The Producers & Take the Money and Run at the PFA

Friday night I saw a disappointing print of a great movie, and a great print of a disappointing movie. Guess what! I’d rather see a great movie than a great print.

I attended a double bill of late 60’s comedies by first-time American directors, both of whom would become major filmmakers–Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. This was at  the Pacific Film Archive; the opening films in their new series, Jokers Wild: American Comedy, 1960–1989.

(I’m never sure about using the phrase double feature with the PFA, since you have to buy separate tickets for each feature. On the other hand, if you buy tickets for both, the second one costs only $4. Besides, these two really felt like a double bill.)

I’ve never cared all that much for Mel Brooks, but I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since the original Casino Royale in 1967. But Brooks never again did anything else as good as The Producers, while Allen would surpass the quality of Take the Money and Run many times over. (He’s also made films that are considerably worse.)

A The Producers
A desperate has-been Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) and a timid, neurotic accountant (Gene Wilder in his first starring role) plan a bit of larceny that will make them a fortune if the play they produce flops. But if it’s a hit, they’ll go to jail. No wonder the play they’re producing is called Springtime for Hitler.

I can’t imagine the story working without the chemistry of Mostel and Wilder (I haven’t seen the musical remake and I’m not sure I want to). Mostel is a bolt of fat lightning, zooming from one oversized emotion to another, always over the top and yet in a strange way always sympathetic and believable. But while Mostel’s Max Bialystock displays every emotion with the subtlety of a canon, Wilder’s Leo Bloom holds everything in. Timid and frightened, he reacts to the absurdities around him with small yet hysterical facial expressions. Until he explodes. Then he’s bigger than Mostel.

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And yet the movie’s funniest sequence doesn’t depend on either star. The big production number, also called "Springtime for Hitler," manages to parody Busby Berkeley and Nazi iconography. It’s hysterical, but it also says something very true about the thin line between big-budget entertainment and fascist propaganda.

The 35mm print had a slight yellow cast. It wasn’t bad enough to ruin the picture, but it certainly compromised the visuals. From what I’ve read, I’m pretty sure that a yellow cast is a sign of something much worse than a faded print—a faded negative. If I’m right, The Producers is in bad need of a major restoration.

B- Take the Money and Run
When I wrote about Woody Allen’s directorial review in this week’s newsletter, I gave it a B+. I should know better than grade a film I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. Take the Money and Run is a weaker movie than I remembered.

A mock-documentary about a hopelessly-inept criminal named Virgil Starkwell (Allen), it has no real plot and no real character development. This is what I call an anything-goes comedy–one that’s willing to sacrifice plot, character, and any sense of realism for a laugh. There are several great anything-goes comedies, including Duck Soup and Airplane!, but they all provide more laughs than Take the Money and Run.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t funny. Much of it is hilarious. There’s the absurdist job interview sequence, the bank robbery ruined by bad penmanship,  and best of all, the interview with Virgil’s parents, wearing Groucho masks as they argue with each other.

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But for every great scene, there’s two that fall flat. Allen never was a great slapstick comic, and a scene where he struggles with a shirt-folding machine made me long to see what Buster Keaton could have done with that prop. Any many lines, especially those spoken by the very serious-sounding narrator (Jackson Beck) would have worked better in a standup routine.

Before the film, curator Steve Seid discussed the difficulties of acquiring a print of this independent film, now owned by Disney. The print they got–the only one available, apparently–was a rare, archival print. It was gorgeous. The colors leaped off the screen with a deep saturation you rarely see anymore. The movie carries a Technicolor credit, and I’m pretty sure that what I saw was a dye-transfer print. Only Disney or the projectionist could say for sure.

The two movies have an interesting connection: film editor Ralph Rosenblum. By the mid-60s, Rosenblum had been typecast as the editor for New York-based first-time comedy directors. He would spend most of the 70s as Allen’s editor. His memoir, When The Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, is worth reading.