The Producers is one of the funniest American comedies ever made.
The film appears as number 11 on the AFI list of all time best comedies, but it is arguably funnier than most of its predecessors, including M*A*S*H, The Graduate, and another Mel Brooks film on the list, Blazing Saddles. Surely it is as funny as most Billy Wilder comedies, or most Chaplin and Keaton shorts, or Groundhog Day. The film has the unusual honor of being one of the few American comedies transferred to the American stage as a musical. Only a handful of Billy Wilder comedies share this honor. And Brooks won an Oscar for best original screenplay, again unusual for a comedy.
Long before the Farrelly Brothers, even before the Zucker brothers, Mel Brooks was the first to introduce gross vulgarity into the movies. It's hard to tell if Brooks was influenced at all by Wilder, but they share an interest in rogues, con men, and hustlers. Both Wilder and Brooks have been accused of "bad taste," but there is a rich tradition of hustlers in American cinema. However, the biggest influence on Brooks's art is probably the Ritz Brothers.
The other Wilder in Mel Brooks's life is Gene Wilder, making only his second film appearance as Bloom, the accountant come to check the books of one Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), an arrant Broadway producer reduced to bilking little old ladies out of their money by making whoopee on his casting couch. The meek, mild-mannered Leo Bloom (named after James Joyce's hero) is the one who comes up with the loophole that Bialystock has been looking for all his life. It's simple. If you collect financial backing far in excess of a show's budget, and then it flops, the producers get to keep the rest, because the IRS is not likely to look at a flop, only a success. Thus, by financing 25,000 per cent of a show, the boys can retire to Rio. All they need is a guaranteed flop. To that end, they scour the unproduced plays to come up with Springtime for Hitler, written by a Hitler loving maniac (Kenneth Mars), and casting it with a parody hippie and incompetent called LSD (Dick Shawn). Of course, things go terribly awry, but not before we get to see opening night, and the fabled "Springtime for Hitler" dance number with the chorus girls in their cute Nazi uniforms and boots forming a swastika in the manner of a Busby Berkeley number.
Over the top doesn't begin to describe this film. Brooks tends to encourage his actors to do more, then more, and then even more after that, and it is hilarious to see a human being behave at such an extreme level of panic, lust, greed, or fear. But it is also easy to see how the film could have been so easily translated to the stage. It is very theatrical in its structure. The whole first 22 minutes of the film doesn't even stray from Max's office. The Producers evinces all the characteristics of a great screenplay (unity of time and place, among them) but the screenplay is only one stage of development in what is this magical, perfect thing, a near perfect comedy.
VIDEO: MGM has lavished an unusual amount of attention on this disc. The dual-layered, dual-sided disc has the film on one side, in both full frame and widescreen image (1.85:1, enhanced for widescreen televisions), and the extras on the other side. It's not the best photographed comedy in the world (few comedies are), but the source print is remarkably free of obstructions.
SOUND: Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and the original mono track, with English subtitles. French and Spanish subtitles give you an idea how to translate "springtime for Hitler" into those languages.
MENUS: The musical, animated menus offer 28 chapters for the 90 minute movie.
EXTRAS: All the supplements appear on the second side of the disc.
Side Two: Mel Brooks's The Producers This lengthy, detailed "making of" is one of the best of this feeble genre. Among many other things, the viewer learns that Max Bialystock is based on a guy that Brooks actually worked for, and that Peter Sellers was Brooks's first choice for Bloom, until Brooks's never heard from the actor again, and then saw Gene Wilder on stage in Mother Courage. Also, Dustin Hoffman was the first choice for the playwright. But like most examples of this genre, there is way too much footage from the film that you just watched on the other side of the disc. At one hour and three minutes, it is divided into five chapters.
Side Two: Sketch Gallery Black and white production design sketches by Charles Rosen (2:11), animated, with musical accompaniment.
Side Two: Playhouse Outtake An alternative version of the moment when the gang tries to blow up the theater, with Bill Hickey as a drunk who sets off the dynamite. It lasts about three and a half minutes.
Side Two: Photo Gallery Forty black and white production stills following the film in chronological order.
Side Two: Peter Sellers Statement A statement published in Variety as an ad after Sellers saw an advance screening. The statement is read by actor-director Paul Mazursky.
Side Two: Trailers Besides The Producers, which has terrible sound, there are trailers for The Greatest Story Ever Told, Fiddler on the Roof, The Princess Bride, and Some Like it Hot.
Side Two: Ad Finally, there's an ad for the soundtrack to the musical version of The Producers.