-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
copyright © 2001 - 2004 VideoVista
cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Christopher Hewett, and Dick Shawn
director: Mel Brooks
90 minutes (PG) 1968 widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Roger Keen
Mel Brooks is one of those people you either love or hate. Conservative critics have
constantly been against him, chiding him for his facetiousness, toilet humour and endless
appetite for pastiche, whilst ignoring the rich subversive intelligence behind the clowning.
But to younger generations in the late 1960s and 1970s he was a hero, an iconoclast,
a man whose comedy spoke to them in their own comedic language.
The Producers, Brooks' first film as writer-director, was made in 1968, a golden
point in time when popular culture was changing fast, catching up with the changes which
had already happened in the arts. It is a seminal work, one of the first of a new type
of film comedy where a kind of left field Dadaism in the ideas department meets an uninhibited
zaniness in performance, and everything is overlaid with a 'nudge-nudge wink-wink' sense
of parody. In The Producers these tendencies are built upon the ironical traditions
of Jewish humour - and what deeper irony could you have than a comedy about Jewish producers
making a musical about Hitler?
The plot has by now become part of folklore. Down-on-his-luck producer Max Bialystock
(Zero Mostel) connives with his neurotic accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) in a scheme
to vastly over-finance a musical that must be guaranteed to flop, allowing them to keep
the excess money. If it should succeed then they would be in big trouble, since they
would have to pay dividends from the profits many times over. In order to make the scheme
foolproof they must select the worst idea imaginable, and after a long trawl they discover
'Springtime For Hitler' by bonkers Nazi, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), an absurd Busby
Berkeley-style homage to the Third Reich. They do everything to make the production as
dreadful as possible... but, of course, it goes disastrously well!
The whole film is one long extemporised joke. It sounds brilliant in the telling, almost
too good, so that the fear is it will collapse under its own weight. But each stage of
the process is so perfectly realised it just keeps getting better and better. Mostel's
pompous, overbearing Bialystock, with his bulging eyes and ridiculous comb-over, and
Wilder's timid, angst-ridden Bloom, so insecure he has to constantly reach for his blue
security blanket, is one of the great comic combinations. The early scenes between these
two contain some wonderful slapstick, and when the other characters come in, one by one,
the tone of pure lunacy intensifies.
When confronted by the two producers, the Nazi-helmeted Liebkind goes into a panic, claiming
he was "only following orders," until they tell him they're going to make his
dreams come true. Outrageously camp director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) wears
a full-length evening dress for his interview, claiming 'Springtime For Hitler' to be
an important work of our times. Then there are the Hitler auditions, where dozens of
hopefuls crowd the stage, all square moustaches and raised-arm salutes. The leading
part finally goes to Lorenzo St DuBois - or L.S.D. for short - (Dick Shawn), who, for
his audition, performs a 1960s' psychedelic number 'Love Power', wearing suede thigh
boots, finger cymbals and sporting a bunch of flowers.
The musical itself is a triumph, with orchestration, costumes, sets and choreography
all done with such ingenuousness that it creates a surreal feeling by the nature of
its bizarre content. Dancing girls in Wagnerian helmets and jack-booted soldiers marching
in a swastika formation - when viewed from above - perform with huge aplomb to an incredulous
audience. But by the time Hitler starts improvising the blues at the piano, they make
the fateful decision that it's so bad it's good.
Though clearly a product of the 1960s, The Producers has a timeless, classic air,
and for its fabulous over-the-top boldness it deserves to be up there with the great
works of film comedy. This handsome two disc special edition DVD might well earn it a
new generation of fans, and it will come as a revelation to those who though Mel Brooks
started with Blazing Saddles.
The extras package on disc two has a documentary, The Making Of The Producers,
a gallery of production sketches, a deleted scene, a trailer and a statement by Peter
Sellers, who championed the film in its difficult early days. The documentary is itself
structured like a show, with an opening, a closing, an intermission, and Acts I and II.
Present day interviews with Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and other notable cast and crew
tell the story of how this daring and groundbreaking piece came into being. At the time,
just 23 years after World War II, it was a dangerous quest to attempt a comedy about
Hitler, and Jewish groups were outraged by its perceived bad taste. "They didn't
get the joke," says Brooks, who goes on to say it's better to fight a dictator with
ridicule rather than rhetoric - and who can dispute him?