Producers, The (1968)

“Read, read! We’ve got to find the worst play ever written!”

Synopsis:
Unscrupulous theatrical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) conspires with nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) to make money by producing a guaranteed flop entitled “Springtime for Hitler”, written by a neo-Nazi (Kenneth Mars) and featuring a middle-aged hippie named LSD (Dick Shawn) as Hitler. Their plan to pocket the investment money donated by gullible elderly women is foiled, however, when audience members unexpectedly view their musical as a brilliant satire rather than tasteless trash.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is decidedly unenamored with this cult comedy by Mel Brooks, arguing that its “major strength” is “its clever premise”. He notes that “Max and Leo are too sweet to corrupt themselves in such a manner”, and further defends this assertion in his more extensive Cult Movies review, where he argues that “likable Max isn’t sinister enough and likable Leo isn’t corruptible enough” to sink to the depths of producing an “homage to Hitler”. In GFTFF, he further posits that “those people who start to walk out on Springtime would not return to their seats when LSD appears” on stage, given that “those who think the play is offensive… wouldn’t think a hippie Hitler is funny”. Meanwhile, Peary complains that while “Max would seem to be the ideal role for Zero Mostel”, he “looks uncomfortable whenever anyone else is dominating a scene and, like the most unskilled, insecure amateur, resorts to mugging to get attention”.

While I’m far from a diehard Brooks fan — and agree in general with Peary’s complaint (in Cult Movies) that he tends to “equate innovation with simply breaking taboos” — I don’t share Peary’s sentiments about Brooks’ anarchic debut film, which remains bitingly humorous throughout most of its quickly-paced running time. I don’t find Max and Leo “too sweet” to pull off a scheme like this (they each have their reasons for conspiring in the plan), and I believe Mostel’s over-the-top, iconic performance as Bialystock is spot-on. I’ll admit that my interest in the storyline begins to wane once Shawn hits the stage, wowing the fictional audience with his “flower power” rendition as Hitler, given that I find his aged-hippie character dated and not really all that funny. But this somehow suits the arc of the film perfectly, given that we’re meant to be thrown off balance when Max and Leo’s plans go so horribly awry (they don’t find Shawn funny, either). While not all scenes are consistently humorous — I could do without the silly, sexist inclusion of “Ulla” (Lee Meredith) as Max and Leo’s token blonde secretary, for instance — the balance is clearly in favor of scenes that “work”, making The Producers an enjoyably outrageous comedy that film fanatics won’t want to miss.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock
  • Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom
  • Estelle Winwood as “Hold Me Touch Me” (in the hilarious opening credit sequence)
  • Max and Leo’s initial encounter with Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and Carmen Ghia (Andréas Voutsinas)
  • Brooks’ cleverly satirical script
  • The audaciously tasteless “Springtime for Hitler” production number

Must See?
Yes, naturally, as a certified comedy classic.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Producers, The (1968)”

  1. This is what I wrote last night at Film Junkie, after seeing the blu-ray release:

    “Mel Brooks had a very strange career in film. He made 3 movies that (overall) work rather well – and then 8 that really don’t work much at all. He stopped making movies 10 years ago, but then went on to major success by turning ‘The Producers’ into a Broadway musical. Looking at the original film again, it’s not hard to see what works and what doesn’t. Luckily most of it works – thanks largely to the remarkable Zero Mostel and his dependable sad sack sidekick Gene Wilder. They are just wonderful together. Some of the lines are still very funny (a sequence that still floors me is the auditions held for ‘the worst play ever written’ – those guys are hilarious) but there’s a fair amount that creaks (i.e., poor Dick Shawn as the actor playing Hitler). Estelle Winwood is delightfully shameless early on as the best of the little old ladies. And almost running away with the film are Christopher Hewett as Roger De Bris and Andreas Voutsinas as his, um, man-servant Carmen Ghia. (Along with Mostel and Wilder, you just have to watch the faces of Hewett and Voutsinas and you’re likely to smile.) This was a low-budget film, so the blu-ray is not going to accent how much money was behind it – but it does give a real lift to the iconic ‘Springtime for Hitler’ sequence and the upgrade is a general plus overall.”

    I learned from a DVD extra that the Mostel character was based on someone Brooks knew professionally – a producer who was also in the habit of trying to get money out of old ladies.

    I wouldn’t say that I think ‘The Producers’ is among the great comedy classics, but it’s enjoyable enough for what works in it…and the performances (as I noted) make it must-see viewing.

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