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The Producers (1968): Deluxe Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars

Written and directed by Mel Brooks

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

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 only 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. Mel Brooks' original incarnation of The Producers is a broad, bawdy, and above all funny farce, and remains so more than once in a lifetime. Now nearly forty 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 catchphrases "creative accounting" and "when you got it, flaunt it" do their own high kicks 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 their 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. 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. Dick Shawn's groooovy audition number "Love Power." Leo's blue blanket, or the transformed milquetoast's sweet courtroom testimonial. Everything Kenneth Mars utters. Let's not forget the cross-dressing Broadway director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and his fussy "secretary," Carmen Giya. (Here Brooks' "no stereotype unturned" approach feels downright progressive compared to the "Keep It Gay!" easy laughs of his Broadway musical decades later.) Topping it all is the "Springtime for Hitler" production number, with its goose-stepping Rockettes and Rhinemaidens 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 standup 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 we 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." Brooks' numerous tripwires for potential offense are strung with a good-natured whimsy that he tightened for slyly sagacious purposes a few years later in Blazing Saddles. Now and then the world needs 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. Today it's a venerated "cult" touchstone almost in spite of the Broadway mainstreaming it received in 2000, which showtuned the "sub-" right out of the original's subversive lampoonery. A record number of Tony awards is a fine thing, and the over-upholstered 2005 movie of the 2000 musical of the 1968 movie is at least less numbing than anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber. But nonetheless, we'll take Mostel and Wilder any day.

*          *          *

A second disc is the only material difference between MGM's 2005 Deluxe Edition of The Producers and the studio's two-sided "Special Edition" DVD from 2002. Adding only the trailer for the 2005 Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick movie musical, this release moves the extras to their own disc.

The 2002 edition was one of the best releases of that year, showing off all things good about the DVD medium. So for anyone who didn't grab that disc, it's a pleasure to report that this latest release simply gives that edition a new home and a slightly more grandiose honorific behind the colon. The same splendid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is stunningly clean, with such rich color and crisp detail that it looks as though it were shot last month. An open-matte full-screen version is also here, and because it's not cropped like a spent cigar with the dreaded pan-and-scan, some viewers may prefer its greater head room.

Audio options include the original monaural track (DD 2.0) and a DD 5.1 mix, both clear and strong with fine dynamic range. The richer 5.1 option offers a stout soundstage across the front plus slight use of the surrounds. However, oddly, it also removes the dancers' tap-shoe tappity-taps from the "Springtime" number.

Headlining the extras is The Making of The Producers, a generous five-part, hour-long feature from 2002 by Laurent Bouzereau. With Bouzereau's ubiquitous relaxed, talking-head-driven thoroughness, this brisk memory box features interviews with Brooks, Wilder, Mars, Meredith, assistant director Michael Hertzberg, and others recalling the movie's conception, casting, and filming. Among other revelations, Brooks, a born raconteur, tells us that the actor originally considered for the role of Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind bowed out of a New York meeting with Brooks to instead head to Hollywood for a big break in a movie starring Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft — the actor, Dustin Hoffman, therefore found his stardom in The Graduate. According to Hoffman's replacement, Kenneth Mars, securing Mars' contract involved negotiating the terms of the question "How much pigeon shit do you want?" It was that kind of production.

Further extras include:

Not carried over from the 2002 edition was the original film's theatrical trailer, as well as the promo for the 2001 Broadway cast CD (which became a first-rate DVD by itself).

Finally, a two-page foldout prints production tidbits culled from the DVD extras.

When you got it, flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!

—Mark Bourne

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