Along with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, no other filmmaker has had a larger influence on the history of movie comedy than Mel Brooks. Throughout his impressive body of work, Brooks deftly mixed socio-political commentary, pop culture references, slapstick and the kind of deep, guttural belly laughs that can only be produced by a true comedy genius.
I recently came across a complete collection of Brooks’ films, and am curious to see which of his films hold up best. Which of his films deserve the title of “comedy classic,” and which ones are best forgotten? Join me for a (hopefully) hilarious retrospective every week for Mel Brooks Monday!
Although Mel Brooks is perhaps best known for his various spoofs and genre parodies, his first film is actually one of the most original comedies of all time. Released in 1968, The Producers is, in some ways, still shocking by today’s standards. It’s the dirtiest, most politically incorrect movie I can imagine being made at that time. Like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, I watch it today and wonder, “how did they get away with that?”
The relatively thin (though not by Mel Brooks standards) story follows Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), a struggling Broadway producer hungry for his next big hit. To make money for his plays, he has taken to (ahem) “entertaining” rich, randy old ladies. Soon, accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who has been hired to do Max’s books, arrives at his doorstep. During a hypothetical ramble, Bloom convinces Max that, through some “creative accounting,” they can make more money with a Broadway flop than a hit. With dollar signs in his eyes, Max coerces Bloom into helping him find the worst play ever written, even though it’s, you know, technically illegal.
Many are probably familiar with this story through the musical re-make starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. The songs are catchy, but the only real version in my mind is the original. That is, in major part, to the brilliant lead performances. Mostel’s gregarious blowhard is perfectly pitted against Wilder’s neurotic, sheltered hypochondriac. These guys have never been better, committing two of the funniest performances ever seen on screen. Wilder is probably best known for playing the warm, gentle Willy Wonka, but I much prefer his edgy, comically uninhibited performance here.
The duo’s eventual choice, Springtime for Hitler, is every bit as jaw-droppingly offensive as it sounds (song lyrics include Don’t be Stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party), but I think the very Jewish Brooks realized how therapeutic laughing at Nazis could be, even when the atrocities they committed were only a few decades behind and still very much in the forefront of global consciousness. A roomful of actors (including beach bod Hitler) auditioning for the role of the fuhrer is probably funnier than it has any right to be.
This madcap classic is bolstered by one of the funniest supporting casts in movie history. Kenneth Mars is perfect as Franz Liebkind, the German writer determined to “clear the fuhrer’s name” through his work. Christopher Hewes kills as “eccentric” theater director Roger De Bris, and Dick Shawn as LSD, the play’s “perfect” a.k.a. “worst” Hitler? Well, that’s something I wouldn’t dare ruin for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Several Mel Brooks staples could be seen in his debut film, although some of them would never be used to quite the same success again. His trademark mixture of gleeful subversion and old-fashioned, almost retro fun is in full swing here. The occasionally shocking content never gets in the way of the humor, proving the age-old rule that being offensive is okay—as long as it’s funny. It also gave us a good dose of Brooks’ Shakespearean sophistication, from comical asides to biblical allusions and grand speeches. We can always tell that there is a fiercely intelligent mind underneath the potty humor.
The Producers remains Mel Brooks’ most manically unpredictable movie, maybe because it’s not exactly skewering a genre; there are no jokes we expect, so everything remains a delightful surprise. But the film, thankfully, still has plenty to mock, from the money-hungry world of Broadway production to Nazism to the “high class” clientele that would pay to see a play called Springtime for Hitler in the first place. To say anything else about the plot, characters or jokes would spoil the experience for anyone seeing this true comedy classic for the first time. I say stick to the original and avoid the inferior remake.