The Producers (1968)

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Nervous accountant Leo Bloom looks at the books of monstrous producer Max Bialystock, forced into the arms of old ladies by a string of terrible shows, and discovers that a flop could earn more money than a hit. The scheme is completely illegal, of course, but the real issue is finding a show that’s absolutely guaranteed to fail. (Goose) step forward Franz Liebkind, with love letter to the Fuhrer Springtime for Hitler.

Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is unhappy, and has every right to be. A Broadway producer who once had six shows running at the same time, he has been reduced to the status of a middle-aged gigolo for elderly clients, all making out cheques to a show spuriously called ‘Cash.’ When accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) is sent to look at Max’s books, Bialystock frightens the anxious young invader half to death; but Leo hits upon the fact that if you raised enough money – by selling, say, 25,000% of the show’s profits – and the show flopped, you could make yourself very rich. Fraudulently rich, that is, and whilst Bialystock instantly embraces the idea (and several more little old ladies, in order to raise the money), Bloom is made even more nervous until Max reassures him by becoming his friend. The question of what show to put on is solved when Max reads the script of Springtime for Hitler, a play in praise of Adolf written by deranged immigrant Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). Bialystock ensures that the awfulness of the play is brought out to the full by hiring ultra-camp director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and casting eccentric hippie actor Lorenzo St Dubois or LSD (Dick Shawn) in the title role (‘That’s our Hitler!’), and opening night appears to go exactly as planned when the opening number is treated with open-mouthed disbelief by the audience; but just when Bialystock and Bloom are toasting their success, the camp comedy of the performance hits a chord with everyone but the author, sending the producers into a panic and Liebkind into a murderous rage. With a surefire hit on their hands, how can they make sure the show doesn’t go on?

Now that The Producers has been turned into an incredibly successful musical, and that musical has been turned back into a fairly bland film, it’s an absolute pleasure to find that Mel Brooks’ first feature is both wonderfully trim (it runs at 88 minutes, compared to the 2005 version’s 134) and every bit as funny as I remembered it. Much credit for this must go directly to Brooks, who stages the decayed atmosphere of Bialystock’s life to perfection, winds his performers up with stinging lines and simply lets them go. Wilder is just lovely as Bloom, the blanket-holding, neurotic child-figure with a mischievous, almost other-worldly grin playing on his face; but Mostel’s performance of Max Bialystock steals the show, mouldy and cadaverous yet still yearning for his glory days, aware that his life is an act and all the time itching to break the fourth wall (he does it just once, the rest of the time content to roll his eyes). As this pair become unlikely partners, their relationship is simultaneously creepy and touching, Bloom acknowledging Bialy’s qualities as a friend even as he frames him as a fraudster.

With this relationship serving as the core of the film, Brooks is free to go wild with the supporting characters, and he does, with not only Liebkind, De Bris and LSD adding to the fun but also Roger’s extraordinary assistant Carmen Ghia (Andreas Voutsinas), Estelle Winwood as the sprightliest of Bialystock’s little old ladies and Lee Meredith putting in an arresting turn as Max’s ‘toy’, Ulla. You could argue that Ulla is a cheap and sexist character, but she’s not exploited terribly, she looks beautiful and most importantly, she’s funny. The Producers provides an almost constant barrage of laughs, building up to the opening of Springtime for Hitler and the maximum offence impact of the title number. This is probably the single funniest musical moment I’ve seen on film – Spinal Tap included – and the ridiculousness of the scenario (together with the audience’s collective reaction and Shawn’s ‘Heil, baby!’ treatment of Hitler) should negate all accusations of insensitivity. Brooks is essentially a comedian without filters, and if you’re going to do anything with Nazis surely the best thing to do is ridicule them. The same is true of LSD’s hippiedom: I initially thought that the Hitler auditions dated the film, but the ridiculous language used by the counter-culture is accurately and wickedly punctured.

Given the insanely giddy heights reached by Springtime for Hitler it’s not surprising that what immediately follows feels like a bit of a comedown, and the plot-driven section where Liebkind turns on the producers, then helps them blow up the theatre, certainly doesn’t carry the same impact (the effects used for the explosion are terrible). Still, there’s a handsome payoff in both the courtroom and prison scenes, and the film benefits from not interrupting the love story between Bialystock and Bloom – for that’s surely what it is – with a relationship between Bloom and Ulla. Fast-paced, sharp, hilarious, riotous and yet impeccably marshalled, The Producers is a great film and anyone who values comedy and hasn’t seen it is missing out. Bravo!


4 thoughts on “The Producers (1968)

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