The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE PRODUCERS (1968) | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE PRODUCERS (1968)

the producers review
A producer and an accountant concoct a scam to make a fortune by producing the world's worst play.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Mel Brooks

Starring: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Estelle Winwood, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars, William Hickey, Lee Meredith

the producers 50th anniversary poster

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Mel Brooks' feature debut, The Producers, returns to UK/ROI cinemas for one day only (see what they did there?) on August 5th. The film has undergone a 4K restoration and the screenings will feature a pre-recorded intro by Brooks himself.

Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein may be more beloved by comedy fans, but of all Brooks' films, The Producers has arguably had the greatest cultural impact, spawning a Broadway musical in 2001 - which played for a lot more than one night only - and a movie adaptation of said production in 2005.

the producers review

Corpulent Catskills comic Zero Mostel chews the scenery as Max Bialystock, a once successful Broadway producer now reduced to bedding elderly women in order to finance his failing productions. While auditing Bialystock's cooked books, nervous nebbish accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) remarks how a Broadway producer could make more money from a flop that closes on opening night than from a long running hit, as the IRS wouldn't bother investigating a flop. Bialystock takes the off the cuff remark seriously, and pointing out how pathetic his life is, convinces Bloom to join him in putting together the worst production ever staged on Broadway.

The search for the world's worst play leads Bialystock and Bloom to discover 'Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden' a musical tribute to Der Führer penned by crazed ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). After hiring hack director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and acid casualty lead actor Lorenzo Saint DuBois, aka 'LSD' (Dick Shawn), it seems the play is doomed to fail. But when the audience begins to enjoy the on-stage atrocity in a 'so bad it's a comic masterpiece' way, it seems Bialystock and Bloom have hit success when they so badly desired failure.

With his debut, Brooks hit on something that hadn't really been expressed in popular culture at that point. That is, the idea that a piece of terrible art can be enjoyed ironically. In the decades since, we've seen the emergence of the 'cult' movie, with fans packing revival houses to shed tears of laughter at the ineptitude of cinematic disasters like The Room and Troll 2. In this age of cheap digital filmmaking, we frequently see opportunistic producers pulling a Bialystock with movies custom designed to be treated as 'awful but enjoyable' - just look at the all too knowing Sharknado and its many SyFy channel clones.

the producers review

The strand of Brooks' film most likely to rankle modern viewers' sensibilities is undoubtedly the gay panic humour mined from Hewett's cross-dressing, camp as Butlins, Roger De Bris, so it's easy to forget just how controversial the Nazi element of The Producers was at time of release. Just over two decades after the full horror of the Holocaust had been revealed, the idea of laughing at those responsible for such atrocities wasn't something Hollywood financiers wanted to touch. Brooks raised most of his budget from Wall Street tycoon Louis Wolfson, who saw value in attacking fascism through comedy.

You can argue that the film makes light of the Nazi regime, but this is very much a case of a group of Jewish entertainers using their art to attack Hitler in the best way they can. There's a striking and telling moment when following a meeting with raving Nazi Liebkind - during which Bialystock and Bloom are forced to feign sympathy with his worldview - the two Jewish New Yorkers throw the Swastika armbands he made them wear into a trash can, pausing to spit on the offending garments. Brooks may be mining laughs from fascism - and may be the first artist to note the camp value of the leather S&M regalia of Nazism - but there's a quiet anger bubbling under the surface of his debut.

For a directorial debut, The Producers is remarkably assured, with Brooks proving a natural fit with the cinematic tools of screen comedy. His blocking of camera and actors, often in confined spaces like small offices, is masterful, with both camera and actors always in the optimum position to get the right laugh at the right time, and he shows an adept use of editing to provoke laughter - a cut from a mid-shot to a wide-shot of Lorenzo Saint DuBois to reveal his outrageous garb might be the comedy genre's equivalent of the much lauded 'match cut' from Laurence of Arabia.

the producers review

Along with Brooks, The Producers introduced movie-goers to another soon-to-be comic legend in Wilder. Described by Bialystock as "fish-faced", Wilder was far from Hollywood's idea of a leading man, but few actors have graced the screen with such natural charm. Without such an endearing personality to offset the abrasive sleaziness of Mostel's Bialystock, it would be a lot more difficult for an audience to get behind the protagonists of Brooks' film.

Some elements of The Producers haven't aged well, and a few of the gags might come off a little cheesy today, but on aggregate it still offers more laughs per minute than 99% of the glorified sitcoms that constitute the modern Hollywood comedy, and watching a pair of Jews spit on a Swastika still has as much resonance today as five decades ago; perhaps even more so.

The Producers is in UK/ROI cinemas for one day only August 5th.