Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Producers

And now it's Springtime for Reviews. And maybe Hitler, but hopefully not. This is the first of three Mel Brooks movies on the List that I'll be reviewing (alphabetically, Blazing Saddles comes first, but I've seen The Producers both more often and more recently). Where did it go right? The question is more where didn't it go right - it doesn't have the cheerful vulgarity of Blazing Saddles or the direct spoofing of Young Frankenstein, but it presents the best of the Mel Brooks formula. Take an inherently ridiculous situation and see how much more ridiculous one can make it. He has also been unafraid to continue the WWII propaganda machine's work of turning Adolph Hitler into an object of ridicule instead of terror. Scholars have debated that question endlessly: do we do disrespect to the dead or to the survivors by making that evil man out to be a clownish goofball? My own personal opinion is no, we don't. Hitler was a very comical person in a lot of ways. There are multiple personality quirks that make him ripe for mocking, not to mention the key absurdity in the movie - casting a drugged-out hippie as Hitler (or in the musical, casting a flamboyantly gay man, but the movie of the musical is nowhere near as good as the original film). I think the major disservice is done when you make Hitler out to be this cackling evil orc sitting in a darkened bunker muttering "Jews..." under his breath. That comes down to the human tendency to recast evil humans as complete monsters, lest we see any reflections of ourselves in them. It's much easier to think of Hitler as some sort of bridge troll than it is to think of a hypochondriac who really loved dogs and Walt Disney films, and also thought a bunch of people deserved to die. That really is why this movie is so enduring, I think. It gives us permission to laugh at Hitler. Not just the situation that the fanatical Nazi playwright (whose name translates to "Love Child" - not a very subtle joke about him being a bastard) somehow doesn't notice that his producers are Jewish. Or that his director is very, very flamboyantly gay (and again, has the very unsubtle name of "De Bris", a fun joke in both English and Hebrew!). This is up there on the level with Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator doing a delicate balloon dance, including butt bumps, with a globe. For years, we censored the Looney Tunes and Disney shorts that were made for propaganda purposes, because we feared that not taking Hitler seriously would mean we didn't take the Holocaust seriously. Except by making MECHA-ROBO-DEVIL-HITLER, we've turned that page of what makes things like the Holocaust happen in the first place. Mel Brooks understands this better than most, and so he doesn't just give us permission to laugh. He forces us to laugh by making the situation as intolerable as possible to the sensibilities. He doesn't make Nazis look like an awesome force of nature, he makes them look like bumbling idiots who somehow don't realize that they are working with the things they hate the most. This is a lot on the philosophical nature of what makes the movie good and enduring, without mentioning things like most of the jokes land, including the dated ones about hippie culture. It's not mentioning the fabulous performance of Gene Wilder, who goes through the movie like a neurotic version of the Hulk. It's not mentioning Zero Mostel's fabulously sleazy Max Bialystock. It's just talking about why we laugh so hard when we see this film. Mel Brooks can be very hit or miss for me. I enjoy about half of his movies, and can't even make it through the other half. But The Producers is a must watch.

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