I suspect most people have their go-to movies—the ones that you never get tired of watching, that you know will always lift your spirits, that you can basically recite line-for-line. The top of my go-to list is occupied by Mel Brooks’ 1967 comic masterpiece The Producers, which won writer/director Brooks an Oscar for the screenplay. If you only know this title from the 2001 musical adaptation (no slouch itself, as it won 12 Tony Awards and ushered in the age of the $500 theater ticket), you owe it to yourself to check out the original. With just one warning up front—if you’re easily offended, this may not be the show for you.
In case you’ve been living in a cave for longer than the pandemic, The Producers is built around the schemes and machinations of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), who raises money by romancing old ladies and getting them to invest in the Broadway shows that he produces. The shows are always terrible, but that’s by design: Max sells far more than 100% of his shows in shares, and if a show was, God forbid, any good and actually made a profit, it would be impossible to pay off all the backers. As long as Max produces flops, however, and engages in a little creative bookkeeping, he can continue to raise more than he uses to put on the show, declare a loss, and keep the difference. It’s not exactly the road to riches—Max tells us early on that he’s wearing a cardboard belt—but he presses on in this peculiar enterprise the way a caged hamster runs on its little wheel to nowhere.
Max needs some help in the accounting department, so into his world comes the meek Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who suggests a way Max can improve his business operations. To carry it off, they have to find the worst playwright in the world, the worst director in the world, and the worst actor in the world—which they discover in the persons of Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), Roger De Bris (Chrisopher Hewitt), and Lorenzo St. DuBois, a.k.a. L.S.D. (Dick Shawn). The show they create is called Springtime for Hitler, and it’s an absolute masterpiece of bad taste. So a sure-fire flop, right?
I don’t love everything Mel Brooks does, and I don’t like everything that Zero Mostel did, but they perfectly complement each other in this film, which has an actual plot rather than being a series of sketches, and in which it’s impossible for Mostel to play larger than his character requires. It’s also a very New York film, from the little tour of central Manhattan Max uses to seduce Leo to the dueling conversations Max and his landlord (Shimen Ruskin, who got his start in the Yiddish Theatre) have with the Almighty. We only see bits of the stage performance of Springtime for Hitler (music and lyrics by Brooks), but they’re hilarious in their awfulness (Barney Martin, best known as Jerry Seinfeld’s fictional dad, plays Hermann Göring). And there are heartfelt moments as well, most notably a speech Leo gives near the end of the film, which demonstrates that Brooks has more range than you might have expected. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Producers is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a commentary track by film historian Michael Schlesinger, a making-of documentary (63 min.), an outtake of the (spoiler alert!) bomb scene (3 min.), a sketch gallery, a video of Paul Mazursky reading Peter Seller’s statement on the film (he liked it), a radio spot advertising the film, and trailers for this and six other films.