1968 - PG - 88 Mins.
|Director: Mel Brooks|
|Producer: Mel Brooks|
|Written By: Mel Brooks|
|Starring: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars, Estelle Winwood |
|Review by: John Ulmer
"How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?"
As a screenwriter, one of my primary influences -- in terms of comedy -- has always been Mel Brooks. I was not familiar with his early work until recently, although I was familiar with their existence. As most viewers, I was introduced to Brooks through his comedy "Spaceballs," bashed by critics upon its initial release in 1987 but followed by adamant fans to this day. And after watching "Spaceballs" on network TV for years on end, I finally got the chance to see his earlier works of comedy, which are much harder to find broadcast on television these days.
Brooks is famous for his slapstick comedy, but I was astonished to find that "The Producers" is cleverer than anything else. This is Brooks' first mainstream film, and it remains one of his best.
Perhaps the most flat-out ironic film of all time, Mel Brooks' "The Producers" (1968) is a film by a director who has not yet perfected the art of constant hysterical laughter, but a director who is at the peak of his 40-year + career in terms of scriptwriting. Brooks' later films, including "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" and "Spaceballs," had more laughs but less irony and strong scriptwriting. In terms of plot and irony, and not actual laughs, "The Producers" is Brooks' finest achievement.
Don't make a mistake sitting down to watch "The Producers." This isn't the frequent, laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy that Mel Brooks' "Spaceballs" (1987) is. It isn't the clever spoof that "Young Frankenstein" was. But it is a very funny comedy, with great classic moments and some scenes so joyously outrageous; you just have to see them to believe them.
Zero Mostel (credited during the end credits as simply "Zero") plays Max Bialystock, a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer struggling to get by on his own terms. To survive, Max cheats old women out of money just to afford his apartment rent, offering them strange sexual games for payments. (The opening credits with Max and a band of old women are subtly suggestive and quite disturbing -- don't be put off by it.)
Gene Wilder plays Leo Bloom, his worrywart accountant. After walking in on Max during one of his strange affairs, Leo checks Max's records and finds that Max earned $2,000 more than he earned on his last flop. And so the two hatch up a crazy plan that just might work -- over finance a total failure of a play, and keep the extra cash for themselves.
And so begins their quest to find the absolute worst play of all time -- a play destined to bomb on Broadway. And they soon find "Springtime for Hitler," written by a neo-Nazi playwright named Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), who prances about with German World War II attire and is frightened when Max and Leo approach him, afraid that they might be taking him away to jail. He starts to sing The National Anthem.
Max and Leo find the absolute worst Broadway director, a homosexual transvestite (Christopher Hewitt), and assign him the task of handling the play. He loves it, and accepts the job, but first he addresses a problem. The Germans lose the war in the script. That's sad. He'll have to change the ending. Perfect, they think.
The long-awaited scene, in which their travesty, "Springtime for Hitler," is unleashed upon the public, is a bold movie even by today's standards -- only Mel Brooks and the Farrelly Brothers could ever get away with such an idea. Watching a band of Nazis form lines and dance about is gut-busting enough, but the sight of Hitler (Dick Shawn), a hippie with a moustache, is just outrageous.
I think that part of the success of "The Producers" is the casting of its two leads, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Mostel was a dramatic actor at the time, familiar with small roles on television and a few minor supporting roles. Here he is a bumbling, energetic fool, with such a sense of frenetic hyperactivity that his weight seems not to hinder his inner energy.
Gene Wilder (who stole the show for me) was hardly a major star by this time, either. Leo Bloom, in "The Producers" was his breakthrough role, and he teamed up with Brooks for years to come. This is one of his finest performances, and the famous beginning sequence that introduces his problems with insecurity and hysterics is classic. ("I'm hysterical! I'm having hysterics!" Water is thrown on him. "I'm hysterical and I'm wet!" He is slapped. "I'm in pain! I'm in pain, and I'm wet! And I'm still hysterical!")
In regards to "The Producers," Roger Ebert wrote, "This is one of the funniest movies ever made." I can't say I agree. In terms of laugh-out-loud laughter, the film seems tame. It is dated. But while it may no longer be as raunchy or hysterical as it was in 1968, "The Producers" is certainly one of the most ironic and smartest comedies of all time, and for that it deserves extraordinary credit.