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The Producers: Special Edition

If you're going to call a movie "the ultimate film" and "the essence of all great comedy" written and directed by a "genius" — particularly if the movie is by a first-time director/screenwriter, cast largely with unknowns, budgeted under $1 million, and opening in a handful of theaters — then you'd better be able to back up such a decree. If you're Peter Sellers, with star-making performances in Dr. Strangelove among others in your bona fides, you back it up by taking out a full-page proclamation in Variety stating all of the above. In that very public endorsement, which appeared when The Producers opened under timid distribution in 1968, Sellers also said "Those of us who have seen this film and understand it have experienced a phenomenon which occurs only once in a life span." In that one respect we are pleased to disagree with the estimable Mr. Sellers. The Producers is a broad, bawdy, sharp, and above all funny farce, and remains so more than once in a lifetime. Almost thirty-five years later (more than a lifetime for many folks discovering this burlesque for the first time), The Producers is a gold standard for all in-your-face comedies that pile on more "tasteless" scenes than you could shake a shtick at. On the American Film Institute's list of the "100 Funniest American Movies of All Time," it ranks #11, near two other team-ups between director Mel Brooks and actor Gene Wilder, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

The catch-phrases "creative accounting" and "when you got it, flaunt it" began in The Producers, a story of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel, bigger than life with a comb-over to match), a once-was theatrical producer on the skids. A chance remark by mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder, in his first major screen role) gives Bialystock a bald-faced criminal scheme — secure a million bucks by seducing wealthy old ladies, produce a play so awful it's guaranteed to close by page four, and then head to Rio before the investors come to collect the 25,000 percent of the profits sold. Bialystock convinces Bloom to dance on the bold side of life for a change, and before long "Bialystock & Bloom, Theatrical Producers" hire a pneumatic Swedish receptionist, Ulla (Lee Meredith), for whom "go to work" means go-go dancing in a yellow minidress. Cracked ex-Nazi Kenneth Mars, love-lorn for the Führer only he knew ("He vas a terrific dancer"), provides the play — "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden." One of Brooks' most inspired casting choices gave the plumb role of Adolf Hitler to hepcat standup comic Dick Shawn, who steals his scenes as addled flower child Lorenzo St. Dubois ("But all my friends call me L.S.D."). It's a foolproof plan — until the outrageous Busby Berkeley-styled musical that is "Springtime for Hitler" proves to be the biggest hit on the Great White Way.

Just try cataloging the memorable moments and lines in this cheerily naughty horseplay. In Bialystock, stage icon Zero Mostel embodies an ungovernable force of nature, his every word and deed super-sized with ferocious gusto to Zeus-like proportions. There's the randy granny Hold Me Touch Me (Estelle Winwood, who puts more horny joy into the line "Let's fool around" than any woman born in 1883 should). There's Wilder's "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!" punctuated by the ejaculatory Lincoln Center fountain. Let's not forget the cross-dressing Broadway director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and his fussy "secretary" Carmen Giya (Andréas Voutsinas) — inflating gay stereotypes is just one of a dozen reasons why The Producers couldn't possibly be a new studio product in these hypersensitive times. Dick Shawn's groooovy audition number "Love Power." Leo's blue blanket, or the transformed milquetoast's sweet-natured courtroom testimonial. Everything Kenneth Mars utters. Topping it all is the "Springtime for Hitler" production number, with its goose-stepping Rockettes forming a choreographed swastika to a Broadway score orchestrated with gunfire and dropping bombs. You don't need to be a WWII vet to feel the glee as the movie invites us to dance on Hitler's grave.

Mel Brooks had been a stand-up comic in the Borscht Belt. The Producers is a culmination of his experience in, and profound respect for, the Catskills Jewish showbiz world that shaped him. But even he feared that his fellow Jews might see only offense in what he was doing. In '68, Hitler was just 23 years gone, and one can picture moviegoers sitting there outraged and slackjawed like the audience we see attending "Springtime for Hitler." For many, no doubt, finding comedy in Nazism was the height of bad taste. On the other hand, Roger Ebert, who saw it then, says that being there was to "witness audacity so liberating that not even There's Something About Mary rivals it." Now and then we need a splash of liberating audacity.

The Producers went on to box office success. Brooks' first-time screenplay won the Oscar. Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and Mostel earned the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy.

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Now MGM's Special Edition release of The Producers shows off all things good about the DVD medium. The splendid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is stunningly clean, with rich color and crisp detail — it looks as if it was shot last month. (A full-screen version is also on board.) Audio options include the original monaural mix and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 track, both clear and strong with fine dynamic range, although the somewhat richer 5.1 offers a nice soundstage across the front plus very slight use of the surrounds. Extras start with a fine new hour-long "making of" documentary. It's a brisk memory box featuring interviews with Brooks, Wilder, Mars, Meredith, and others recalling the movie's conception, casting, and filming. Further supplements include a production-design sketch gallery; an alternate version of the playhouse explosion scene; a photo gallery; actor/director Paul Mazursky reading Peter Sellers' published praises; the theatrical trailer; and a promo for the 2001 Broadway cast CD (which became a first-rate DVD by itself). When you got it, flaunt it, baby, flaunt it! Keep-case.
—Mark Bourne

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