Mel Brooks burst onto the filmmaking scene in 1967 with his raucous satirical comedy “The Producers”. It was his big screen debut as writer and director. After a wild variety of initial reactions, “The Producers” would eventually earn Brooks an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Not a bad way to start your moviemaking career.
“The Producers” started as a joke, moved to a play and ended up a movie. Initially it was a tough sell for Brooks who had a difficult time finding backers amused by his melding of Hitler and a musical. Once funded Brooks was given $1 million and 40 days to finish his movie. He pulled it off but not without some bumps along the way which mainly stemmed from Brooks’ inexperience as a director. After release initial reviews were all over the map including some that ripped the film to shreds. Yet it still won an Oscar and over time “The Producers” has gained a much more positive following.
As nutty as they are, the film’s two lead characters are based on actual real-life inspiration. Washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) stays afloat by duping wealthy elderly women into supporting his “next big production”. But with his well running dry, he solicits the help of a neurotic and gullible accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). The two concoct a wacky plan to make the worst play possible. Max will oversell the shares, Leo will doctor the books, the play will bomb, and the swindled money will be theirs. What could go wrong?
The desperate and dimwitted duo begin by seeking out the worst possible script. They find it in “Springtime for Hitler”, a musical love letter to the Führer sincerely written by a loony ex-Nazi (played by Kenneth Mars). Next they hire a notoriously bad director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) who has a long history of Broadway flops. Finally the lead role of Hitler is given to Lorenzo Saint DuBois, a trippy hippie who fittingly goes by L.S.D. All the pieces are in place for a sure-fire disaster.
Brooks takes this goofy band of misfits through the play’s production and eventually opening night. The entire concept screams absurdity and one of the great things about “The Producers” is that it can be delightfully tasteless in its humor. Not crass or vulgar, but unashamedly politically incorrect. It’s almost prodding people to be outraged while at the same time ridiculing the very thing which stirs them up. Lines like “We’re marching to a faster pace. Look out, here comes the master race.” and “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty! Come and join the Nazi Party!” only touches the surface. But it’s all done in such a preposterous fashion it’s impossible not to laugh out loud.
And you can’t say enough about the comic chemistry between Mostel and Wilder. In some scenes Brooks takes off their leashes and lets them run wild. There are moments where it can be a bit much (and a bit loud), yet at the same time it’s fascinating to watch – the deviously deceptive Mostel and always nervous Wilder bouncing their lines off each other. Most important it’s really funny and it serves as a nice introduction to the brand of zaniness Mel Brooks would share over the three decades that would follow.
VERDICT – 4 STARS