A desperate has-been Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) and a timid, neurotic accountant (Gene Wilder in his first major role) plan a bit of larceny that will make them a fortune – if the play they produce flops. But if it’s a hit, they’ll go to jail. No wonder they select a play called Springtime for Hitler.
It’s amazing that Mel Brooks made such a funny comedy on his first try as a filmmaker. It’s outrageous, offensive, occasionally heartwarming, but most of all, howlingly funny.
I can’t imagine the story working without the chemistry of Mostel and Wilder (and I’ve seen the musical remake). Mostel is a bolt of fat lightning, zooming from one oversized emotion to another, always over the top and yet in a strange way sympathetic and almost believable. But while Mostel’s Max Bialystock displays every emotion with the subtlety of a cornered elephant, Wilder’s Leo Bloom holds everything in. Timid and frightened, he reacts to the absurdities around him with small yet hysterical facial expressions…until he explodes and goes bigger than Mostel.
And yet, the movie’s funniest sequence doesn’t depend on either star. The big production number, also called “Springtime for Hitler,” manages to parody Busby Berkeley as well as Nazi iconography. It’s hysterical, but it also says something very true about the thin line between big-budget entertainment and fascist propaganda. This was over-the-edge comedy in 1967, when there were Holocaust survivors younger than 30. Memories were fresh.
Brooks (who wrote and directed) didn’t depend on his two stars. His talented cast includes Dick Shawn as the actor cast to play Hitler and Kenneth Mars as the Nazi fanatic playwright. Even actors that appear briefly know how to get a laugh. The little-known Shimen Ruskin gives a short but delightful bit as a landlord. Josip Elic plays a wonderfully funny violinist without speaking a word. And then there are all those old, horny women that Bialystock must seduce to raise money for his flop.
Making jokes about Nazis should always be acceptable. But making fun of gay men or sexy Scandinavian blondes is now passe. Brooks fixed this in the musical version (both on Broadway and for a second time on film). There’re still gay men and Scandinavian blondes in the remake, but the film doesn’t laugh at them.
The new version may be the more acceptable version, but the original is the funnier and stronger one, even if a few of the jokes seem offensive now. Besides, The Producers was always intended to make offense.
How It Looks
Kino Lorber rightfully presents The Producers in the 1.85×1 aspect ratio. This gives it a very slight letterbox.
When I last saw The Producers in 2014, the apparently newly-struck 35mm print had a slight yellow cast – a sign of a faded negative. Thanks to the new 4K restoration, that seems to be fixed.
This is not one of the great Blu-ray masters. At times it shows too much contrast, but not enough to hurt the comedy.
How It Sounds
Kino gives us two mixes of the soundtrack: the original one and a new mix.
If you prefer the original mono sound (as I do), go to the 2.0 option. Technically, it’s two-track stereo, but the tracks are identical and therefore effectively mono.
The new 5.1 mix doesn’t go overboard with the surround. Dialog occasionally comes from the right or left. The big musical production number, of course, uses the three front tracks quite a bit.
Both soundtracks are coded in DTS-HD Master Audio, which is as good as you can get on a Blu-ray.
And the Extras
- Audio Commentary by Filmmaker/Historian Michael Schlesinger: He gives us some very interesting facts and some not-so-interesting opinions. He also doesn’t talk as much as one should in a commentary.
- The Making of the Producers: 63 minutes. Pretty much like any other similar documentary, except that it’s longer than most of them. Very much worth watching.
- Playhouse Outtake: four
minutes. Another version of the dynamite scene. Brooks was right to leave this one on the cutting-room floor.
- Sketch Gallery: Two minutes. Art direction sketches, set to pleasant music. Interesting.
- Peter Sellers’ Statement Read by Paul Mazursky: One minute. Mazursky reads a letter written by Sellers where he proclaims that The Producers is a great movie.
- Radio Spot
- Theatrical Trailer
- Life Stinks
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
- The Woman in Red
- Haunted Honeymoon
The Producers Blu-ray will be available Tuesday, April 13.