We form strange relationships with the key films in our lives, and they change as we revisit them. In ‘Paperboy’ I talked about my strange journey with a film from my childhood, ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, which took me to Los Angeles, to the Republican candidate attempting to locate its missing footage and finally to its writers.
In ‘Film Freak’ I’ve touched on my relationship with another film, ‘The Producers’, which was released to resounding indifference in 1968. Mel Brooks was no ingenue; he’d been writing with Carl Reiner for years and was steeped in Jewish New York schtick. We wasn’t good at writing women characters and, as noted before, ‘The Producers’ is a showbiz bromance wherein the only female, Lee Meredith, gets to speak in cod-Swedish in a bikini.
The film broke so many rules that it’s no wonder nobody saw it. It felt like a stage play (but wasn’t) and had no third act, just a coda. It was conducted at a screaming, hysterical pitch. The first act – almost the first half of the film – took place in a grimy office. And it broke a terrible taboo. The Holocaust was still within most viewers’ memories, and was not something to be laughed at. The very title of the show-within-the-show ‘Springtime For Hitler’ was offensive. The stars were hardly bankable. The humour was shocking.
The film took years to find its audience. Ten years after its initial release, the film opened in the UK on a double bill and vanished, but it was seen by me and my business partner Jim. We were so much like Bialystock & Bloom, the tawdry theatrical agents who set out to stage a ‘sure-fire flop’, that we even attempted to register their name as a company – and found it already taken.
We had soon learned all the dialogue, which was packed with classical allusions, non-sequitors, rants, vaudeville routines and theatre lore. Zero Mostel was famously a disaster to work with. Gene Wilder was unknown. For some of us it was that rare thing, lightning in a bottle, thrilling in its verbal dexterity and audacity.
Every single role, from the valet to the concierge, has a well-rounded character – except the beautiful Ulla, but she’s just there to be sexy and hilarious. Wilder’s permanent stare of blue-eyed bewilderment meant we identified with him, until he too proved to have his peccadillos.
When the musical show version opened in London starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans (infinitely superior to Matthew Broderick), I saw it with Jim twice in the same week. The leads had a kind of magic in their performances that was dazzling to watch – they had previously been paired in the underestimated and very strange ‘Mousehunt’. This was the last thing my partner saw before he died.
The second film version was a flop, but like the original now looks much better than it did at the time, and sometimes catches the claustrophobic intensity of the original. Brooks’ follow-up, ‘The Twelve Chairs’, repeated the double act with conman Ron Moody and disciple Frank Langella. I now watch the first version of ‘The Producers’ with the memory of my partner’s death attached to it, but knowing that it gave him so much pleasure only deepens the experience. The film also represents a time before demographics when such a film could get a green light just because someone felt passionate enough to make it.
Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder went on to make another film together – Ionesco’s absurdist ‘Rhinocerus’, which I have on DVD and can’t quite bring myself to watch.