The Producers gave audiences their first taste of the unbridled Mel Brooks.
It’s the 1960s and Mel Brooks needs to get out of television. A force of nature, Brooks’ gregariousness and lack of filter landed him a gig in the legendary writers’ room of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows during the heyday of live television in the early 1950s. That room included Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and Carl Reiner, so if Brooks hadn’t known funny when he got there he did by the time the show was canceled in 1954. After some lean years, he co-created Get Smart for NBC and the hit show boosted Brooks’ career. He could have done anything in television when all he wanted to do was escape.
In the media landscape of the time, television lacked prestige. The three major networks did not like to take chances creatively or financially. It was a wasteland of formats held over from radio. Conversely, movies were resurgent. The French New Wave influenced a generation of young filmmakers who were on the verge of taking over Hollywood. The second half of the 1960s would belong to Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols. They would create universally revered films ranging in tone and theme from Bonnie and Clyde to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Brooks could feel the energy, wanted in and created a classic of his own. While it didn’t define a generation, The Producers gave audiences their first taste of the unbridled Mel Brooks.
The film began as a throwaway line Brooks gave during an interview. When asked what he was doing next, the comedian declared, “Springtime for Hitler,” and the title stuck. For years he tried to shoehorn a novel or a play around those words, but nothing worked. Inspiration finally accommodated Brooks while he was devising a screenplay about an unscrupulous Broadway producer and the accountant he corrupts. While doing the producer’s books the accountant muses that someone could make more money making a flop than a hit if they raise more than they need but only declare a fraction of the money exists. The producer and the accountant join forces and need a guaranteed flop to make their scam work. They find it in a play written as a love letter to the Fuhrer: Springtime for Hitler. Hilarity ensues when the show proves to be, well, hilarious and 52,000% of the profits have been sold.
Brooks had one major hurdle to overcome on his way to getting his movie made. All the money men he approached – whether at major studios or independents – feared the Hitler jokes. If comedy really is tragedy plus time not enough had passed by 1967 to make Hitler palatable. Brooks finally found a champion in Sidney Glazier who brought the film to Joseph E. Levine. Together, the three men formed a fearless, fast-talking triumvirate of World War II veterans brave enough to support Brooks’ vision. The first-time director had creative control and Hitler got to stay.
The Producers is not a sumptuous looking film. Apart from two brief montages, most of the action takes place during long takes on static sets like offices, bedrooms and bars. Brooks barely moves his camera, which might have been the jitters of a first-time director or the restraint of a budding genius. Who needs visual flare when the many medium shots and close-ups you employ are populated with one of the greatest comic casts ever assembled? There’s Dick Shawn playing Lorenzo St. Dubois (LSD), a hippie musician who wanders into the wrong audition only to get cast as Hitler. Kenneth Mars plays Franz Liebkind, former Nazi officer turned playwright who despises Winston Churchill but admires his defunct Hitler. Brooks cast a young Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom, the innocent accountant so easily corrupted. Wilder imbues the social misfit Bloom with so much neurotic energy that his initial appearance onscreen is wholly uncomfortable. But the film comes together around the performance of Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock, the former “King of Broadway” who has fallen so far he has taken to sleeping with old ladies to pay his bills. Corpulent and balding with a weathered face and large, knowing eyes, Mostel never leaves the screen. His Bialystock is a singular creation, craven, conniving, yet a nurturing presence for his partner Bloom. “Flaunt it, baby,” he yells to a white Rolls he sees out his window, but even in hard times Bialystock is flaunting his style and wit. If not for the fraud and criminality he’d be the perfect mentor.
Like so many movies that wear the “classic” title, The Producers was not universally adored upon its release. It is a ninety-minute sketch propelled by performances played at cartoon-character pitch. It is bawdy, outrageous, always sexist, often homophobic and constantly brilliant. Brooks is looking for belly laughs, not subtle jabs, so delicate sensibilities were definitely pricked at the viewing of this movie. But while Brooks is always pushing to see what he can get away with, he does so without a sense of meanness.
We still talk about The Producers because Mel Brooks wouldn’t let us forget it. He is a showman who knows a good idea when he sees it. He wouldn’t let “Springtime for Hitler” go when it was only three words, and he kept its vessel alive by adapting it into a successful Broadway musical. The film is an outlier, a comedy born during a time of a very serious revolution in cinema. Some of its contemporaries have not aged well, but Brooks played it large and for laughs, two qualities that stand the test of time.