understand its opposite, what not necessarily can’t, but what doesn’t need to be laughed at the time.
And someone who seems to truly possess that skill, is Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is one of my all time favourite directors, yet a lot of his work rests on the backs of ripping into the genre trappings and clichés of movie genres, rather than any pioneering complexity in acting or storytelling. To pioneer in the area of parody, is to sling well-aimed tomatoes at the faces of its’ more serious siblings.
But that doesn’t mean respect is not due. To craft comedy, to craft laughter (genuine not canned) is no easy task. So I’m gonna take a look at his story The Producers, the original 1967 version written and directed by him, and the 2005 musical film counterpart to the 2001 stage musical revival of the original film. How does the comedy come to life, and how does the comedy survive its passage through time?
Then (Now?) – The Producers (1967)
The Producers (1967, Dir. Mel Brooks) is a film which was made in one of the biggest crucibles in American history. One of Hollywood’s biggest jesters growing up in the same generation of those radical self serious New Hollywood auteurs. But this is a different type of molotov cocktail, one whose firebrand material relies on taking the piss out of the past, not trying to set fire to the present. Ripping into both the Hollywood establishment, and making a mockery of Germany’s Third Reich, The Producers was never a story designed to play it safe.
Approaching these films is interesting for me, since I watched them backwards (the musical first). It’s interesting how often the way a story (especially in film) can be fixed once its committed to celluloid. The Producers is one of those films that must have cast a long shadow over any potential later versions, or any film which carried characters found in this film. Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leopold Bloom are performances which just ooze with life. In a film landscape where characters are often flattened out and made generic, both their performances are so profoundly idiosyncratic and deep that regardless of the rest of the film, it would still be worth visiting.
Luckily there is more to The Producers than its central pillars of Mostel and Wilder. Although it was Mel Brooks first film, a project he both wrote and directed it gets away with it through sheer force of will. The Producers managed to beat films by both Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes, as well as Gilles Pontecorvo’s Battle For Algiers to win the Best Screenplay Award at the Oscars, and listening to it is still a joy. Mel Brook’s eyes and ears for characters bursting with absurdity is incredible to this day, and the fun he has with them is a rollercoaster.
Comedy has a context though, and some of its edge has faded over time. That’s the thing with cutting edge, it’s very thin and very quick. The outrage over its objectionable content is lost on a modern audience. Making fun of the Nazi’s seems second nature in this environment of 2018, but its important to remember its shock value at the time. The jaws dropping in the screen would have mirrored those in the real audience. It’s hippie jokes as well, a character called Lorenzo StDubois or LSD (Dick Shawn) can only really reach an audience well versed in 60s culture (LSD wears a Campbell’s Soup can around his neck, an Andy Warhol joke) and its interesting to see how comedy can age.
It’s context is more than just the comedy though. It is by no means a cinematic marvel, not pushing the boundaries of fields like cinematography or editing. It’s opening credit sequence I find incredibly irritating for example. Or its ancillary characters can often take parody to extreme, so one-dimensional the joke sticks around longer than it needs to. It is a debut film to be honest, and to expect every piece to land and wow you is unreasonable.
Comedy is very easily wrapped up in only what’s funny and how funny it is, and it’s important to remember that a film is more than just comedy. What makes The Producers endure, at least in my opinion, is that it in a film filled with piss-taking and joy-riding the Third Reich, it asks you to jump on board earnestly with their hair brained scheme. Brooks puts you on board with characters you want to succeed, spectacularly. That’s a rare skill, rarer even than good comedy.
Now (Then?) – The Producers (2005)
Usually by the time of adapting old material comes along, it’s original creator is long since dead. What drew me then to this story, is that this version of The Producers (2005, Dir. Susan Stroman) was co written by Mel Brooks, alongside using his music and lyrics written for the original 2001 Broadway musical revival. Mel Brooks spirit and DNA is still running through this project like a spinal column. It’s very rare to see that in cinema, regardless of how this one turned out.
Mel Brooks’ films are always easy to love for cinema goers, because they’re often about cinema, consciously or not (mostly consciously). But The Producers is also about musical theatre, and for it to be turned into a musical seems remarkably and unsurprisingly natural, all at the same time. Things can often get lost in translation through adaptation, and it was interesting to chart those decisions backwards, not through the prejudice of it being immediately inferior to the version I already knew I liked. It’s fascinating how in a film which carries so much of the same characters, same plot points and even the same jokes, can still feel different. That’s the power of direction I guess.
If all the world’s a stage, then Susan Stroman takes that to its absolute limit in this version of The Producers. A lot of the popular criticism of the film at the time seemed to come from it feeling too “stage-y”, but I’d argue that in a film about a play revamped into a musical, it turning its environment into a stage would work in its benefit. Comedy has no issue bouncing between tones, and to not jump on-board with it is to miss the boat. When adaptations come out, it is very easy to look past the material and only judge what looks different to you from your first experience, but its important to remember that for some like me, this is the first exposure to the story of The Producers. Not everyone has seen Romeo and Juliet, yet.
It cuts and it fills when necessary. Ulla (Uma Thurman), the dumb Swedish secretary picks up more of a character in a romance with Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick). The tone is lighter, it’s characters more exuberant and joyous in their world, the world of musical theatre really is the brightest star it seems. It also is safer, sticking so close to a formula from over 50 years before will do that to any story. The Producers of 2005 doesn’t feel like a film that’s out to shock, it’s laughs are a lot cuter now. And it’s a trade-off that Mel Brooks was always ready to make, and rightfully so. If you’re not taking it super seriously, you might as well have a little fun with it. Especially when Nathan Lane is singing his bloody heart out, sweaty comb over and everything.
Now, Then…Who Cares? – The Producers (???)
One of my favourite stories of Mel Brooks is that he is the one who produced The Elephant Man (1980, Dir. David Lynch). For a man associated with comedy to produce a film about one of the most pitiable men who ever lived, I always find that story interesting and incredibly revealing. Mel Brooks is also the only director to win all four awards (Academy, Tony, Emmy and Grammy). For tragedy’s bastard brother, it’s not bad.
It’s easy to write off comedy, too easy. After all, it makes its mark off of the back of all those serious works. Especially The Producers, a story which is self-consciously in love with its medium. A film about producers on an odyssey through artistic lunacy is sure to attract the admiration of those artistic lunatics. It could also have very easily become a sycophantic ass-kissing ceremony, as the worst elements of art can sometimes produce (see: Andy Warhol, sometimes). It’s an amused romp through some of the insular elements of art, its crowd who make up the theatres and the musicals and the films. And to a lot of people, The Producers is unrelatable, boring and worst of all…not funny.
But then…who cares, honestly? Mel Brooks sure doesn’t, he’s dead. Everyone wants their work to do well, and I’m sure Mr. Brooks stayed up during the nights hoping it would do well, but if the joke doesn’t land you just keep going till the next one sticks. And Mel Brooks comedy might slowly get more and more defanged over time, as it looks safer and safer from a distance and people get more and more accustomed to a longer history of comedy. But who cares, someone’s still gonna sit down in front of these films for the first time for the next infinity until the human race has reached its end.
And as long as they keep finding it funny, it’ll keep working. And there’s nothing like seeing Leopold Bloom, be it Gene Wilder or Matthew Broderick or anyone else in the role, screaming in terror “You’re gonna jump on me!” while Max Bialystock, be it Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane or just an idea in Mel Brook’s head jumps up and down screaming in confusion.
Godamnit, it’s just funny. And it makes me wanna be a producer, and I hate producing.
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2 thoughts on “Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)”
I’d like to make three fundamental criticisms of your review, with other, more peripheral thoughts dotted around.
The first of which is that you quite rightly state that people often prefer whichever production of a film they’ve seen first. Yet, you haven’t addressed how this applies to yourself. In this vein, you haven’t offered anything approaching a weighted criticism between the two films.
I saw the films in the same order you did, but I prefer the original film. Matthew Broderick’s comedic skills aren’t remotely in the same solar system, nevermind neighbourhood, as Gene Wilder’s. Broderick constantly seems like an unfanny man desperately trying to be funny. He hits you over the head with it and doesn’t allow a single moment of subtlety. Even in areas of the ’67 film where Wilder is at his loudest, he still seems like the Oscar Wilde to Matthew Broderick’s 12 year old boy making fart jokes.
Nathan Lane is a much better match to the legendary Zero Mostel in terms of their understanding of what needs to be screamed and what needs to be subtle. He did a similar turn (but from musical to Hollywood movie in that case) in The Bird Cage, compared to its earlier counterpart La Cage Aux Folles.
Secondly, I’m really not sure where your sums came from. The two films are not “over 50 years” apart. The original film was made in 1967. The musical premiered in 2001, and the film version of the musical came out in 2005. That is 34 or 38 years respectively. I think you made the fatal error of sort of counting back from when you wrote your review, and then wrote it as if it was the distance between two different objects.
I think perhaps you haven’t given your fellow audience members enough credit. When I watched the original film, I was, like you, very aware of the fact that when the original film came out, there were a great many people alive who had lived through the privations and struggles of the war, a great many of them actual Holocaust survivors. That made me appreciate its genius more. It didn’t dim it for me at all. Do you think modern audiences don’t have the capacity to appreciate that it was groundbreaking and have that add to their appreciation of the film whilst they’re watching it? I had family members who fought in the war still alive in 2005 when the newer film came out. There are Holocaust survivors still alive as I write this in 2021. That leads to the third point I would like to make…
You seem to suggest that closeness to the war decides whether it was shocking, without really asking anything of the relationship between shock and whether something is actually funny. If I suddenly shot myself in the leg in the middle of the street it would be shocking, but no one would start laughing. Mel Brooks, a Jewish man, wasn’t doing it to shock people. He was doing it to entertain whilst doing something else far more powerful – robbing Hitler and his Nazi acolytes of power. Within the film, he didn’t even leave them with the legacy of being frightening. He made them everything they would detest. Would Hitler want to be laughed at by millions of people? Of course not. Would it be even worse for him to know it was a Jewish man with Jewish actors making them do it? I think we know the answer.
I’m assuming you’re not a time traveller so I won’t hold this against you, but a year after you wrote this review Taika Waititi made Jojo Rabbit. A lot of people criticising the film kept asking the same questions, many of them before the film had even come out: Will there ever be a time where it’s funny to make an unthreatening, lest funny Hitler? Will there ever be a time where it’s okay to laugh at the Nazis? Will there ever be a time where you can make a joke about the war/ Nazi persecution? That those questions were still being asked *actually* over 50 years after the original film was made, shows you that we are still living in a paradigm in which we are as shocked about comedy coming from one of the darkest stains on our collective histories. As an aside, when one of the questions was posed to Waititi, he said he thought it was very funny that a Jewish Maori was playing Hitler(ish) because he would’ve hated it.
When you think of another evil stain on our collective memories- American slavery- we’ve still not had a comedy about slave traders (from the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the plantation slave traders) despite it being over long before the Second World War (we’re closer to the war than the original Producers was to the slave trade), 38 years between the films or 60 years between Hitler’s death and the 2005 Producers, really isn’t that long, is it? I would be very shocked if I saw a comedy about slavery, and I can’t imagine it being remotely funny, even though Nazism directly impacted my Romani and Jewish family, whilst the slave trade did not. Maybe it’s a case that comedy isn’t actually tragedy + time. Maybe it’s more a case of tragedy + a very skilful hand + time *can* equal comedy. I don’t know the answer. I don’t think I need to know the answer. But I do know that it’s still really not that long since Hitler’s actions globally killed tens of millions of people, even when allowing for poor calculations (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
On a very final note, it’s been 3 years since you wrote this article and I still don’t think Mel Brooks has received your news that he’s dead, because the poor confused corpse is still working in 2021. Using Occam’s Razor, I might have to deduce that he’s 95 and still very much alive enough to possibly even care about how we interpret his work, though I wouldn’t be surprised if his answer would be to lift his shoulders, face his palms to the sky and say, in his characteristic purr, “Ehhh!”
Hi there lucy,
Sorry it took me so long to write, things have changed a lot since I wrote this post let alone since you replied to it!
Thank you for your breakdown though I appreciate your writing, in response:
-I acknowledged the fact that I had seen the films out of order, and how that might bypass a traditional framing of clarifying the “original” is the best because it’s the one that sticks hardest in the mind, often general audiences will simply advance it as the best because it usually the only one they’ve seen. It applies to myself and my bias sure (I happen to love Matthew Broderick in the role, even if I’m a super-fan of Gene Wilder!), but this is a personal blog not an academic review and I do believe in my own way I tried to weigh different relations between the two films (it was a long time ago, so I won’t chastise my younger self).
-In referring to the 50 years, I’m referring to the time of writing the blog and my impressions of the films in that time, not just from release date to release date. They’re more than just straight analyses back to back in a void without context, the essay is a record of my own experience growing in time intertwined with cinema I was experiencing. There was no ‘fatal error’.
– I never wrote that he was dead, merely that his DNA in interwined with the production! If you read that implying that I thought he was dead then I apologise as it was not my original intention, and if there is something in the language of the text I’m missing please let me know and I’ll try change it.
-Finally, I think the comments about the effects of slavery are a little misjudged, and the parallel is a little off. By and large due to Western powers victory over the Nazis, especially over the course of these last decades, they have become a figure to be used to lampoon, ridicule, invoke the fear of authority. They have in short become a very good boogeyman, even mentioning Taika Watiti, I saw the premiere of “What We Do In The Shadows” (2014) at the Berlin Film Festival, and when they came on (in character) for a Q&A the first question was “Did you intend to insult or offend the German people when you made this film?” (referring to the brief Nazi Doctor joke sequence in the opening with Deacon). After an awkward silence and a dropping of character, Taika had to explain it was a joke and no it wasn’t, that outside of Germany it wasn’t something considered so culturally sensitive to make fun of. Perhaps those questions surprised him, but his own words spoke volumes. The current entanglement with the roots of institutionalised slavery and the balance in culture of media addressing the issue through any lens (comedy, tragedy etc) is different to the entanglement Western culture has with the ramifications of the Second World War. Brooks was and is one of the greatest lampooners to that effect, using the horrors of a subject and audaciously flipping them to be comic not that long after the events of mass horrror had occured. That kind of shock effect dims over time, because by “The Producers” own success it became more customary to lampoon and ridicule the spectre of Nazism. I do believe that modern audiences without being taught about the contextual history of when it was made (how close it was) and Brooks’ own Jewish heritage, would lose some of the shine from the humour. If that is me underestimating them, so be it.
I appreciate you engaging with this though, thank you! Perhaps I haven’t convinced you, but the blog is designed to get people talking about film in an encouraging and thoughtful way and I feel like (however rustily) I’m doing it here.