Like an old friend whose brilliance never fades
Miles Piper is pleased to revisit his past
Several weeks ago now, Channel Four broadcast the Mel Brooks’ classic 1968 movie The Producers, featuring Zero Mostel as Max Byalistock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom.
The same year, Brooks received an Academy Award for ‘Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen’ and in 1996 the movie was selected by the US Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry under the heading “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Almost uniquely, the project was also later re-invented by Brooks as a highly-successful Broadway musical – I saw the London West End version, featuring Lee Evans as Leo Bloom – which itself was also turned into a movie.
As it happens, for reasons that escape me, I was not in a position to sit down and watch the Channel Four broadcast as it actually went out, but impressed myself by somehow managing to ‘record’ it via my Virgin Media cable box.
In the UK, Monday night’s television fare is consistently hopeless, so it’s the evening of the week that I tend to use to watch either programmes I’ve recorded and/or those I can be bothered to try and retrieve via the ‘Catch-Up TV’ facility.
Last night – having exhausted other avenues, but without ever intending to watch it right through (it was already well past my bedtime) – I fired-up my recording of The Producers, just ‘to remind myself’.
I watched no more than ten minutes, but what a ten minutes it was!
For those who cannot recall the opening of the movie, it begins with Zero Mostel (Max Bialystock) as the once-great, but now down-on-his-luck, theatrical producer ‘seducing’ two little old ladies in the cause of parting them from their cash, which he intends to use in a desperate attempt to mount another ‘comeback’ musical.
The progress of the first lady’s seduction is punctuated by the opening credits, built around a succession of frame-freezes of Mostel’s face in a series of contorted expressions, with a strings ‘overture’ version of the Springtime for Hitler tune playing in the background.
Having obtained his cheque and ejected the first lady from his office, Mostel then prepares for the second lady … with whom he then is accidentally discovered in flagrante on a chaise longue by Gene Wilder as timid accountant Leo Bloom, who has arrived to work on Bialystock’s financial books.
The transition from the latter scene, into one in which Bialstock and Bloom get to know each other and begin their working relationship, is one of the funniest passages of film I have ever witnessed.
To a large extent, this is down to the relationship between the actors themselves.
Firstly, on his own, playing the part of his life, Zero Mostel is a demonic force of nature – so far ‘out there’ that he is mesmerizing to the point where it is difficult to take your eyes off him.
And yet, somehow, Wilder/Bloom also gradually comes into his own. Initially, it seems as both the actor and his character, reacting to Mostel’s unstoppable craziness as if overawed, does not bother to compete.
But then, from his initial examination of the books – and, of course, the appearance of his security blanket from a pocket in reaction to the stress Mostel/Bialystock is causing him – Wilder gradually unveils his obsessive compulsive side … and Mostel (brilliantly engaging the audience in his thought processes) realises that Wilder is either a complete nut-case … or, just possibly, the answer to all his dreams of regaining his former status as a top theatrical producer with six shows simultaneously running on Broadway.
What adds the icing to this opening section of the movie for me is the extent of its surrealistic quality. The work that the creatives involved – producer Sidney Glazier, Mel Brooks and writer/director, plus Mostel and Wilder themselves – put in must have been extensive and painstaking and quite out of keeping with the apparent ‘out of control’ zaniness/improvisation that appears upon the screen. It looks as though they had nearly as much fun shooting it as the audience gain from watching it.
I can give no higher tribute than to state that watching the first ten minutes of The Producers is akin to the experience of either being deliciously drunk oneself – i.e. ‘going with the flow’ of what one is watching without fully being able to follow the logic – and/or gaining the distinct impression that Mostel and Wilder, never mind the actresses playing the two ‘little old ladies’, were all as high as kites on mind-altering substances at the time.
It brilliantly establishes the set-up for the movie and introduces the main characters, but also ‘sets the scene’ for what the audience can expect to witness over the next 88 minutes, i.e. a feast of hilarious mayhem.
See here for a short taster of what I’m referring to – the scene in which Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) first ‘loses it’, under pressure from Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), courtesy of YouTube – THE PRODUCERS