Back in 1968 when The Producers made its debut, writer-director Mel Brooks was better known within the entertainment industry than by the public at large. His writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and the Get Smart television series, plus his 2000-Year-Old Man comedy routines—developed with fellow writer-director Carl Reiner—had marked him as a minor show business legend. But when The Producers hit the screen Brooks’s minor status quickly became major, as this raucous satire of Broadway theater catapulted him overnight to the front ranks of big-time filmmakers. An enormous popular success, The Producers won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay of the Year.
There have been over the years any number of movie takeoffs of The Great White Way, from the John Barrymore/Carole Lombard classic Twentieth Century, to the Marx Brothers’ farce Room Service, to the great Fred Astaire musical The Band Wagon. But there never has been anything quite as wild as Brooks’s manic show biz lampoon about an attempt at turning a Broadway flop into financial success.
Zero Mostel stars as Max Bialystock, a producer so down on his luck he’s reduced to fleecing old ladies—exchanging romantic favors for money he’ll supposedly invest in shows. When mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) looks over Bialystock’s books he discovers that had the hapless producer cast his pretty fraud scheme a bit wider he could really make a major killing. “The IRS isn’t interested in a flop show,” he says. This hint is all Bialystock needs to hatch his mad scheme. He’ll promise controlling interest to each of his little old lady investors in a “surefire flop.” Bloom will help him “cook” the books and hide the costs. They’ll keep a bundle and nobody will be the wiser.
Soon the scheming pair find what looks like the property of their dreams—a musical written by a demented German (Kenneth Mars) called “Springtime for Hitler.” They pick to stage it an equally cracked flamboyant gay director (Christopher Hewett), and cast a deranged hippy (Dick Shawn) in the leading role. How can they lose with a loser like this? Simple—the audience takes it for satire and turns this most likely melange into a surprise hit. How Bialystock and Bloom managed to rescue themselves from the jaws of success leads to further complications—and an hilarious finale.
Putting over a comedy like this requires more than a genius/madman in the director’s chair, it needs talent out front. The Producers is packed with skillful players. Zero Mostel starts at the sort of pitch other comic actors build towards. But you can’t say he’s “over the top.” In a comedy like The Producers there is no “top.” Mostel knows it, and demonstrates his overpowering comic authority in every scene. He’s well matched with Gene Wilder’s high-strung accountant—a milquetoast exterior hiding a fearless imagination. But then every member of the cast is just about perfect in a comedy that starts with the simplest of twon character scenes only to grow to the climax of “Springtime for Hitler”—a piece of satirical insanity that has to be seen to be disbelieved.
Mel Brooks has gone onto things since this, his first feature—some more skillful, others less so. One thing is certain, however. The Producers remains as delightful now as it did when it was first released. When a film can boast of inventing terms like “creative accounting” and that all-time catch-phrase “When you’ve got it, flaunt it!” it’s more than a mere success. The Producers is a modern comedy classic.