Cinema: The Producers

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"A comedian," Fred Allen said, "is a man on the treadmill to oblivion." But it is the gag writer who makes him go, and in the specialized craft of making funny men seem funny, few people have larger reputations than Mel Brooks.

Slightly taller than a shotgun and blessed with an acidulous nonstop wit, Brooks, 41, was one of the most inventive writers on Sid Caesar's old Show of Shows. Brooks turned performer himself in 1960, when he and Carl Reiner created a free-form vaude ville routine about the 2,000-Year-Old Man. This character was a geriatric loser with a Yiddish accent who invented the wheel but made it square; someone else cropped off the corners and copped the fortune. Later he met Shakespeare ("What a pussycat he was; what a cute beard"). Typically, The Man invested in Coriolanus instead of Lear.

"Who wants to see all those daughters yelling," he theorized. "It's just like home."

Pell-Mel Lunacy. Records about The Man became a campus favorite and led to a profitable hitch for Brooks (who is married to Actress Anne Bancroft) as Ballantine Beer's 2,500-year-old Brewmaster. The residuals really started rolling in when he and Writer Buck Henry created a television series about a fumbling, bumbling superspy named Maxwell Smart. After the outsized success of Get Smart, Brooks was constantly asked what he intended to do next. He developed a stock answer: he was writing and directing a movie called Springtime for Hitler, a backhanded reference to Edward Everett Horton's summer-playhouse hardy perennial, Springtime for Henry. What started as a joke has become comic reality, although the title has been tactfully changed to The Producers. For at least half of its running time it is pure pell-Mel lunacy—which is to say, uproariously funny.

A sleazy theatrical producer (Zero Mostel) enlists the aid of his wide-eyed accountant (Gene Wilder) in a convoluted cabal. Given the improper circumstances, a Broadway entrepreneur can make more from a flop than he can from a hit—by pocketing the backers' money after the show folds. Accordingly, the two men begin a search for the world's worst script. Mostel finally zeroes in on Springtime for Hitler, written by an unrepentant Nazi who believes that the Führer was infinitely superior to Churchill because he had more hair and besides, he was a better painter ("He could do a room in one afternoon—two coats").

Weak-Kneed Henchman. To further assure opening-night disaster, the producers then proceed to sign up the queen of Broadway's limp-wristed directors, hire a totally mind-blown hippie (Dick Shawn) as their star, and attempt to bribe the New York Times drama critic by wrapping his ticket in a hundred dollar bill. To no avail. The show is unintentionally funny, the public floods the box office with orders, and Mostel and Wilder are floated up the river for fraud.

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