The Producers (1968)

The Producers – 1968

Director – Mel Brooks

Starring – Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, and Kenneth Mars

Everything is accelerating.  Things today move faster than they did before, and those things move incrementally faster than they did before that.  Information is always evolving, the delivery speed is increasing, it’s digested faster, and more than ever, what was once an original idea has been re-made, re-packaged, or re-told, so many times that the original now no longer seems all that original or groundbreaking.  Never is this more true than with film, and never more so than with comedy.  Unfortunately, for a film that is more than 40 years old, has been remade into both a movie as well as a stage play, this is most-definitely true for the Producers.

The Producers tells the story of a hack theater director, Max Bialystock (Mostel), and his sheepish accountant, Leo Bloom (Wilder), who attempt to raise lots of money to make a purposefully bad play, so that it bombs on opening night and they can write off (keep) the invested cash.  The pair work hard to shock, annoy, and anger their audience, but much to their, and everyone’s, surprise their play about a young and carefree Hitler and Eva Braun, is a rollicking success when it’s seen as comedic rather than serious.  So their grand scheme plan backfires, and they accidentally have one of the most successful opening nights ever.

The Producers just didn’t wow me.  I didn’t grow up with it like I did Spaceballs.  It wasn’t that rare diamond in the rough that I came to find later in life, such as Young Frankenstein, and it doesn’t have the reputation of comedy mainstay that Blazing Saddles has.  The shock value of trivializing Hitler and the Nazi’s is something that, today, is pretty commonplace, (when ever you need a good bad guy in a movie or a good punchline to a joke, Nazi’s are always a good fall back) so it didn’t seem all that outrageous, shocking, or hilarious to watch it in this film.

Now rationally, I realize that The Producers was, at least in part, responsible for this evolution of humor and it’s more than a little ironic that this influence is making me enjoy the film less, but it’s still hard to get through a movie where you’ve heard the jokes, or at the very least a variation on the jokes, time and time again.  There were a few instances where I was smiling, some where I snickered a little bit, but I don’t think I ever really laughed out loud, or even inwardly to myself.

The film’s real selling point was the outrageously brash humor.  What are these guys willing to say to get their play made.  What sort of illicit sexual favors are they going to promise to widows in order to bilk them out of money so they can finance this ruse.  Since I grew up with things like Eddie Murphey’s Delirious, Airplane!, This is Spinal Tap, and shows like the Simpsons and Family Guy, it’s pretty hard for a film to slap my face and rub my nose in shocking material, especially one from the 60’s.  That isn’t to say it can’t be done, but the battle is most definitely uphill for the film.

In terms of acting, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder are actually really good together.  Mostel plays as the boisterous and gregarious Bialystock and is a good counterpoint to Wilder’s very neurotic, Woody Allen-ish,  Bloom.  The undeniable chemistry of the pair builds from the first scene and each works so well off of the others performance.  This chemistry is actually the film’s saving grace in many instances,  where the film’s jokes fell flat, these two managed to hold my attention and keep engaging me.  One weak point in the film, was the annoyingly unaware of his surroundings character played by Kenneth Mars.  Mars plays a German expatriate  playwright, who writes the sappy romantic story of Adolph and Eva in complete seriousness.  His performance plays like a bigot with downs syndrome.  More than a bit heavy-handed, and annoying, and every time he was on screen I couldn’t wait for him to be off screen again.

When all is said and done, I realize its importance historically on this list, but I would have given it’s spot to a funnier movie (The Big Lebowski, Bad Santa or Hot Shots! anyone?), or even if you want to give the prize to Mel Brooks (and I realize this is my particular bias), why not History of the World Part 1, or the ever glorious Spaceballs?  The Producers had potential, but it was potential with a limited shelf life, and unfortunately it’s past it’s freshness date.  I realize my stance might not be popular, but really I’m just saying…It’s not terrible, it’s just not great either.

Olympia (Parts 1 & 2: Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty) (1938)

Olympia Festival of Nations

Olympia Festival of Beauty

Olympia (Parts 1 & 2: Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty) – 1938

Director – Leni Riefenstahl

Starring – Adolph Hitler, and Jesse Owens

Notorious darling of the nazi propaganda machine, Leni Riefenstahl, once had a legitimate career as a filmmaker.  Starting off as an actress, she moved her way up the ranks to produce and direct both narrative as well as documentary films on varying subjects.  This film, split into two parts, is a documentary of the 1936 Olympic games which were held in Nazi controlled Berlin (this was, of course, before anyone knew that was a bad thing).  With both parts clocking in at nearly 4 hours together, it is a daunting watch, but is it worth it?

The Festival of Nations is the first part of the duo, and it is introduced by a long montage of shots panning and dollying through the ruins of classical Greek architecture, and featuring dramatic lighting, a fog machine, and classical statuary.  From there we move on to the running of the Olympic torch from the past into the future (1936), into the stadium in Berlin where the legions of people from each nation proudly march in formation and wave their country’s flag, and await the beginning of the games.  Afterwards we are treated to (or subjected to, depending on your view), nearly two solid hours of footage from the numerous contests of the games itself.  The Festival of Beauty is very similar in structure and length but features a different variety of events, and then at the end rounds out the games with a closing ceremony.

The pros and cons of this film are all weighed out fairly evenly, and in some ways cancel each other out when considering the value of this film historically.  Firstly the black and white imagery is very captivating, alternating between slow motion and full speed  footage of the athletes and with grand sweeping shots of the stadium and the crowd.  The images captured here are completely focused on the relationship between form and function of the human body.  The slow motion shots recall the photography of Eadweard Muybridge in the way they dissect and analyze each and every detail.   Riefenstahl’s camera lingers on each athlete, highlighting the raw power that comes from their muscles working together.  Unfortunately this introduces one of the main problems with the film.  There are only so many different ways to show the same action over and over and over and over and over again.  A guy running is a guy running no matter if you have 2 shots of him doing it or 20.  Likewise, since a lot of the different events are visually very similar, it would have been nice to condense them down to about half of what they were (there is only so much you can do to show track events in interesting ways without getting in the runner’s way)

Second, the film presents an interesting view back in time to what it was like before the Nazi party was as vilified as it is (and clearly deserves to be) today.  This olympics, while hosted by the Nazis, was attended by all the major players in WWII (with the notable absence of the Russians), England, France, Poland, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Japan, and of course the US.  There are numerous scenes of large crowds saluting Hitler (who appears numerous times throughout), German athletes saluting, and lingering shots of a proud waving Nazi flag indicating the winner of the event.  It is in this film, that exists the footage of America’s Jesse Owens dominating each event he participated in.  Unfortunately, there were a number of references referring to him as “…the best of America’s negros…” or talking about pitting his prowess against that of the “white race.”  This provides some interesting questions, “Does the history of what happened after the games, deface and ruin what happened at the games?”  “Is the film art, propaganda, or both?”  With the exception to how the African American athletes are referred to, each nation seemed to get equal billing and equal credit for their contributions to their events.  Does this mean that it should be viewed without the stigma of what the Nazi’s did?  Whether or not it should be judged without bias, it never will be.

Finally, the best part of this documentary comes from watching these men and women at the top of their game, doing what it is they are best at.  This is somewhat marred by the fact that there is an announcer giving the play by play.  The film would have worked better with more of the montage elements of the athletes performing, and less minutia on who was winning.  Also, the symbolism and pageantry was a little heavy handed, and could stand to have been edited down quite a bit.  The main focus of the film (and consequently, the most successful part) is the study of movement, and form found in the mechanics of the human body, not in the history of what actually happened.  I suppose I understand why these elements were included, but they are distracting, and slow.