The Producers (1968) 50th Anniversary Re-Release Review
Mel Brooks' classic comedy returns for a curtain call.
What more can possibly be written about The Producers? Comedy, crowdpleaser, classic, Mel Brooks’ film is all of these and more, as well as the perfect example of the power of a great script, perfectly executed.
On its 50th anniversary, it is being rereleased in a new 4K restoration, and the film has never looked, or sounded better. But time, for comedies especially, can often be a curse, and The Producers emerges at a point where mainstream comedy cinema is often more pre-occupied with gross out and foul language, than nuance and clever wordplay. So how does it hold up?
Surprisingly well, and a lot of this is down to the tight as a drum plot. For the uninitiated, the story revolves around a down on his luck theatre producer named Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), who, along with his accountant, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), discovers that he could potentially make a fortune from producing a flop on Broadway, by conning investors into thinking that the show is a sure thing, only to have it fold after one night, and keeping the money they have invested in it.
The show they decide upon is a musical celebrating the Third Reich, titled Springtime for Hitler, a production so insanely ridiculous in its concept, that it couldn’t possibly be anything other than a disaster. Of course, the audiences love it and the show becomes a hit, leaving Bialystock and Bloom with a major, investor shaped problem on their hands, and a very real threat of imprisonment for fraud.
There aren’t many mainstream comedies that could get away with a rape joke in the first five minutes, but then Mel Brooks could wring humour from almost any subject, no matter how taboo. This is the man, after all, who was able to craft a genuinely intelligent critique of the lie of the old west, and the African American’s place within it, into a film that featured farting cowboys, so the notion of satirising Nazis through the medium of musical theatre shouldn’t seem like a stretch.
Brooks would mine such material throughout his career, particularly in his reworking of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, but no one film in his canon, bar perhaps Blazing Saddles would utilise a concept with more precision, garnering an academy award as best screenplay for its troubles.
If the film has developed any problems over the years, it’s that it is admittedly dated. The gags are, mainly verbal, delicious dialogue driving the plot forward, establishing character and allowing pun after pun to fly around Bialystock’s office like confetti.
Character is everything here, and Brooks played a blinder in his casting of the two leads. Zero Mostel’s shyster, was the perfect foil for a man of his talents. Equally at home with physical humour as he was with wrapping dialogue around his splendidly old school, comedic sensibilities. He was such a presence onscreen that, despite his characters money driven motivations, that gleam in his eye made it impossible not to root for him. His performance here is sly, but never cruel, and there are many moments in which he seamlessly breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at us, selling the films many absurdities with a smile.
Meanwhile, Wilder is neurosis personified, both adorable and utterly unbalanced. There was always something just so inherently funny about the man. That mess of untamed hair, his physicality (always looking as if he was on the verge of bolting for the door), that voice, both sweet and gentle, but capable of outbursts that would shock. It reminds us that not only would he become Brooks’ alter ego on film, but that he was quite simply the finest comedic actor of his generation, capable of delivering pathos, lunacy, anger and hilarity, with a single glance.
The pace of the film is, admittedly, slower than modern audiences may be used to, and often scenes are stretched to the point where, plot wise, they are redundant, but then Brooks is only teasing his audience, fully aware that Springtime for Hitler is our reward.
And what a reward it is, giving the audience a Busby Berkley spectacle, replete with goose-stepping can-can dancing, and the now immortal line, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party.”
Perhaps the biggest sign of its age is in its sexual politics, which are all over the place. Women are either objects or meal tickets (or both). But the women only strengthen the story’s message of men as losers, hopelessly inadequate and fixated on money and getting laid.
Incidentally, The Producers would later become a smash hit musical in its own right, on Broadway (delicious irony if ever there was one), and the film was remade in 2005, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, as well as beefing up a part for Uma Thurman. Yet, hers was a thankless part, in which she had little to contribute, so perhaps Brooks’ first instincts were right.
And if nothing else, this perception of women allows us to revel in Wilder’s exquisite awkwardness when faced with, as Mostel puts it, “Swedish tease” Ulla, their gorgeous secretary, played by Lee Meredith.
Taken in the context of cinema history, The Producers takes its rightful place amongst the all-time great comedies. No mean feat from a film maker who also gave us Young Frankenstein (or Fronkensteen ), Blazing Saddles and Silent Movie. 50 years on, it’s only right to bring the curtains back up and let him take another bow.
The Producers 50th Anniversary 4K Restoration will be in selected cinemas on August 5th.
STARS: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder
RUNTIME: 88 mins