Directed by Mel Brooks
It helps to know the climate into which The Producers was born and released. It’s a lowbrow comedy with a series of jokes both vulgar and cheap, and the utter disbelief audiences may have had could be lost on modern audiences because of the insane amount of lowbrow comedies released since. This isn’t a film made famous or classic because of its genius but rather its gall. The Producers is tasteless and bold, at times hilarious and a little off the mark. It’s a story about a bad idea taken to the extreme centered around an oddly heartwarming friendship that helps ground the mostly unrestrained film.
I think the heart is what makes this movie memorable, well that and the “Springtime for Hitler” song and dance number, a lavish one reminiscent of other large Mel Brooks set pieces like the ones seen in History of the World: Part 1 (1981). The ‘producers’ that give the movie its title are Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (a young Gene Wilder). They are broad characterizations, like something straight out of a comic strip. Max is a struggling producer who finances his plays by seducing older women, and Leo is an accountant who finds a loophole, allowing Max to keep thousands of dollars by making his next play an absolute flop.
So the premise, something straight out of a stand up routine, involves Max and Leo working to create the most vulgar, tasteless and unthinkably flawed play they can. Before they instigate this plan, however, Max must convince Leo to work with him, appealing to Leo’s childlike sense of wonder. In a famous scene outside of the Lincoln Center, Leo finally emerges from his shell and screams to the heavens about how he wants “everything I’ve ever seen in the movies!”
The story’s set up allows the film to get away with a lot, particularly for the time, and yet it celebrates the main characters’ goal, looking at them like children getting away with a prank. The humor should be more offensive (again, for the time) if it didn’t work, but because it’s funny and mostly because of Wilder’s doe-eyed performance, we let certain things slide.
Well, I’m making assumptions here. To be frank, I found most of the first half of the film a little bit of a slog to get through and then enjoyed the subsequent play within the film a great deal more. Upon a rewatch, however, much of the two main characters’ performance becomes easier to appreciate. As Leo, Wilder screams and cries and howls. He’s a frightened little man accustomed to living in his shell, and when Max begins to push him around, urging him to come out, he, well, he blooms.
Leo shrieks about his own hysteria as Max tears him apart, and he cradles a small blue blanket he’s kept since his childhood. Later, when things aren’t going so well, Max will ask to cradle the blue blanket too.
Once committed to this strange plan, the two characters become deeply connected so that you start to see them as one entity. They go everywhere together, like siamese twins as their hopes and fates are now intertwined. The loud, brash producer and the feeble, quiet accountant are now one, something deep within them which unites them. Maybe you could make a broader point about the American dream or about how everyone at their core just wants an opportunity to make it big. I don’t know, but the movie isn’t really interested in that.
Maybe analyzing this movie in anyway is a fool’s errand. It’s a zany, absurd comedy like so many made in the decades since, but while those movies follow the trend, this one started it. And boy, it went big. In order to make the ‘worst play of all time,’ Max and Leo pour through script submissions before settling on one written by a former Nazi called “Springtime For Hitler.” It’s a light, playful story about Hitler’s supposed light and playful side, you know, the one that enjoyed painting and fell into a rom-com type of relationship with Eva Braun.
It’s an insane idea, and it works, at first. There is a wonderful moment when the tease is over, and we finally see the play fully produced. It’s a large spectacle of a moment made all the more grandiose because of how small the rest of the production is. For most of the film we follow Max and Leo from room to room, mostly on their own until they hold rehearsals. It’s a limited story about these two men who seem to bounce off of the walls and each other. Though they are remarkably over the top, the film environment remains small in scope, almost as if the rooms become a cage, increasingly straining to keep enclosed these giant personalities.
Then we see the play, and it’s technically well-made in the ways most plays are. The performance is intercut with shots of a stoic, horrified audience for one of the movie’s biggest laughs. But then, surprisingly, they begin to enjoy the play, seeing it as a comedy which the writer (again, he’s a Nazi) never intended. He sits in the audience in a German war helmet and chides the audience for laughing.
The apparent appeal of the play is meant to be yet another joke, this one undercutting the protagonists’ goals and over-confidence, but it does start to feel a little off, anticipating an open-mindedness in the audience which would later come but which this film as a whole was challenging. I mean, what I take from this is that The Producers was meant to make a mark. It’s supposed to be shocking, and Mel Brooks certainly made the film with an idea of how horrified and disgusted some audiences would be. But then he writes into the script that the play’s audience enjoys it, a plot reversal which adds another challenge to the producers’ ultimate goal, but this anticipation of the audience reception feels prescient but unnecessary. If anything, the biggest laugh should be the audience’s reaction to the play, allowing the movie audience to laugh at itself or at least at contemporary culture.
Either way, this sudden change in heart forces the producers to come up with a new plan, one which involves blowing up the theater. They are quickly found “incredibly” guilty and sentenced to prison where they put on another play.
At the time of its release, the New York Times said The Producers “is a violently mixed bag. Some of it is shoddy and gross and cruel; the rest is funny in an entirely unexpected way. It has the episodic, revue quality of so much contemporary comedy—not building laughter, but stringing it together skit after skit, some vile, some boffo. It is less delicate than Lenny Bruce, less funny than Doctor Strangelove, but much funnier than The Loved One or What’s New, Pussycat?”
Roger Ebert, who labeled this one of his “Great Movies,” said, “To see it for the first time in 1968, when I did, was to witness audacity so liberating that not even “There’s Something About Mary” rivals it. The movie was like a bomb going off inside the audience’s sense of propriety. There is such rapacity in its heroes, such gleeful fraud, such greed, such lust, such a willingness to compromise every principle, that we cave in and go along… How did Mel Brooks, the writer and director, get away with this? By establishing the amoral desperation of both key characters at the outset, and by casting them with actors you couldn’t help liking, even so. “
The Producers was meant to shock you, and it did. Beyond whether you found it funny or not, it’s a film meant to disrupt the status quo, to some extent. This was released around the same time as Bonnie & Clyde and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The former was hyper-violent in a way audiences weren’t accustomed to, and it centers on two characters who are clear anti-heroes, one of whom is impotent. They were representations that mass audiences weren’t used to seeing onscreen, and, inspired by French New Wave Cinema, the film was meant to push the boundaries of mainstream Hollywood movies. The latter film centers on a white woman bringing a black fiancé home to meet her family for the first time. It’s a depiction of interracial marriage that certainly has its problems (The Sidney Poitier character was watered down and made less unique in order to make him appealing to white audiences) but which allowed Hollywood to pat themselves on the back and consider themselves progressive.
The point is that these films all tried to do something new and push boundaries. The Producers might actually be the best representation of this because of how it rolls the audience reaction into the story, making it kind of the point of the film. This Mel Brooks film is more than just a comedy but a movie that addressed the way audiences react to challenging material. Still, as a comedy the ‘challenging’ material is challenging only because it’s meant to fail. Though not a particularly accurate portrayal of what goes into the making of such stories, it does call into question the reasons films/plays that push the boundaries are made.
Bonnie & Clyde, The Producers, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and even films like The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) considered the audience when they were made. These are films created with the intention of doing more than entertaining an audience. They didn’t offer answers but instead raised questions, asking something of the audience that movies before never did. Involvement, I suppose. These are works of art, to some degree, that wanted to be considered, thought about, ruminated on. They ask you to think, but again maybe that’s looking a little too deep, at least with The Producers.
Up Next: Bowling for Columbine (2002), The Post (2017), Vernon, Florida (1981)