Simply one of the funniest films ever made
Two Jews produce a Broadway musical about Adolf Hitler. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But when it comes from the mind of comedic genius writer/director Mel Brooks, it becomes a premise for one of the boldest and funniest films ever made. A truly outrageous comedy, “The Producers” is so funny that even though I’ve seen it umpteen times, I needed a series of tissues to wipe away my tears of laughter while watching it yet again for this post. This cult film turned certified classic provides a joyous, one-of-a-kind laugh fest. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning one for its audacious script, and it often appears on greatest comedy film lists. The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked it as the 11th Funniest American Movie of All-Time. This film is laugh out loud funny!
Even the opening credits are laugh-tear inducing. The film opens on a closed door with the words “Max Bialystock, Theatrical Producer” written on frosted glass, behind which two silhouetted figures are playing kissy poo. Suddenly the door opens and out comes “Max Bialystock”, a disheveled fat man with a combover, looking to see if the coast is clear. A little old lady exits, they playfully say goodbye, and “Max” adds, “Don’t forget the checkie. Can’t produce plays without checkie”. With a smile she responds, “You can count on me, you dirty young man”. He pinches her butt, she laughs, and is off. He runs into his office, opens a cabinet filled with pictures of little old ladies and searches for one he calls “Hold Me Touch Me”. We see another little old lady knock at the door. “Max” opens it and says, “Darling!”. She responds emphatically, “Hold me, touch me”. He says “Not in the hallway”, and they enter his office. Their hilarious rendezvous is interspersed with the film's opening credits.
We quickly learn that “Max” used to be King of Broadway but is now so unsuccessful he wears a cardboard belt and his only investors are what he calls little old ladies stopping off “to grab a last thrill on the way to the cemetery”. He and “Hold Me Touch Me” are interrupted by a nervous, neurotic accountant named “Leo Bloom”, sent to balance "Max's" books. “Leo” quickly discovers that “Max” raised slightly more money than the cost of his last show, and when he asks about it, “Max” says “Who cares? The play was a flop”. "Max" gets “Leo” to alter his books, and “Leo” realizes a producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit. Through some finagling, “Max” gets “Leo” to join him in finding and producing the worst play ever written. The play they find is titled “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden”, written by an unbalanced former Nazi named “Franz Liebkind”. As they proceed to produce the play, the most supremely wacky cast of characters to ever inhabit a film seem to come out of the woodwork.
Controversial in its day, “The Producers” is the crème de la crème of cinematic farce. Everyone is fair game in this throw-caution-to-the-wind comedy that still holds the power to induce chucklesome gasps. Never one to hold back (but never mean spirited), Brooks fearlessly presents his characters in all their zany, neurotic, gay, dumb blonde, or German craziness. He has often stated that one of his missions is to make people laugh at Hitler, and in this film he skillfully accomplishes that goal with scenes of auditioning Hitlers, and lines such as when “Franz” says, “Hitler. There was a painter. He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon. Two coats!”. In the 2002 documentary, “The Making of the Producers”, Brooks explained, “The way to deal with despots like Hitler is not to get on a soapbox...with rhetoric, but to fight them with ridicule. To laugh at them. To laugh them into oblivion”.
After seeing the Broadway musical "Anything Goes” when he was nine, Brooklyn born Mel Brooks decided he was going to be in show business. By fourteen years old he was playing the drums, and at sixteen he began doing comedy. After serving in the US Army during WWII, he appeared as a musician, comedian, and even actor in various Borscht Belt resorts (a former Jewish vacation spot in the Catskill Mountains). Starting in 1949, he found work as a comedy writer for television, eventually writing for the groundbreaking variety, sketch comedy shows, "Your Show of Shows”, "Caesar's Hour", "The Dick Emery Show", and many more (working with such writers as Carl Reiner and Neil Simon). He also created (and wrote several episodes for) the classic TV series "Get Smart", which ran from 1965-1970.
In his teens Brooks worked for a theatrical producer who financed his plays by sleeping with women over the age of eighty in return for checks made out to his new play, which was always titled, “Cash”. Thinking this man would make an interesting character for a project, he began writing a book, which turned into a play, and finally into a film titled, “Springtime for Hitler”. Producer Sidney Glazier was immediately interested in producing the film. The script was not an easy sell as exhibitors were unwilling to put Hitler’s name on a marquee. Universal Studios showed interest, but only if the film was changed to “Springtime for Mussolini”. After close to a year, Embassy Pictures producer (and former film exhibitor) Joseph E. Levine got behind the film, convinced Brooks to change the name, and “The Producers” was made. After an unsuccessful, empty theater test screening, Embassy feared they had a failure and were going to shelve the film. Brooks thought his first film would be his last, but fate stepped in…
Actor Peter Sellers was in Los Angeles filming the Paul Mazursky film, "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”. Bored, Sellers decided to create a weekly film night with some coworkers. One week Mazursky chose Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”, but forgot to bring the film. Purely by coincidence, a copy of an unknown film by someone named Mel Brooks happened to be available, so they watched it instead. According to Mazursky, within the first five minutes they were all on the floor in hysterics and afterwards realized they had just seen a masterpiece. Sellers heard about the limited release of the film and immediately put an ad in two trade papers which read: “Last night I saw the ultimate film… ‘The Producers’, or as it was originally titled, ‘Springtime for Hitler’. Brilliantly written and directed by Mel Brooks, it is the essence of all great comedy combined in a single motion picture. Without any doubt, Mel Brooks displays true genius in weaving together tragedy-comedy, comedy-tragedy, pity, fear, hysteria, schizophrenia, inspired madness, and a largess of lunacy with shear magic. The casting was perfect. Those of us who have seen this film and understand it have experienced a phenomena which only occurs once in a life span”. As a result, the film became a hit New York City, where it ran for almost a year, slowly followed by other cities. In spite of mixed reviews, it was a hit. It became a cult film (eventually recognized as a classic), and Brooks won his only Oscar to date (Best Original Screenplay) for “The Producers”.
In addition to writing the screenplay, Brooks directed the film and wrote the songs, "Prisoner of Love", and the show stoping“Springtime for Hitler”. Most people talk about Brooks’ comedy and not his directing style, but his spot-on direction superbly captures humor through camera angles, shots, and edits. Take for instance the moment when “Max” is dreaming of all the things he and “Leo” will do with all the money they’ll make. Brooks lingers on a shot of “Leo” with “Max” behind him leaning from left to right as he excitedly speaks. When “Max” almost orgasmically talks about going to Rio de Janeiro, Brooks cuts to a very tight close up of them cheek to cheek, with “Max” singing about Rio. The perfectly timed edit and close-up make the scene hilarious. In the 2002 documentary mentioned above, Brooks explains his talent: “The truth is I began my career as a drummer, so rhythm is critical to me. The rhythm of a scene, the rhythm of a singular performance, the rim shot of a joke. So as a drummer, I had a lot of unconscious and innate sense of what was rhythmically correct, and it has stood me in good stead all my life as a director”.
“The Producers” established Brooks as a top writer/director of comedies (particularly farce and parody), and to date he has written and directed eleven films - three of which AFI has ranked within the top 15 of The 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time (”Blazing Saddles” is #6, ”The Producers” is #11, and ”Young Frankenstein” is #13). Some of his other films include "The Twelve Chairs", "High Anxiety", "Silent Movie", "History of the World: Part 1", and “Spaceballs”. He earned two additional Oscar nominations: Best Original Song for "Blazing Saddles”; and Best Adapted Screenplay (along with Gene Wilder) for "Young Frankenstein”. In 2001, he produced a Broadway musical version of "The Producers” which became a smash hit, earning twelve Tony Awards (three for Brooks) including Best Musical. To this day it holds the record as the Broadway show with the most Tony Awards for a single production. Brooks won four Emmy Awards for his television work (one for writing, and three as an actor for his recurring role on the TV sitcom "Mad About You”) out of thirteen nominations. He's won three Grammy Awards (one for the Broadway soundtrack of "The Producers", one for a music video for "The Producers", and one for his comedy album, "The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000”) out of ten nominations. In addition to being a rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award winner), he received a Kennedy Center Honor (2009), an AFI Life Achievement Award (2013), a British Film Institute Fellowship (2015), a BAFTA Fellowship (2017), and in 2016 was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama, among countless other awards. He was married once, to actress Anne Bancroft from 1964 until her death in 2005. No one makes me laugh as hard as Mel Brooks. As of this writing, this comedy legend is 95 years old, and just published his autobiography, "All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business". Can't wait to read it!
Brooks conceived “The Producers” with only one actor in mind – the great Zero Mostel. He had seen Mostel in a comedy nightclub and wrote the character of “Max Bialystock” especially for him. It took convincing by Mostel’s wife for him to accept the part, but thank goodness he did, for Mostel is a powerhouse. His comedic freedom is something to behold. “Max” is larger-than-life – from his imposing size and booming voice to his frantic energy and erratic, exaggerated facial expressions. His face can change in a second from a smile to a frown, and everything in between. What keeps him from becoming cartoonish is Mostel’s ability to have everything stem from genuine emotion. As scheming and dishonest as “Max” is, he becomes poignant, moving, lovable, and funny. It is an incredibly rich, multidimensional performance of comedic perfection from start to finish for which Mostel earned a Golden Globe nomination.
New York born Zero Mostel began as an artist, and after earning a college degree taught painting and drawing, and later began giving gallery tours at museums. He would tell jokes on his tours and because of his clowning sense of humor, was soon hired to perform at parties and events. He began to work as a comedian, and in 1941 became the main attraction at New York’s famous Café Society. He began touring nationally, appearing on radio, and made his Broadway debut in "Keep 'em Laughing" in 1942. In 1943 he appeared in his first film, "Du Barry Was a Lady", and first appeared on TV in 1948. After being drafted into the US Army (and then honorably discharged because of an undisclosed physical disability), he entertained the troops overseas and continued to appear on stage and TV. Being an outspoken leftist (his comedy often included political jokes), he was targeted during the McCarthy Era as an alleged communist. Just from rumors, Mostel found it hard to get film work and in a way was blacklisted before actually being blacklisted in 1955, when he was formally accused of being a communist. While testifying that he was not a Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he famously stood up to the committee (which was rare for anyone to do) and did not name names (you can read more about HUAC in my “High Noon” post). Once officially blacklisted, he turned to painting, and in the late 1950s, began to appear on stage beginning with the 1958 off-Broadway production of "Ulysses in Nighttown", which earned Mostel an Obie Award (off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony). Little did he know he was entering the height of his career.
In 1961 he appeared on Broadway in the play "Rhinoceros", winning his first Tony Award. A second Tony followed for the 1963 musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", followed by a third Tony Award for originating the role of “Tevye” in the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof”. In 1966 he reprised his Broadway role in the film version of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, which was followed by “The Producers” (the film for which he is best remembered). Because of being blacklisted, Mostel appeared in under two dozen films, and others include "Panic in the Streets", "The Front", "The Hot Rock", and the 1974 film adaptation of "Rhinoceros" (opposite Gene Wilder). His last film was as the voice of “Kehaar” in the animated "Watership Down”. He was married twice and is the father of actor Josh Mostel. Zero Mostel died in 1977 at the age of 62. In 1979 he was posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Gene Wilder is sublime as “Leopold ‘Leo’ Bloom”, the skittish accountant from Whitehall and Marx. Wilder is hysterical as the perfect foil for “Max”. Funny and touching, he is able to hold his own opposite the explosive Mostel, and shines in their first scene together – one of the film’s standouts (which lasts almost twelve minutes). Wilder’s timing and truthful emotions help the scene burst with energy and guttural laughter such as when “Max” takes his blue blanket or when he has a hysterical fit in the corner. Both are priceless. In 1963, Wilder had a small role on Broadway in “Mother Courage and Her Children”, which starred Anne Bancroft who was dating Brooks at the time. The three got to know each other, and Brooks got the idea of casting Wilder as “Leo”. Several years had passed by the time the film was financed and ready, and Brooks gave Wilder the role with one caveat, he read with Mostel first. Terrified of Mostel (who was a giant Broadway star by this point), Wilder met him in Brooks’ office, and instead of shaking his hand, Mostel planted a kiss on Wilder’s lips. The two laughed, it put him at ease, and he got the part. The two became friends until Mostel’s death. “The Producers” earned Wilder a Best Supporting Academy Award nomination, and put him on the road to becoming a film star.
When he was eight years old, Wisconsin born Gene Wilder was told by a doctor to make his ill mother laugh, and so began his interest in acting. At thirteen he started studying acting, and was performing by age fifteen. He began studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and started to get off-Broadway work, leading to his Broadway debut in 1961 (a small part in "The Complaisant Lover"). Also in 1961 he began to appear on television, and landed his first film role in the 1967 classic "Bonnie and Clyde”. “The Producers” was his first major role, and he next starred in the 1970 comedy, "Start the Revolution Without Me”. In 1971 he starred as "Willy Wonka" in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”, which like “The Producers”, has since become a classic. A year or so later, Wilder started writing a script called “Young Frankenstein”, and asked Brooks to work with him. Eventually Brooks co-wrote and directed it, but not before Wilder appeared in Brooks’ "Blazing Saddles". Both "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" were big successes, the latter earning Wilder (and Brooks) a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination (Wilder’s second and final Oscar nomination). Wilder began directing in 1975, and wrote and directed five films, including "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother” and "The World's Greatest Lover”. He famously teamed opposite Richard Pryor in four films including "Silver Streak” and "Stir Crazy”, the latter of which was directed by Sidney Poitier. In 1982 Poitier directed Wilder again in “Hanky Panky”, this time opposite Gilda Radner. Wilder and Radner fell in love and married (until her early death), and appeared in three films together. Of his thirty seven film and TV credits, other notable films include "The Little Prince", "The Frisco Kid”, and "The Woman in Red”. His final role was a recurring part on the TV sitcom "Will & Grace", for which he won an Emmy Award (his only). He was married four times. Gene Wilder died in 2016 at the age of 83.
Eccentric actor and comedian Dick Shawn plays the tripped-out, counterculture, "Lorenzo St. DuBois", better known as "LSD". Brooks offered him the part, he accepted, and Shawn's physicality and dance moves are extraordinarily zany. This off-the-wall comedian (who was said to be the inspiration for Andy Kaufman), appeared as a character actor in just under two dozen films, including "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World", "Love at First Bite", and "The Opposite Sex". He worked more extensively in television, with appearances on countless shows including "The Lucy Show", "Laverne & Shirley", "The Love Boat", "Three's Company", "Magnum, P.I.", and "Hail to the Chief". He also appeared opposite Michael Jackson in the Francis Ford Coppola short film "Captain EO", which was made for a Disney World EPCOT attraction. He was married once. Dick Shawn died in 1987 at the age of 63.
Kenneth Mars is hysterical as “Franz Liebkind”, the writer of “Springtime for Hitler”. Clearly still a Nazi, he passionately (and laughably) defends his Führer till the end. Mars is so believable in the part that Wilder said he wasn't sure if Mars was acting neurotic or simply was neurotic. To help him feel the part, Mars took his costume home every night and slept in it, and later said his scent also affected the performances of his co-stars. Mars was not the first choice for the role, as a newcomer named Dustin Hoffman was originally cast. A neighbor of Brooks, Hoffman got the part after reading for it and just before filming began, he told Brooks he had to fly to Los Angeles to audition for the lead in a Mike Nichols film titled “The Graduate”. Brooks knew of the film (since his wife was the star) and thought they’d never cast Hoffman, so he told him to go audition. Hoffman was immediately cast (and “The Graduate” made him a star), so Brooks scrambled to find a new “Franz”. "The Producers" was Mars' second film. I can't imagine anyone else as perfect in this role. He worked again with Brooks in “Young Frankenstein”, and you can read more about him in my post on another comedy classic, “What’s Up, Doc?”.
Estelle Winwood kills it as "Hold Me! Touch Me”, one of “Max’s” investors. Winwood evidently lied about her age when she read for the part. They requested women between seventy-five and eighty, and she was actually eighty-four. According to Brooks, she ad libbed a lot, and even grabbed Mostel in places where the sun doesn’t shine. English Born Estelle Winwood made her professional debut when she was twenty. In her early thirties she moved to the US, making her Broadway debut in 1916's “Hush!”. As theater was her true love, she traveled between the London and New York stages, appearing in over forty Broadway shows alone. Not eager to make films, she only appeared in three in the 1930s (including a role in “Quality Street” opposite Katharine Hepburn), and appeared in only seventeen films between 1953 and 1976, including “Camelot", "The Swan”, "The Notorious Landlady", "Dead Ringer", "The Misfits" (already on this blog), and her final, "Murder by Death" in 1976. She worked more extensively on television, with appearances in "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", "The Twilight Zone", "Bewitched", "Dennis the Menace", "Love, American Style", and her final appearance on "Quincy M.E." in 1980. Winwood also played the recurring role of "Aunt Hilda" in the classic 1960's TV show, "Batman". She was married four times. Estelle Winwood died in 1984 at the age of 101.
Christopher Hewett is fabulous as “Roger De Bris”, the flamboyant and clueless director of “Springtime for Hitler”. Brooks said Hewett was the first and last person to read for the part since he was perfect from the start. Of English and Irish descent, Christopher Hewett was raised in England, and made his stage debut at the age of seven in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on the Irish stage. After serving in the Royal Air Force and working as an air raid warden during WWII, he worked largely at the Oxford Playhouse, as well as on the London stage. He moved to New York in 1954, first appeared in the original Broadway cast of "My Fair Lady”, and performed in and directed theater for more than two decades. Hewett appeared in five films (including "The Lavender Hill Mob" and “Ratboy”) and twenty TV shows. In addition to "The Producers", he is best known for his recurring roles on two 1980s TV series: as "Lawrence" in "Fantasy Island”; and most famously in the title role of "Mr. Belvedere”. He was a confirmed bachelor and never married. Christopher Hewett died in 2001 at the age of 80.
Andreas Voutsinas is a riot as “Carmen Ghia”, “Rogers'” “private secretary”. A fellow classmate of Anne Bancroft at the Actors Studio, she suggested him for the role. Brooks said he wanted him to look like Grigori Rasputin and behave like Marilyn Monroe, and Voutsinas did his own make-up. Just seeing him for the first time warrants a laugh. The character is named after a German sports car (the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia). Born in Khartoum of Greek descent, Andreas Voutsinas began his career studying acting and costume design at the Old Vic School, and drama and song at Webber Douglas Academy. He joined the Actors Studio in 1957, and appeared on TV in 1960. "The Producers" was his first film. He also worked as a theater director, and as an acting coach to actors who include Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, and Bancroft. He appeared in twenty films, including two more by Brooks ("The Twelve Chairs" and "History of the World: Part I”). In Paris, Voutsinas founded the acting workshop, Le Theatre Des Cinquante, based on his learnings from Lee Strasberg. He directed plays in France, and in the early 1980s moved to Greece, where he continued directing theater and became an acting teacher. He never married. Andréas Voutsinas died in 2010 at the age of 79.
Lee Meredith plays “Ulla”, “Max’s” Swedish secretary. Another perfectly cast actor, Meredith is marvelous in the role, adding a joyfully dumb blonde demeanor to her own sense of humor. Even in her small role, “Ulla” seems like a complete person with a distinct personality. When she was eleven years old, Lee Meredith made an appearance on the TV Series, "The Jack Benny Program". Right after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she landed her role in “The Producers” (which became her best known role to date). She made her Broadway debut in 1968’s “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours”, and next appeared as the “Sketch Nurse” in the original Broadway cast of “The Sunshine Boys” in 1974 (a role she reprised in the film version). Meredith made a couple more Broadway appearances, and continued to appear in films and TV (accruing nineteen film and TV credits), often in sexy, ditzy and/or comedic roles, including “Funny Girl”, “The Sunshine Boys”, "June Moon", and "Hello Down There”. She married producer Bert Stratford in 1969, and they remain married today. As of the writing of this post, Lee Meredith is 74 years old.
William (Bill) Hickey plays the drunk at bar. A prolific actor of stage, TV, and film, he has just shy of 100 film and TV credits, which include roles in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation", "Little Big Man", "Sea of Love", "The Name of the Rose", and "Prizzi's Honor" (for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination). He was also my acting teacher when I studied at HB Studios in New York decades ago. Nice man. He never married. William Hickey died in 1997 at the age of 69.
Renée Taylor briefly appears sitting on the couch as "Eva Braun" in the production of "Springtime for Hitler". She was an actress, screenwriter, playwright, producer, and director, often working with her husband, Joseph Bologna (both were nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for "Lovers and Other Strangers", based on their original Broadway play). As of today, she has just over 90 film and TV credits, and is perhaps best known to TV audiences as "Sylvia Fine" on the 1990s TV sitcom, "The Nanny". As of the writing of this post, Renée Taylor is 88 years old.
“The Producers” is credited with coining two phrases: “creative accounting” and “when you’ve got it, flaunt it!”
This week’s film is pure, unadulterated fun. It is outrageous, moving, and a film I’m sure you won’t forget. One of my favorites, enjoy “The Producers”!
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