The Producers: 50th Anniversary Review

The Producers: 50th Anniversary

Very few films can make you laugh in their opening moments, and even fewer keep you laughing from that point right up to the closing credits. Mel Brooks audacious directorial debut, The Producers, is one of the rare, brilliant few films that may be able to claim that it manages exactly that. The first of the titular duo we are introduced to, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), is perhaps what you expect of a producer: an extravagant social wizard who exploits the deep pockets of elderly women in order to fundraise for his expensive shows. But after another flop on opening night, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) arrives at his door, sent to check that all of Max`s accounts are in order. It is here that a plan begins to take shape. Leo points out the financial gain to be had from deliberately staging a flop, and of course Max is on board. 

Despite tough competition from his roles in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, this is perhaps Wilder’s best performance. He is the perfect jittery ball of worries for a madcap Mostel to bounce off, rightly earning Wilder an Oscar nomination for his portrayal. It is hard to say which of the two men is having the most fun in their respective roles, or if it is in fact Brooks wearing the biggest grin. 

The Producers: 50th Anniversary

Max and Leo choose to stage the worst play they could possibly find: “Spring time for Hitler”, and yes, it is as ludicrous as it sounds. Indulging in the awesome theatrical elements available, Brooks revels in the absurdity of the situation. Brooks’ films have a tendency to segue away from a solid premise for the sake of one joke (think of the studio lot section of Blazing Saddles), but here the comedy is wonderfully plot focused. The play’s opening musical number, Brooks` own composition, is equal parts catchy and hilarious, and the stage show is beautifully brought to life by a magnetic supporting cast. Most impressive are Dick Shawn and Kenneth Mars, the former as lead actor Lorenzo St DuBois (or “LSD”), playing Hitler as a hippy to the incredible aggravation of the latter – the show`s author and Hitler`s number one fan, Franz Liebkind. It is impossible not to marvel at the brilliance in the stupidity, as the chorus sing lines such as: “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party!”. 

50 years on from its original release, The Producers has lost none of its edge. Cynicism in show business is not something that has faded away; Brooks’ musical comedy is just as on the nose as ever, if not more so. As saddening as that thought might be, watching The Producers will never fail to uplift. Sure, it is unlikely that every moment will amuse, that every joke will land, but the gag rate is both higher and considerably more successful than the majority of outright comedies. To sit back and experience each of Mostel, Wilder and Brooks perhaps at the very top of their respective games is a treat not to be taken for granted – for his efforts, Brooks picked up the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay back in February 1969. The Producers is much more than a classic, it is probably a comic masterpiece, as proved by the longevity of the stage adaptation of the film.

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