THE ENORMOUS SUM OF ZERO: As Max Bialystock, Mostel extols the bounties of the producers’ life to his nebbishy star-struck accountant, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), in Mel Brooks’s first full-length feature film, which the Center for Jewish History will screen on Monday as part of its ‘Jewish Humor in America’ series .
‘The Producers,” Mel Brooks’s first full-length feature film, was released in 1968 not long after his comedy routine, “The 2000 Year Old Man,” had Yiddishized the whole of human history. Starring Zero Mostel (born Samuel Joel Mostel) and Gene Wilder (born Jerome Silberman), the movie won an Oscar for Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky) for best original screenplay. It thus proved to be a kind of delayed revenge not only on Hitler and the death camps, but on four decades of studio moviemaking when Jews had the choice of changing their names (like John Garfield, ne Julius Garfinkle) or noses (like Everett Sloane) in order to get Hollywood parts.
From the opening moment of this riotous film, it is obvious we’re not in Kansas any more. Following a shadow play of frenzied lovemaking glimpsed through the smoked window of a producer’s office, the door opens to reveal not Clark Gable and Carole Lombard locked in embrace but the enormous sum of Zero, bulging in a red smoking jacket, his patented strands of hair plastered over his forehead like seaweed on a rock. As Max Bialystock, producer supreme, he is wooing one of his octogenarian female backers (“Do you have the little checkee?”) with his customary blend of predatory charm and unconstrained ferocity. Not to mention transformative grace — he can turn himself into a purring cat with the same ease that he once changed into Eugene Ionesco’s rhinoceros.
No, we’re not in Kansas with Dorothy and Toto, we’re in the Catskills with Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner, where Brooks cut his comic eyeteeth. Why else name your hero after an item of Jewish bakery and the Polish shtetl that originated it? And what about making Bialystock’s partner — the neurasthenic CPA, Leo Bloom — a namesake of James Joyce’s Jewish wanderer (Zero coincidentally had performed the part in the off-Broadway “Ulysses in Nighttown”). Hysterically inhabited by the blue-eyed, curly-headed Wilder as an infantile regressive groping a blue blankie, Bloom is a hissy-fit Faust corrupted by a Shubert Alley Mephistopheles who has wrested from him the secret if not of eternal life then of unlimited capital gains — producing the worst musical in history. In the climactic seduction scene, Bialystock wins Bloom’s soul by infantalizing him with colored balloons, laps on the merry-go-round and a boat ride in Central Park (“I’m happy,” shrieks the delirious accountant).
We’re happy too, and in the scenes that follow, Brooks delights us further with characters like the Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars, who will later rehabilitate his incomparable Kraut accent as the police chief in “Young Frankenstein”); the transvestite director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and his campy aide-de-camp Carmen Ghia (Andréas Voutsinas), and Dick Shawn as a pothead Hitler in a musical so tasteless that it freezes the audience into an oil painting of paralyzed horror. “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/ Come and join the Nazi Party,” Brooks chants in his unmistakable New York accent, a line he will expropriate decades later as a voiceover in the Broadway musical. Like that current megahit, the movie manages to offend virtually everybody: Jews, Germans, gays, radical feminists, handicapped old ladies and actors (“have you ever eaten with one?”). Brooks will get to blacks a few years later in “Blazing Saddles.” But his biggest butt is Hitler’s Third Reich, reduced to a Busby Berkeley routine featuring buxom chorines in Wagnerian headdresses and black-shirted storm troopers goose-stepping to “Springtime for Hitler” (the movie’s original title).
There is a girly show in the movie called “War and Piece.” Later on Broadway, Brooks will improve and Judaize his weakness for bad puns with the theater posters on Bialystock’s wall: “This Too Shall Pass,” “The Breaking Wind,” “A Streetcar Named Murray,” “She Shtups to Conquer,” “Katz” and “High Button Jews.” The posters on Brooks’s wall — the comic oater “Blazing Saddles,” the Chaplinesque “Silent Movie,” the Cecile B. De Mille takeoff “History of the World Part I,” the Hitchcock send-up “High Anxiety,” the monster movie lampoon “Young Frankenstein,” even his later efforts (less successful despite great titles such as “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”), reveal Brooks’s determination to subject every Hollywood genre to merciless Yiddish parody. It is a natural development for Melvin Kaminsky, the Jew who killed Hitler by making him the object of relentless, if always uproarious, show-biz ridicule.
Robert Brustein, the founding director of the American Repertory Theatre, is creator of the musical “Shlemiel the First.” This article has been commissioned by the Center for Jewish History in conjunction with its “Jewish Humor in America” film series. “The Producers” will be screened January 27 at 7 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., introduced by Forward managing editor Andrew Silow-Carroll. For further information please call 917-606-8200 or visit the Center’s Web site at www.cjh.org.