Director: Mel Brooks
Screenplay: Mel Brooks
Starring: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Dick Shawn, Christopher Hewett, Andréas Voutsinas, Estelle Winwood
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The success story behind The Producers is an interesting one. Its premier was a disaster and Embassy, the studio behind it, considered shelving it. However, if you believe the story provided in the special features, Peter Sellers (who was reportedly down to play Gene Wilder’s role at one point) happened to watch it at a small party after the film they intended to watch hadn’t been brought. He loved what he saw and promptly placed an advert in Variety praising the film. This led to a wider release and The Producers ended up doing fairly well despite some mixed reviews, even winning an Oscar for its script and garnering a Best supporting Actor nomination for Gene Wilder. Since then it has gradually grown in stature and was even listed at number 11 in the AFI’s list of the greatest American comedies of all time.
That wasn’t the end of the story though. In 2001, The Producers’ writer/director Mel Brooks adapted his story into a broadway musical which was a huge success, leading to another film in 2005 based on the musical rather than the original script and featuring the original broadway show stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. So this low budget wacky comedy from a first time director, once deemed too bad taste for public consumption, went on to become a cultural phenomenon of sorts.
On the 50th Anniversary of the original film’s release, Studiocanal have gone back to the source and re-released The Producers on Blu-Ray, DVD and EST in the UK. I got my hands on a disc and revisited this old favourite I’d not seen for at least 15 years.
The Producers sees Zero Mostel play Max Bialystock, a washed up broadway producer who’s reduced to seducing elderly ladies to fund his plays. He finds a way out though when his accountant, Leopold “Leo” Bloom (Gene Wilder), discovers a way he can make a fortune by raising far too much money for a production that is so bad it closes instantly. So the pair set out to make the worst play of all time. Finding a script called ‘Springtime for Hitler’ written by a crazed Nazi (Kenneth Mars), Bialystock and Bloom put to work the worst director (Christopher Hewett) and lead actor (Dick Shawn) they can find to ensure failure/success. It seems like they’ve executed everything flawlessly, but things don’t go according to plan after the curtain goes up on ‘Springtime for Hitler’.
I find it quite difficult to review comedies as their success lies largely on how funny they are and this is a difficult quality to measure, describe or prove. All I can say is that I still find the film hilarious. The script is loaded with quotable zingers that are rattled off at a furious rate. This energy is kept going by a superb cast. Mostel is a huge presence, both literally and figuratively, bearing down on the timid Wilder who is at his nervous best in this role which helped make him a star. They are the film’s rocks, but the supporting cast are equally as memorable, and even wilder. Each scene is amped up to eleven with the larger than life cast members doing all they can to split your sides.
This crazy energy keeps the film blazing along, when in fact there aren’t that many scenes and the story itself is pretty drawn out when you break it down. Although the idea of the story is clever (in a ridiculous way), the actual narrative structure is very basic and to be honest the end is a little weak.
The film’s peak and climax, which comes before the actual finale, is incredible though. I’m talking of course of the play ‘Springtime for Hitler’ itself, particularly the opening musical number which is a wonderfully bad taste pastiche of Busby Berkley musicals. It remains one of the most jaw droppingly audacious and hilarious set pieces in American comedy.
I guess you could call the film bad taste, particularly in today’s careful climate. However, watching again now I felt the jokes, whilst intentionally shocking, were never maliciously aimed at anyone (other than the Nazis perhaps). I guess the objectifying of Bialystock and Bloom’s Swedish secretary wouldn’t pass muster these days and there are some crude stereotypes of homosexuals in the roles of Roger De Bris and his assistant. However, aspects like these are a sign of the times and the characters and world they inhabit is so over the top and zany they don’t feel insulting (to my eyes at least).
So yes, some elements may have dated and, as mentioned, the film doesn’t end quite as successfully as it builds, but for the most part it’s an incredibly funny and wildly madcap ride with an exceptional cast and a fresh faced director who demonstrated a knack for brilliantly controlled chaos right off the bat. Mel Brooks made a few great comedies in his career, but this, his low budget debut, remains one of his best.
The Producers is out on 10th September in a 50th Anniversary Blu Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds fantastic. The picture is detailed and colourful, yet natural looking. You get the original mono and a 5.1 mix for audio options. I listened to the 5.1 mix and it came through nicely.
There are a handful of extra features included too:
– Q&A with Mel Brooks and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz from the TCM Classic Film Festival 2018
– Tempo episode with Zero Mostel
– Making of The Producers
– Paul Mazursky reads Peter Sellers ad
– Sketch gallery slideshow
– Deleted Scenes
– Soundtrack Spoofs
– New The Producers trailer
It’s a mixed bag of features. The soundtrack spoofs and Peter Sellers ad reading are rather throwaway. The Temp episode is quite unusual, but provides an interesting look at Zero Mostel the performer, even if he’s still hiding behind his wild-eyed mask. The Q&A is entertaining though, showing that Brooks still has a great amount of energy for a 90-odd year old man. The ‘making of’ is a decade or so old by the looks of things, but is fairly lengthy, running about an hour, and is entertaining and loaded with anecdotes.