Monday, March 18, 2013

Planning to Fail

Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder): Actors are not animals! They're human beings!

Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel): They are? Have you ever eaten with one?

A few years ago, the movie "The Producers" was remade.

I didn't see it at the theater. I saw it on TV.

And I was glad I didn't spend any money on a ticket to see it on the big screen. Frankly, it was a disappointment to me, and I didn't think I would have been more favorably disposed to it if I had seen it on the big screen.

Given a choice, I would much rather watch the original, which first appeared in theaters 45 years ago today, on the big screen. Unfortunately, I have only seen it on TV as well.

I have enjoyed many Mel Brooks movies over the years. "The Producers" wasn't the first Brooks–directed movie I ever saw. But it was Brooks' big–screen directorial debut — and, seeing it when I did, with the benefit of the hindsight that came from seeing "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," "Blazing Saddles" and "History of the World Part I" first, I could see clear indications of what movie audiences could expect in the years ahead.

It wasn't Gene Wilder's movie debut. That came a year earlier with a small role in "Bonnie and Clyde." But his performance in "The Producers" was his first major big–screen role, and he gave movie audiences a generous glance into the future.

I didn't need one. Wilder was already one of my favorite comic actors by the time I saw "The Producers" — kind of my generation's Peter Sellers.

When I saw him first in "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles," though, I missed watching him evolve from "The Producers," in which he played Leo Bloom, a remarkably timid accountant. He apparently stumbled onto the inspiration for a scheme when he observed that a producer could make more on a flop than a hit — because no investor would expect to receive any kind of return on a production that failed.

Producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) seized upon the idea, and thus the plot of the movie was born. Wilder and Mostel would find the worst script imaginable, hire the worst director possible and cast each role with absolutely the worst actors they could find to guarantee a flop that might not even survive opening night — then they would split for South America with the investors' money.

Well, that was the plan. But, hey, you know what they say about the best–laid schemes of mice and men.

What went awry in this particular, seemingly foolproof scheme was simple. The audience didn't hate the production. In fact, the theatergoers loved it — once they persuaded themselves that "Springtime for Hitler" was a farce and not an homage to Hitler.

It was a hit. And there wasn't anything that Wilder and Mostel could do about it — least of all pay the investors.

Wilder's blueprint for the manic victims he would later play was unveiled in his performance as Leo Bloom in "The Producers." Wilder hasn't always been a manic victim, but it's been a staple of his career.

Dick Shawn, I suppose, was another matter.

Shawn was a manic comedian who appeared in about two dozen movies, one of which was "The Producers." He played Lorenzo St. DuBois (aka LSD), a flamboyant actor who was cast as Adolf Hitler in the play that Bialystock and Bloom were producing.

"It's practically a love letter to Hitler!" Mostel's character exclaimed after reading it.

"This won't run a week," Wilder's character replied.

"A week?" Mostel said. "Are you nuts? This play's gotta close on Page 4!"

And when the audience saw Shawn, there could be no doubt.

But, as I said, the best–laid plans ...