The Producers (1967) is an uneven debut for director Mel Brooks, but his entertaining story and several good jokes narrowly overcome the more overbearing humor.
When you’re a fan of a filmmaker’s body of work, but you take a while to get to the feature film that started their entire directing career, it can be fascinating to go back and see their style at its earliest. You see what strengths the director already had, what they needed to work on, and the roots of a fully-fledged style to come. In the case of The Producers (1967), the directorial debut of Mel Brooks, it’s clear that Brooks already had great, hilarious ideas and knew how to get some enjoyable characters and a few really good laughs out of them… but there were a lot of kinks that got ironed out in his later work. The Producers stars Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock, a financially struggling Broadway producer, and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom, his accountant. These two men work together to con old women into investing far more money into their latest play than it costs to produce. They then set out to make that play such a horrendous flop that they’ll never be asked for their money back. The name of said play? Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden … Need I say more?
Even before watching The Producers, this premise on paper is one of the funniest I think I’ve ever seen for a comedy. Even if the film were to tackle it in the most simplistic, bare-bones way possible, there would still be a lot of amusement from the very idea of someone in showbusiness trying to make a commercial failure to get more money. Rarely can you find a more humorously blatant example of wealth superseding artistic integrity, let alone basic ethical integrity, than in the hair-brained scheme our main characters cook up.
Even though not as much time is devoted to actually brainstorming the play as I would have liked, and the content of the play isn’t as tasteless as some imaginations may build it up to be – though it was quite controversial when The Producers first came out – the humor of this setup is enough to carry a decent chunk of the film. It’s even better when you see how the play is received and how that shows just how little Max and Leo understand the nature of art and expression. They’re so lacking in the knowledge of what makes good storytelling that they don’t see beyond how the play reads on paper and are therefore blind to what they’re truly creating.
Both Mostel and Wilder give big performances that tell you so much about who their characters are just by looking at them. Leo in particular goes through the biggest transformation from a small man riddled with anxiety to one with a newfound sense of purpose and confidence. Wilder makes him endearing enough where you don’t want him to go down this scummy path, but you’re also strangely happy that doing so has giving him such joy. Mostel gives 100% of his energy to the pure sliminess of Max … but maybe a bit too much energy. This is where The Producers fumbles and where I think Mel Brooks’ filmmaking inexperience shows the most. Many performances, particularly Mostel’s, often rely way too much on screaming and hyperactive scenery – chewing that sometimes comes off as more obnoxious than funny. Even when there’s a great idea for a scene, this excessiveness sabotages it.
For example, The Producers opens with Max having an erotic session with one of his investors. This is funny at first, but it goes on for way too long and gets mostly awkward to watch. In another scene, our main duo must get the original writer of Springtime for Hitler (Kenneth Mars) to approve of the play’s adaptation, and in doing so are forced to listen to him prattle on about the greatness of Hitler himself. This is funny and uncomfortable in concept, but Mars goes so over-the-top in his ranting that it wavers between laughably uncomfortable and just plain irritating. The Producers often feels like it’s having trouble finding the right amount of energy to bring and how to make its zany material not feel too overbearing. Brooks’s later films like Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs have similarly outlandish material, but there’s a lot more discipline in how those films handle it. The Producers has small swaths of that discipline, and the film is far more consistently entertaining in the second half than in the first half, but a lot of the laughs come more from the ideas of what we’re seeing rather than their deliveries.
Springtime for Hitler is very entertaining when you finally see it. It’s obviously in poor taste, but that’s the entire point. It’s supposed to be offensive even within the context of the film. The play is almost a little vanilla compared to how the subject matter of Hitler and Nazis has been satirized in the decades after this film’s release. I guess that speaks to how much credit The Producers deserves for being so ahead of its time and boundary-pushing. The play’s titular song is also ungodly catchy, and I’ve been a little disturbed by how many times I’ve caught myself singing the words in my head. The play even looks really good from a production standpoint … honestly, Max should’ve cheapened out on that aspect even more if he wanted the show to be truly awful. But I guess it makes sense to at least let us, the viewer, have a good time watching it.
Capping everything off with a fittingly irreverent ending, The Producers manages to come through as a cleverly conceptualized look at the nature of entertainment, how it can be warped and twisted based on who’s in control of it, and the slippery slope between expected failure and accidental success. It’s just a little too overbearing for me to hold it in nearly as high regard as some of Brooks’s other, far more refined comedies. It must have been very bold for its time, and the jokes that hit narrowly manage to outweigh the ones that miss. Imperfect as it may be, The Producers is an enjoyable enough comedy to warrant a modest recommendation to those who haven’t seen it yet.