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.

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Young Frankenstein (1974)

Young Frankenstein – 1974

Director – Mel Brooks

Starring – Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, and Madeline Kahn

I grew up on Spaceballs.  Not only that, I co-grew up on History of the World, Part 1.  It would seem to be a no-brainer that anything Mel Brooks would do should appeal to my basest movie watching self, right?  Then, along came Blazing Saddles.  Everyone that I ever talked to about Blazing Saddles loved it.  It was the summit of comedy for a 10-year-old kid (not to mention a lot of 30 year olds that I know now), so why did I think it to be so, blah?  Was I wrong about Mel Brooks?  Are his other movies even funny?  Long story short, my so-so opinion of Blazing Saddles had managed to color my opinion of Brooks’ other films, such as Young Frankenstein, long before I ever even saw them.  It’s really too bad, because Young Frankenstein was a great piece of fond nostalgia.

The story is simple, it is essentially a campy, comedic, re-telling of the story of Frankenstein.  Gene Wilder plays the grandson of the famous Victor von Frankenstein, Frederick.  Embarrassed by the legacy his disgraced grandfather left behind, Frederick goes so far as to alter the pronunciation of his telltale last name to “Fronkunschteen”.  But after receiving the diary of his grandfather, he makes his way to the castle in which the original monster was created to put some of his theories to the test.

Along the way he picks up a sidekick, Igor (pronounced Eye-gor for obvious reasons) played by British comedian Marty Feldman, and a sexy lab assistant played by Teri Garr.  It is by this point the spoofs, and loving jabs begin to fly. Young Frankestein’s success is not so much because of how it points out the ridiculous nature of the original, but because of how lovingly it treats its source material.  In fact, most of the props and set pieces in the castle are actually props from the original 1931 Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder is perfect as the pseudo-serious mad scientist with Garr and Feldman both playing well comedically against his strait act.  Peter Boyle as the monster is able to combine the original humanity of the character, pioneered by Boris Karloff, and twist it just slightly to the bizarre side of things in order to make it funny.  His bit with the “lonely blind man” played by a young Gene Hackman is a particularly stand out moment. And finally, what Mel Brooks movie would be complete without the fantastic Madeline Kahn, as Frederick’s fiancée swept off her feet by the appropriately endowed monster.

Based on the films that I have seen thus far in my life, did Young Frankenstein cross any lines, or break down any borders for me?  No.  It did however, make me remember why it was that I enjoyed movies like that in my youth…they are fun.  I’m looking forward to giving Blazing Saddles another try.  Big thanks to my buddy Mike for recommending and lending this to me, good lookin’ out!

“Madeline Khan, the funniest ever!” – Ashley