American comedy films in the 1960s tended to be holdover slapstick affairs by the likes of Blake Edwards or big, star-studded epics like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Great Race which were often pushing three hours long. There were darker, more dramatic comedies, like The Apartment, Dr. Strangelove, or The Graduate; all great movies, sure, but there was a big hole in the genre. That hole would be filled by a couple of former TV writers from New York who would add to the cinematic landscape a much-needed mixture of intelligence, bite, and rampant silliness. The second of these was Woody Allen, whose filmic importance began in earnest in the 1970s, but in 1968, the first of these writers-turned-directors set out to make what would become a turning point in New American Comedy – Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
Brooks had worked for many years as a writer and performer on television, contributing to Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and creating his own spy spoof, Get Smart, as well as recording the hit 2,000 Year Old Man albums with Carl Reiner. However, his creative endeavors couldn’t be contained to the small screen for long, and, after some wheeling and dealing, he was able to make his first feature film, on a miniscule budget. While not the best or most celebrated of Brooks’ films, The Producers is nevertheless the one that got the ball rolling and has proven, with a theatrical spinoff and subsequent film adaptation, to be his most successful. The original title for the project was Springtime for Hitler, which, of course, is the name of the fictional Broadway musical upon which the whole of the action rests, but Embassy Pictures producer Joseph E. Levine forbade it, citing that title would make the film as big a flop as the musical within.
So, what makes The Producers so special? In many ways it’s the template for the bit-based comedies that perpetuate Hollywood even today, taking a very basic premise and exploring it from points A to Z with vignettes along the way. Another part of it is Brooks’ trademark wit, with much of the humor being smart in a stupid way and stupid in a smart way. He always knows exactly who he’s skewering and how to cut right to quick of them: in this case, the “social elite” of the Broadway theatre scene and the rather sketchy and underhanded nature of a lot of showman-type producers.
A huge part of the film’s longevity comes from the bravura performances from its two leads, veteran stage and screen comedian Zero Mostel and relative newcomer Gene Wilder. Both are larger than life characters in completely opposite directions – Mostel as the scheming lowlife, yet strangely lovable, Max Bialystock, and Wilder as the painfully neurotic accountant-turned-idea man Leo Bloom. They play off of each other exceedingly well and created a real double act throughout the movie. This dynamic was replicated, to much less success, in 1974’s Rhinoceros, based on the play by Ionesco.
Mostel is a very forceful and imposing screen presence, not simply because he’s a rather large man, but through his ability to overpower just about everybody he acts with. It would have been easy to assume that he’d run roughshod over Wilder, who at this point had only done a few television productions and a dramatic turn in Bonnie and Clyde. However, one needs only look at the famous “Blue Blanket Breakdown” in The Producers to see that anything Mostel could dish out, Wilder could respond to with shrill, panicky aplomb.
Mostel and Wilder make for a solid centerpiece to the film, but they are surrounded by a whole cavalcade of memorable and increasingly-ridiculous side characters. From Kenneth Mars’ lunatic German playwright Franz Liebkind to Dick Shawn’s spaced-out actor Lorenzo St. DuBois (or L.S.D.) to Christopher Hewett’s excessively campy Roger De Bris, each of the film’s supporting cast members accentuate Brooks’ commitment to absurdity. In most comedies, someone would have to be the “straight man,” or the normal one upon whom all of the story’s craziness gets foisted, but there aren’t any here, really. Bialystock and Bloom definitely aren’t normal, but when we see them around the others, they suddenly become a lot saner.
The film also begins Brooks’ common thread of having a musical number about 66-75% of the way through the movie, if not more. Think of all the movies in Brooks’ canon – all the memorable ones, and even the ones you can’t remember that well, have a big song and dance number in them. From the vaudeville tradition, Brooks’ movies are variety shows where there’s something for everybody and it changes all the time so nothing gets boring. No matter how many songs he wrote, he will never top the majesty of “Springtime for Hitler,” the love theme from the eponymous flop in the making. Despite having almost no budget for a scene, Brooks and choreographer Alan Johnson were able to make the tiny stage look massive and have a Busby Berkley-style overhead shot of the dancers.
When the film was released, it got very mixed reviews and was met with incredibly harsh criticism from the New York press. This is testament to how much the film works. Brooks is, from beginning to end, lambasting the pompousness of the New Yorker, insinuating that they wouldn’t know a good play from a bad play, are overly touchy, and are eager to throw money at something just because other people like it. He’s essentially making fun of the very community that would want to see the film in the first place. Brooks isn’t a fool; he knows exactly what he’s doing. He just isn’t afraid to take aim at those he deems ridiculous.
And speaking of the people on Mel Brooks’ list to ridicule, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his most constant comedic punching bag: Adolf Hitler. This is the mid-‘60s, only 20+ years removed from World War II, and Brooks is a Jewish comedy writer; it only makes sense that he and others like him would want to send up the most evil man in history, right? Well, there hadn’t been all that many direct attacks on Hitler in the ensuing years. In fact, the crowd watching Springtime for Hitler in the theater have the same reaction most people of the time did about even the name Hitler. But Brooks, the genius he is, knew that to openly mock a person or subject most people think of as taboo immediately removes the weird reverence people have toward it. Having him played by Dick Shawn’s supremely loopy L.S.D. accentuates this, and people begin to laugh. Hitler was undoubtedly evil, but he was also just a stupid man who doesn’t need to continue to be feared.
Despite all the mixed critical reception, and somewhat lukewarm box office, the film got recognition from the statue-givers come awards season. The Producers was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1969; one for Best Supporting Actor for Gene Wilder and one for Best Original Screenplay for Brooks. While Wilder ultimately lost the prize, Brooks took home the statue. Writing awards are often where the Academy acknowledges the new and the risk-taking, and Brooks’ win meant that people were ready for a different kind of comedy, one that wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. It is a movie that has fraud, prostitution, drug use, overt homosexuality, and Nazism all depicted for comedic purposes, after all.
For Brooks, this was the beginning of his now-storied film career. He would be nominated for two more Oscars, both in 1975 for Adapted Screenplay for Young Frankenstein (shared with Wilder) and Original Song for the title tune in Blazing Saddles. He went on to write and direct ten more films between 1970 and 1995 and has become a Broadway producer himself with adaptations of several of his works, including the hugely successful stage version of this movie. He’s nothing short of a comedy legend, a pioneer of film comedy, and an auteur in the truest sense. People lived in a pre-Brooks world before The Producers; henceforth, they’d always know what they’d been missing.