By Joseph Puckett
The devotion of audiences, critics and the film industry has cemented Mel Brooks’ legacy as one of the premier comedians in American cinematic history. He is a frequent subject of media studies and the success of his recent memoir testifies to his enduring popularity in mass culture. But what are the works that shaped Mel Brooks? Over his career, Brooks has repeatedly pointed to Russian literature as a major source of inspiration. His first film, The Producers, contains dozens of allusions to world literature. Some are glaringly obvious, like Gene Wilder’s role as Leo Bloom, whose corrupt partner Bialystock quietly refers to as “Prince Myshkin,” the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
In his memoir, Brooks recounts how reading Gogol in the early 1950s was a “revelation” for his artistic view. This most integral influence upon The Producers receives no easter eggs, but elements of Deal Souls can be found in the structure of the film. Yet nobody seems to have discussed how the 1968 film borrows from the novel. The miserly protagonist Max Bialystock is formed as a more lecherous version of Chichikov. He is flattering and deferential to all those of higher status, but snide to most below him. He is charming, but unabashed about abandoning anyone whose usefulness ends. He is bitter at the world after an embarrassing fall from grace. He explodes, shouts and stomps at characters who don’t buy into his schemes. He hopes to create an effect in other characters with every move he makes. For Bialystock and Chichikov, life is a game, and the winner is whoever rakes in the most money.
For Brooks’s and Gogol’s protagonists, their final stand is a desperate lie- I’ll never do it again, mister, as long as I live– followed by an immediate turnaround into the greed that has fed the plot. Their flaws check every layer of Inferno. They overeat, they envy, they lust after younger blondes, they defraud, and they lie, and then they lie again. They stretch and tear the fabric of society in search of their share. Perhaps there is as much opportunity for comedy in immorality as in stupidity or incompetence. Perhaps, in the ideally comedic narrative, characters ultimately fail to resolve their flaws. Rather, their behavior will stray further from the straight path.
No wonder, it is known that Dead Souls itself is structured after Dante’s Comedia. Perhaps there is as much opportunity for comedy in immorality as in stupidity or incompetence. Laughter arises out the opposition or parody of our firmest ideas and beliefs, so brazen immorality succeeds in creating comedic effects. Life-changing sums are the objective of a long list of iconic characters in Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol. What does it mean to chase money? The humor of greed can be made to interact with the utmost extremes- there is no limit to how much one can hoard, and there no low humanity hasn’t touched for money. Or goods. Or access. No device is more apt than greed to lead characters to bizarre places, to deal with people they would never want to deal with, and to do things they would never do. Furthermore, a greedy buffoon can satirically represent a polyphony of perspectives, because a greedy buffoon will alter their word or beliefs- instantly and/or absolutely- to whatever position serves their interests. And they will flip their ideas with total sincerity, because they exploit ideologies with the sincere aim of the fortune they desire.
Greed is the protagonist’s or antagonist’s motive in every Brooks film except Young Frankenstein. That is because no scenario— not even a love chase— is more fertile for comedy than the chase of a vain fortune. There is nobility in love. There is nothing redeeming in greed. (Except, perhaps, in American narratives, which makes greed an even better engine for American satire.) If a star-crossed achieves their object, the audience breathes a sigh of relief, and they anticipate the end of the film. If a double-dealer achieves their object, the audience feels vindictive, and the end is only beginning. A downfall approaches. The plot opens with a dream of wealth. By the end, what money the pathetic characters do hold will vanish like a mirage.
For the misfortunes of a good comedy to fall on a sympathetic protagonist would simply be too much. The effect would drain, even depress. Bialystock and Chichikov are the mocking reversal of the hero. Bialystok, whispering into Bloom’s ear about cash and power as they gaze on Manhattan from the roof of the skyscraper, fulfills the role of Satan himself. An immoral, selfish protagonist creates room between tragedy and the tragedy of tragedy. Without this room, there is little laughter to be found in the misery. The ideal hero schleps the world’s burdens and serves the greater good. His good qualities make his tragedy cathartic, and his hamartia is an exception, a lesson in what a flaw is. My opinion is a bit willful, but I think the ultimate buffoon is the perfect opposite. Their likeable actions are the exception; they are selfish, manipulative, dishonest to no end.
There is also a sympathy to be felt for buffoons, even a near-perfect buffoon. A character can receive pity for their near-total corruption of integrity. Chichikov and Bialystok are simply pathetic. There is no self-awareness, or ironic sensibilities, in their begging. So the audience must supply a conscience for them, and therefore feel superior to the characters, and so there is no guilt felt laughing at their wicked behavior and their misfortunes.
The backwards fraudulence is not just formulaic comedy turning things on their head. The reversal of hierarchies and playing in the resultant chaos is a fundamental characteristic of the genre of Menippean satire, placing Brooks’ screenplay (which beat out Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the writing Oscar) in conversation with the world’s great works of satire. The tradition of Dante, Gogol and Dostoevsky in the Menippea was not valued in American academics until Bakhtin’s work was retranslated in the 1980s. Yet Brooks entered this tradition in 1968, a natural genius of comedy writing, and one built by Russian literature. And no artist was more personally important to Brooks than Gogol.
Joseph Puckett is a senior studying English literature and history. His creative and nonfiction writing can be seen from joeypuckett.com
Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, p. 102. University of Texas Press: 1982
Matt, The Bible, 4:5.