How does one take a truly tasteless and utterly absurd premise and transform it into high art? Arguably, one doesn’t and/or cannot – except, of course, if the man behind the camera is Mel Brooks and the movie in question is The Producers (1968); a show within a show of such grotesque amusements, of so much ‘low’ to ‘no’ brow premised entertainment value other than to titillate, shock, revile and disgust, that oddly enough it cannot help but excel at frustrating the funny bone to wild-eyed distraction as an acidic farce. The Producers is raunchy, tawdry, ballsy good fun done deliberately in bad taste. That is, perhaps, the cream of its jest. The film is a sleeper wrapped inside the enigma of a flop, done much in the same way as the fictional producing team of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) are desperately hoping that their arrogant and insulting Broadway review - ‘Springtime for Hitler’ – will be a flop enraptured within the illusion of a hit. Unhappy chance for both schemers: their play is reinterpreted by the critics as a smash instead of the proverbial crash n’ burn.
All of this lovable nonsense begins on a seemingly harmless premise: a failed producer tired of striving to recapture his former glory decides instead to soak his investors for far more cash than is necessary to put on his show. But just in case anyone gets suspicious, a show will be produced – an unmitigated disaster of such epic proportions that it will surely close on opening night, thus affording Bialystock the opportunity to hightail it to Brazil with the remainder of his ill-gotten gains and live comfortably for the rest of his days on someone else’s money. Not a bad scheme, actually. Except that life never goes according to plan – particularly Bialystock’s – even under the most creatively disastrous of endeavors. Initially, Mel Brooks approached Joseph Levine and Embassy to fund his project. Levine agreed, but balked at Brooks wanting to call the film ‘Springtime for Hitler’. Together, they decided on the far more obsequious ‘The Producers’ – the play within the film retaining its Nazified lederhosen leitmotif.
Dustin Hoffman bowed out of the project just days before shooting was set to commence at New York’s Chelsea Studios. Brooks had suspected that Hoffman had his misgivings from the start, and also knew that the actor was gunning to be cast in Mike Nichols The Graduate, costarring Brooks’ wife, Ann Bancroft. Undaunted, Brooks plugged Kenneth Mars into the part instead. Today, it seems unlikely that Hoffman – as brilliant as he is – could have done it more justice. The Producers is about as down and dirty as movies get: Brooks’ penchant for taking the lowest road available as a means to his high concept results in some truly rambunctious idiocy. What makes the movie so funny is that all of its expulsion of crassness is deliberate – taking dead aim for the proverbial ‘kick in the crotch’ and never once missing the bull’s eye. Critics of the day didn’t quite get it and, regrettably, neither did whole portions of the audience.
Few perceived the delicious double-entendre under its obvious tongue-in-cheek pro-Nazi humor as anything more scathingly original than anti-Semitic demagoguery; the slum prudery of all but a handful of the U.S. critics seemingly without any sense of what constitutes a good old-fashion satire – albeit, one taken to extremes. The Producers is a movie that, in many ways, brutally challenges society’s moral code, more so in 1968 than it does today. Our contemporary slant on pop culture has all but shattered this code. In its absence The Producers today plays much more like a sick little in-joke, defiantly stamped out in its goose-stepping hip boots against a nearly forgotten or, at the very least misplaced sense of propriety that the movie played off of in 1968. Nevertheless, The Producers holds up because it remains irreverently religious in its thoroughness to insult. Yet, the film never talks down to its audience, and this, I suspect, is the real reason it has endured beyond its years and itself, inspiring a hit Broadway revival and another movie based upon that ever so slightly tweaked and revised experience.
We begin with harried Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel); a physically repugnant Broadway has-been whose current claim to fame is seducing rich elderly widows. The character is actually based on a real life producer that Brooks knew. On his last play Bialystock managed to sock away $2000 cash for his own private use, a minor fraud immediately detected by accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). Bialystock sweats out being reported until Bloom makes the astute observation that a producer could really make a killing if he ever decided to deliberately produce a flop instead of a hit – selling shares in the venture at a gross over-inflation of the production costs and thus pocketing the remainder of the money for private use. Since there’s never been an audit of a Broadway flop – presumably because there is no money to be had once the show’s premature closing has eaten up all of the profits – Bloom wisely deduces that the IRS would likely never discover the rouse.
Naturally, Bialystock is intrigued. After all, it would be just as easy for him to steal big as it has been to steal a little. Sensing Bloom’s minor enthusiasm and playing off of his lackluster lifestyle – insisting that he leads a fairly pointless and joyless existence – Bialystock convinces Bloom to partake in his naughty little plan. The boys will endeavor to produce the worst play Broadway has ever seen – so artistically void of any merit and done so resplendently as a gargantuan misfire that they will easily be able to close after one performance, taking all of their oversold shares to Rio De Janeiro to live happily ever after. Bloom initially has faith in the plot, but begins to chicken out, and thereafter has to be repeatedly goaded to remain a silent partner.
After perusing hundreds of truly idiotic scripts Bialystock and Bloom settle on the very bottom of the barrel: a bizarre musicalized love letter to Der Fuhrer written in earnest by diehard Nazi whack-job, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). The play, ‘Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden’ is signed over to Bialystock and Bloom and assigned to Roger De Bris (Christohper Hewett); a hack so inept at directing anything that his projects ‘close on the first day of rehearsals’. Bialystock and Bloom’s stroke of fractured inspiration continues when they cast semi-lucid flower child, Lorenzo St. Dubois - ‘L.S.D’ for short…get it? - (Dick Shawn) as their star. In fact, L.S.D. didn’t even know the pair was casting a show. He merely stumbled into their theater during rehearsals.
The plot turns even more severely rancid as the greedy Bialystock sells 25,000 % interest in the show to his regular gaggle of investors (a perverse bunch of elderly widows; the most joyously naughty played by Estelle Winwood). After some weeks of preparation, the boys have their debut. The critics and audiences are initially mortified by this buoyantly crass and grossly insensitive caricature wrapped in the trappings of a light musical comedy. The play really gets things rocking with its opening number – the goose-stepping ebullient showstopper ‘Springtime for Hitler’ (Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party). Everything is going according to plan. There’s a general electricity coursing through the packed house – suggesting that at any moment the audience will get up en masse from their seats and march out of the theater. But then a curious turn of events takes place. Suspecting the play to be a sublime counterculture farce the patrons instead settle in and begin to laugh hysterically.
Stunned, Bialystock and Bloom turn on one another; their incessant lamenting interrupted by the arrival of a gun-toting Franz Liebkind who is outraged by what the pair has done to his masterwork. Doing some fast talking – that includes taking the ‘Siegfried Oath’ – Bialystock and Bloom agree to blow up the theater in order to stop the show. In the resultant deluge all three conspirators are injured, caught and put on trial. On the witness stand Bloom lovingly refers to Bialystock as ‘the most selfish man I have ever met in my life’. The trio is, of course, convicted and sent to jail. They immediately go back into producing plays with their fellow inmates; Bialystock and Bloom overselling shares to the rest of the inmates and even the warden. As part of the finale, the trio performs ‘Prisoners of Love’ as the credits begin to roll.
The Producers is derisively tacky. That’s what makes it such a rarity and a treat to behold. Mel Brooks’ isn’t trying to be taken seriously. In fact, his natural affinity for asininity is working overtime herein. The performances are spot on ‘over the top’; the comedy imbued with such a vial streak of unabashed insolence it can only be taken at face value; to be embraced in all its offensive slurs and shock-value as a truly insane movie venture with perhaps no equal before or since. After screening the rough cut Embassy balked at releasing the movie – a distribution stalemate narrowly averted when Peter Sellers (who was a fan and friend of Mel Brooks), took out a private ad in Variety, stressing a wider distribution deal for the film.
Comedy is one thing. Black comedy, another. But The Producers plays very much like angry comedy. Its’ passionate embrace of the truly impertinent diverts to a more perverse subtext than any of the initial reviews written at the time by the critics gave the movie credit for. The underlay of Brooks’ movie isn’t about shock value per say – except superficially -, but rather in creating the aura of effrontery that in effect, points to just how shamelessly perverted popular opinion can be when deliberately faced with a very unpopular subject matter. The Producers is not high art. Then again, that was never its aim. And in achieving exactly the purpose set out at the start, Mel Brooks takes a sow’s ear to new heights of shameless pleasure. It’s still a sow’s ear that we get – but it’s arguably the one Brook’s intended us to appreciate all along. Art comes in many forms. The Producers leaves a stain rather than its mark on the collective consciousness and that’s exactly as it should be. This is one intentionally sick little joke indeed, blown into the most gargantuan laugh track of its generation. Three cheers.
I can’t really give Shout Factory’s Blu-ray the same. The Producers has never looked stellar on home video. Previous DVDs were always softly focused, grainy and suffering from a strange color implosion – not quite fading or even plagued by vinegar syndrome – but somehow off just the same. We’ll start by giving Shout’s Blu-ray top marks for re-framing the image in its proper 1:85.1 OAR. For some obtuse reason when MGM elected to do a SE DVD in 2004 they also chose an open matte full frame transfer – and this against their original 1:85.1 transfer done back in 1999. To quote Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady, “Logic…why is it never tried?” But I digress. Shout’s image is marginally crisper than MGM’s DVD and detail gets a bit more refined as a result of Blu-ray’s higher resolution. But what is with the warm colors?!?
On occasion, flesh tones are ruddy warm orangey/red. There’s also a persistent reddish hue throughout. Take for instance the moment when Franz meets Bialystock and Bloom in their loft. The background walls were stucco white (with a slight bluish tint) on the DVD. But they are now pale pinkish/red or ‘warm’ on the Blu-ray. Never having seen The Producers during its initial theatrical run I cannot in all good conscience say that either color rendering is correct. But herein colors seem too, too ‘warm’ to be accurate. Otherwise, contrast looks fairly solid (though a tad weaker than expected) and grain is thick – probably in keeping with the original film stock. Various shots also look a tad soft to my eyes, particularly around the edges. Again, did it look like this in theaters in 1968? Hmmmm. The audio has been remixed to stereo. We also get the original mono. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the re-channeled stereo – although being a purist I have to say the 2.0 mono was my preferred mode for viewing.
Extras have all been imported from MGM’s SE DVD and include the 90 minute ‘making of’ that is comprehensive to say the least. This presentation also adds an almost 20 minute featurette: Mel and His Movies. Three minutes of deleted scenes and Peter Sellers’ original Variety ad read by Paul Mazursky round out the extras. Bottom line: The Producers isn’t a great film. It is an exceptionally scathingly comical one and it has its’ following – particularly in our current age of extremely perverse cynicism. I enjoy it for its absurdity. Others might, in spite of it.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)