Year of Release: 1968 Directed by Mel Brooks. Starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, and Lee Meredith.
“Leo, how much of something can you sell?”
“Max, the most you can sell of anything is 100%.”
“And how much of Springtime for Hitler have we sold?”
That exchange is a perfect example of the hilarious and brilliant absurdity of Mel Brooks’ original Oscar winning screenplay for his 1968 film The Producers, an outrageous farce about the extreme lengths to which greed can take people.
The opening scene gives a perfect example of those extremes, as it simultaneously introduces and contrasts the characters of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). When the nervous bumbling accountant Leo arrives to file Broadway producer Max’s taxes, he walks in on Max pursuing his chief source of income: sordid sex games with octogenarian widows, from whom he collects checks made out to “cash,” always the title of his latest play. Following that awkward encounter, Max is un-phased, and Leo is so uncomfortable as to be barely functioning. Taking advantage of Leo’s insecurity in a scene that involves references to ancient Roman history, breaking the fourth wall, and Max insisting he is a victim to be pitied, Max easily half bullies and half begs Leo to do some “creative accounting” to hide the $2,000 Max embezzled from his most recent flop, after all the IRS does not care about a little bit of money like $2,000, especially when the show was a flop.
If that is not thoroughly outrageous, the next incident possibly tops it, setting the plot in motion for the entire film. When Leo says, “Under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit,” Max is instantly sold on the idea. Assuming that the producer was a dishonest man, all he would have to do is raise one million dollars for a one night flop that costs only fifty thousand, and then he could keep the rest. The only catch is that the play would have to be guaranteed to close on its opening night. If it ran for more than one night, the backers would expect to be repaid, which would be impossible, because the play would have been oversold, thus exposing the massive fraud.
If it’s not already clear, assuming that the ex-king of Broadway Max Bialystock is a dishonest man is akin to assuming that Hitler slightly disliked the Jewish people. And Hitler will feature prominently in the worst play ever, a love letter to the dictator which will offend everyone and “close by page four,” which Max convinces Leo to co-produce with him.
In addition to lampooning Nazism, the jokes in The Producers ridicule prostitution, homosexuality, transvestitism, drug abuse, and of course, massive fraud. Obviously, the subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste, and it is not hard to understand why the film receive a morally offensive rating from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1968. However, declaring The Producers offensive misses the point of the unflattering mockery of everything and everyone in the film. The jokes take for granted that the behavior of all the characters is deeply unethical, and then it exaggerates that behavior to expose how stupid, shallow, and destructive such sinful behavior is. That is one of the best types of comedy.
The production of Max and Leo’s play, Springtime for Hitler, is abysmal. As absurd and horrifying as Max and Leo’s schemes are, nothing could prepare one for the atrocity of the production. Following in the footsteps of the rest of the film, the ten minute set piece is over-the-top absurd as it caricatures the foolishness of Max and Leo’s schemes, Nazism, sexism, and the audience’s reactions, which run the gamut from revulsion to bemusement to adoration.
Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder make the perfect comic duo as the dishonest, greedy, washed-up Broadway producer and the nervous accountant with a literal security blanket. As the irate Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, who insists Hitler had a “song in his heart,” Kenneth Mars is so off-the-wall that during production Wilder wondered if Mars was actually crazy. Mel Brooks keeps the jokes coming at a very brisk pace, and as he cuts between the vulgar jokes and horrified reactions —usually from Leo but occasionally from the audience — he reminds the viewer how preposterous this entire film is.
The Producers is only ninety minutes long, and I easily spend eighty of them laughing.
Content Advisory: Much sexual humor, including references to prostitution, homosexuality, and transvestitism; Nazi related humor; drug themed humor; and very revealing costumes. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: A