The Film Canon: The Producers (1968)

Genre of the Day: Black Comedy

“Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder have a scene in “The Producers” where they roll on the floor so ferociously we expect them to chew on one another. Mostel is so manic and barbarian, Wilder so panicked and hysterical, you wonder why spit didn’t get on the camera lens. The whole movie is pitched at that level of frenzied desperation, and one of the many joys of watching it is to see how the actors are able to control timing and nuance even while screaming.”

– Roger Ebert

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Although I refer to a different scene in the film, I found out after writing the first paragraph of my review of Mel Brook’s classic black comedy, The Producers, that it was shockingly similar to the first paragraph of Roger Ebert’s review of the film of which was on his list of Great Movies. I not only wanted to show that I was not plagiarizing, but suggest that if I reached a similar opinion to that of Ebert’s then Mel Brooks did a great job connecting with the audience for this film.

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The sheer insanity that pours out of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the first 20 minutes of The Producers will prepare you for the rest of the film. It is interesting to note that the first 20 minutes of the film take place in roughly one location but remains wildly entertaining. The Producers is one of the most risky and bat-shit crazy movies to come out of the 60’s. It is also of the most influential comedies to come out of Hollywood. Period. In a time when Hollywood looked at comedy as a lesser art form, it is reassuring to know that something as clever as The Producers ever made it out of MGM.  Even if you or someone you know does not like this movie (I know many people who hate it), I doubt that you cannot at least find something you respect about this film. May it be the acting, the song and dance number, or the hilarious originality that would introduce the world to Mel Brooks.

For those of you who have not seen the film, I will keep the synopsis brief and spoiler-free. The Producers tells the story of an eccentric, once-famous Broadway producer named Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) ,who now funds his plays by romancing the money out of clueless old women. When a nervous accountant named Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) notices that Max actually overfunded his last play, he comes to a stunning realization. If Max were to overfund his next play enough and if it flopped, he would be able to pocket the extra money the play would not need. In short, he could become a very wealthy man. The criminal side of Max’s mind takes over, and he persuades nebbish Leo to help him produce  and overfund the worst play of all time. After searching through several plays, Leo and Max come across a happy little romp about the beginning of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich’s reign during the Second World War. Convinced this play is perfect, Max and Leo find the loopy German writer, hire the worst director possible, and cast a drugged-up hippy as Hitler, what could go right?

The premise already seems hilarious on its own; however the movie does the job of a good film by taking a great concept and keeping it great. Now when I say hilarious, I don’t mean that every scene will have you busting a gut with laughter (although it is likely that some will). No. I say hilarious because some of the twists and scenarios in the movie are so clever and bizarre that you will wonder how Brooks ever came up with it. Originality is not exactly dead in new films, but don’t lie to yourself. It is obvious that original films are far more scattered these days. Back in 1968, film was much more open and not only was The Producers one of the most original movies of its time but it is still one of the most original movies ever made. There is nothing else quite like it….except the musical if you want me to be literal.

The plot is not the only great thing about The Producers. There is so much to love about this movie, and the acting is just one of the many to love.  The excellent chemistry created from Zero Mostel’s manic energy and Gene Wilder’s nervous energy is a lot of fun to watch. The movie also understands how to make memorable and funny side-characters such as Kenneth Mars as the “America loving” Hitler fanatic, Franz Liebkind; Dick Shawn as the psychedelic wacko, L.S.D.; Christopher Hewett as the merely “flamboyant” Roger De Bris, the worst director on Broadway; and Lee Meredith as Ulla, the dancing German receptionist. These supporting characters are so memorable because the actors playing them have so much fun with their roles and have so much energy that they make it hard for a viewer to forget them.

Another great aspect of the film is, obviously, the humor. Part of why the humor in this movie works so well is its shock value. With scenes such as Lorenzo St. DuBois’s (L.S.D. for short) auditioning for the role of Hitler and the Springtime for Hitler song and dance number, the distaste is so over-the-top that you cannot help but wonder, “How did this movie even get made?” Mel Brooks is the king of making people wonder this. He has garnered controversy in the past for pushing the envelope on History of The World Part 1 and most infamously, Blazing Saddles. But unlike many envelope pushers who have good ideas that do not translate well to the screen like Clint Eastwood’s flawed adaption of Jersey BoysThe Producers pushes the envelope quite far and gets well deserved laughs as a result.

In scenes such as the Springtime for Hitler sequence (Mel Brooks did a similarly polarizing musical sequence about the Spanish Inquisition in History of The World Part 1), the reason that this movie first found a cult following then reached its more widespread reputation. I had an incredulous smile across my face during this scene, and the reaction from the audience in the film watching the show amplifies the hilarious distaste of the whole thing. It is distasteful, but in a enjoyable way, not an unpleasant way. You know what the worst thing about this scene is? The song is incredibly catchy! You will find yourself humming this song right after the movie is over, and this is the last song you want to be humming!

Out of context, so much of this movie could be seen as almost evil yet the context Brooks puts the material in not only makes it funny but makes you feel more and more that Max and Leo’s plan is going to work. Empathizing with character even when you know how greedy they are. Capable of making the audience relate to criminals? Check!

Moving on, the less noticeable jokes in The Producers that many people might miss are very amusing; it is best that viewer keep their eyes and ears on the look out. To help you out, one such jokes takes place right after the cramped elevator scene. This may not make sense now, but trust me, keep an eye out during this scene, and you will get an extra laugh.

The Producers is also a wonderfully satirical send-up of Broadway among other things. The suggestion that an audience will find a way to interpret even the worst of things and the moral that even with the best of plans that greed never wins, are some of the many satirical targets of Broadway. After you have seen the film’s ending, not everyone will agree with my second satirical reflection.

One problem I had with the movie is adversely a great thing about it: the length. It is a flaw because believe it or not, I think this movie could have been even longer. I loved the plot and would have wanted to see even more from it. Even though I say this, there is the distinct possibility that I am a hypocrite. If the movie had actually been longer, I probably would have said “make it shorter.” Who knows? But personally, I think a short movie that has all of the right pieces in play is better than a longer movie that has good parts however does not dazzle as a whole. At 1 hour and 28 minutes, The Producers is short, but it makes the absolute best of its time. I should mention that this film is the only interpretation of The Producers. The 2005 film version of the Broadway musical of The Producers starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, which was written by Brooks himself is about 45 minute longer. I have never seen it, and from what I have heard, it is decent but not as great as the original film. I am personally okay with never seeing it. I am satisfied enough by the original.

Although I may enjoy the pure and brilliant silliness of Brook’s Spaceballs and History of The World Part 1 (well at least parts of it) slightly more and Young Frankenstein is one of my favorite films, The Producer is not my personal favorite Mel Brooks movie but I still love it. The Producers is certainly best and most clever film of Brooks’ repertoire quality-wise. Although The Producers may be a bit dated, it is an important film. If it had been made now, it may have been even crazier but it would have left less of an impact. I am absolutely certain that if it were not for this movie, comedy in film would not be at the point it is at today.

Overview: The sheer outrageousness of the plot, filled with  biting satire, gleeful distaste, eccentric and excellent acting from the whole cast, a clever and funny script, a unique sense of humor, and a reasonable running time make The Producers a worthy classic and it is a whole lot of fun from beginning to end. 

Quality Scale: ★★★★★★★★★ (9 out of 10)

Entertainment Value: ★★★★★★★ (7 out of 10)

David has been with the Young Folks since the summer of 2012 as a writer. His favorite film is Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love and his favorite television show is Louie. You can contact him at david@theyoungfolks.com