ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Producers (1967) dir: Mel Brooks Blu Ray (Studiocanal)
Where flop means success
Zero Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a Broadway theatre producer who is in dire financial straits after a string of financial flops. Things are so bad, in fact, that he has resorted to weaseling cheques out of old ladies in exchange for romantic favours. When anxiety-stricken accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) comes in to check his books, he finds a discrepancy: for one of the productions, he has fraudulently claimed $2,000 more from investors than its actual costs. Instead of doing the correct thing and reporting Bialystock to the authorities, however, Bloom is inspired to come up with a radical proposal: they raise $1 million for a production that would cost just $100,000. If it flops, then they can get government backing to keep the money. The main challenge is to assemble a production so spectacularly awful that it’s guaranteed to tank.
They find their perfectly imperfect script in the shape of Springtime for Hitler, a campy musical about der Führer which has been written by a crazed Nazi sympathiser named Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). They’ve also found the most ludicrously miscast Hitler imaginable: a hippie Flower Power singer who goes by the monicker of L.S.D. (played by Dick Shawn).
What could possibly go wrong - or, more accurately, right?
Watch a trailer:
Is it as funny as it has been made out to be?
The Producers was comedian Mel Brooks’s directorial debut. It is also widely regarded as one of his best films (if not his single best) as well as being one of the funniest comedy films of all time. Brooks also adapted it into a Broadway musical in 2001, before coming full circle and co-producing a big screen version of the latter in 2005. From a personal standpoint, however, I can’t help but feel that the original film is rather overrated, especially when looked at nowadays.
The whole notion of an unscrupulous producer scamming investor cash in order to live off the backings of flops - only to come a cropper when they make an accidental hit - is a fantastic one which was actually based on Brooks’s own recollections of a certain unnamed figure in the business. The overall culmination of this idea (a ludicrously cheesy and misjudged musical about Adolf Hitler) makes for a truly hilarious punchline. The trouble is that it feels like one great joke stretched out to feature length via lots of desperate attempts to milk easy laughs on the way.
Much of the comedy here is of the type that relies on loud (by which I mean, literally shouting), overacted and often dated stereotypes. Camp gay, androgynous costume designers? Check. A German who wears a WWII helmet, has a crazed devotion to Hitler and shouts practically every line of dialogue? Check. A hot blonde Swedish secretary who is practically useless for everything apart from go-go dancing on cue when Bialystock tells her to “get to work”? Check. An accountant so wimpish and neurotic that he carries his comfort blanket from childhood around with him everywhere? Check. An exuberant, brassy, larger-than-life theatre mogul? Check. Things which might have had people rolling in the aisles back in 1967 now look passé and even casually derogatory on grounds of race, gender or orientation.
The best bit of the film is the final third which concentrates on the auditions for the show as well as its fateful first night. Dick Shawn is very funny here as the drawling, laughably overblown hippie who ends up being cast in the central Hitler role. The Springtime for Hitler musical number is a gaudy, kitschy Busby Berkeley-style highlight choreographed by Alan Johnson, who would work with Brooks regularly through the years. The bemused audience reaction shots add a lot to the comedy. Even the otherwise grating Franz Liebkind character (played by Kenneth Mars) has his moment in the spotlight. It’s a pity that getting to this part of the film is a bit of a slog.
Runtime: 89 mins
Dir: Mel Brooks
Script: Mel Brooks
Starring: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars, Lee Meredith, Andréas Voutsinas, Christopher Hewett
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Despite the 4K restoration, the image is surprisingly blurry at times. At other points, however, it looks great, its vivid Pathécolor visuals providing a suitably nostalgic appeal. Those yellow wallpapers look incredibly sunny here. Audio quality is all good; Springtime for Hitler sounds warm and silky smooth here.
Q & A with Mel Brooks and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz from the TCM Classic Film Festival 2018
Ben is the grandson of Herman J. Mankiewicz (who co-wrote Citizen Kane) and grand-nephew of classic Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Brooks is in remarkable shape considering that he’s now 92. They discuss the casting of The Producers. Zero Mostel apparently hated the script but Brooks, cannily, decided to send it to his wife - who then apparently told him that she would file for divorce if he didn’t take the part. He had initially cast Dustin Hoffmann in the role of Liebkind but, ironically, he had to back out because he landed the part playing the main protagonist in The Graduate opposite Brooks’s then-wife Anne Bancroft.
The Making of The Producers
This is a wonderful 63-minute documentary from 2002. Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Andréas Voutsinas, choreographer Alan Johnson, assistant director Michael Hertzberg, composer John Morris, production designer Charles Rosen and casting director Alfa-Betty Olsen are all interviewed here. The droll Brooks is, of course, the highlight. However, it should be commented on that Lee Meredith had (at the time when this doc was made) managed to remain remarkably youthful-looking and in able dancing physique 25 years following the film’s release.
There are lots of great anecdotes and recollections here. Universal almost agreed to greenlight it but would only do so if Hitler was replaced with the slightly less taboo figure of Mussolini. In the end, Brooks managed to convince Joseph E. Levine to produce the film instead. According to Wilder, Kenneth Mars was as crazy off-camera as he was on. The Springtime for Hitler sequence was shot in one day - an incredibly short timescale when we consider that those classic Hollywood musical numbers typically took a week to pull together. The film initially looked like it would be a major flop (Brooks makes the tongue-in-cheek remark that the premiere was attended by a handful of people involved in its making plus a drunk bag lady passed out on the 4th row) and was generally panned by critics. However, when it ended up being screened at Peter Sellers’ film club as an on-the-spot replacement for Fellini’s I Vitelloni, the iconic English comedian loved it so much that he put an advertisement for it in Variety the following day. It went on to become a major word-of-mouth hit and resulted in Brooks winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay and Wilder being nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Paul Mazursky reads Peter Sellers ad
Actor/writer/director Mazursky reads out the advertisement which Sellers put in Variety after watching it.
Tempo episode with Zero Mostel
This is an episode of the 1960s British arts TV series featuring an interview with the zany Zero on the set of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a film which he made in Spain with fellow comedian Phil Silvers and director Richard Lester. He also discusses his work as a theatre actor, painter and a nightclub comic who specialises in impersonating inanimate objects(!) While I’m not particularly into his unusual brand of humour, this is an interesting exhumation from the archives nonetheless.
Deleted scene - Playhouse outtakes
We get to see some extra footage which was removed from the film’s climax because Mel Brooks felt that it went on for too long.
An image gallery and trailer round out the extras.
While I’ll probably get lots of hate for this review, I don’t think The Producers quite warrants its reputation. However, if you love the film then it’s a recommended package thanks largely to its weight of extras.