Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Springtime for Hitler . . . and COVID-19

None of us want the current pandemic to kill off our sense of humor. Which is why, sheltering at home, I find myself opting to watch old comedies. Some of them, frankly, turn out to be less funny than I remember. I’ve always revered Carol Burnett: there was a time when I considered her variety show (1967-1978) essential weekly viewing. True, some of the sketches are still very funny: I continue to chuckle at the movie parodies, like the Gone With the Wind spoof in which Scarlett—making an elegant green gown out of the plantation’s velvet drapes—forgets to remove the curtain rod, with disastrous results. But I’ve just looked at clips from The Carol Burnett Show’s first season, and found myself cringing at obvious gags, annoying husband-and-wife bickering, and (in a belabored sketch featuring Sammy Davis Jr.) moments poking fun at racial bigotry in a smug, self-congratulatory way.

For something completely different I turned to a genuine oldie, Buster Keaton’s silent 1924 romp, Sherlock Jr . Keaton’s perennially solemn face and rubber legs have endeared him to generations of comedy lovers. Sherlock Jr. is not as out-and-out hilarious as The General (in which, during the height of the Civil War, his character commandeers a stolen locomotive and drives it through enemy lines). But this story about a movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective is filled with technical sleight-of-hand that has had a profound effect on Hollywood. Keaton’s leading character seems at one point to disappear into a small suitcase. Elsewhere, there’s a dream sequence in which, while Keaton is slumbering next to his movie projector, a second version of himself rises to leave the booth and then climbs directly into the motion picture being projected. Years later, Keaton (who like most of the early comic stars wrote and directed his own material) confided to film historian Kevin Brownlow that "every cameraman in the business went to see that picture more than once, trying to figure out how the hell we did some of that."

 A few nights later, after watching a Mel Brooks documentary, I sought out Brooks’ very first feature, The Producers. Brooks by 1967 had made a name for himself as one of the zany writers on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, as the portrayer of the 2000-Year-Old Man, and as the creator of TV’s Get Smart. His move into movies began with the overtly bizarre idea of a musical celebrating “Springtime for Hitler.” Eventually he launched a story in which an over-the-hill Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) and a babe-in-the-woods accountant (a young Gene Wilder) conspire to raise money for the worst musical ever produced. The logic is that if the show flops bigtime, they can keep the funds they’ve raised. Of course it becomes a huge hit, and they’re royally screwed. 

In 2001 the film (which won fans but garnered mixed reviews) became a genuine Broadway musical, a Tony Award winner starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Normally movies that are made into stage plays tend to lose their charm and their essence. But in this case the stage version (also written by Brooks) corrected a lot of structural flaws in the original. The long first section of the film—the bonding of the two leading men and their search for a “creative” team—is hilarious. But the film gets derailed when Dick Shawn, as an LSD-addled hippie Hitler-portrayer, bounds in and does his shtick for far longer than we want to watch it. Thereafter, what plot there is falls apart. Brooks in those early years simply didn’t know when to quit.  

Insider fact: Dustin Hoffman, a Greenwich Village neighbor of Mel Brooks back in the day, was offered the role of Franz Liebkind, the playwright nostalgic for the glories of the Third Reich. Hoffman eventually turned it down – to star in The Graduate opposite Anne Bancroft. As Brooks was forced to admit, declining a role in The Producers to make love on camera to Brooks’ beloved new wife was—for Dustin Hoffman--a very smart choice indeed.