Judge Jim Thomas sadly admits his failed Broadway play was a real failure.
Leo Bloom: Let's assume, just for the moment, that you are a dishonest
People throw the word "classic" about a bit too freely these days—a competitive game is labeled an "instant classic"; TNT used to tout their movie lineup as "The New Classics." The thing is, classic doesn't (in my mind, at least), just mean very good or even great. Any movie labeled "classic" should have two key distinctions: It should have stood the test of time, and it should have demonstrably influenced the films that follow. That brings me to The Producers and Shout! Factory's new The Producers (Blu-ray) release.
The Producers is a classic—and this new release from SHOUT!Factory is pretty damned good as well.
Facts of the Case
Poor Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Once the most celebrated producer on Broadway, he now works out of a seedy office, seducing little old ladies to secure funding. Everything changes when nebbish accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder, Blazing Saddles) shows up. While reviewing the books from Max's last production, Leo observes that it's possible to make more money off of a flop than a hit. A klieg light goes off over Max's head, and he quickly convinces Leo that they have a foolproof plan: They will bring together the worst play (which turns out to be Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden), the worst director, and the worst cast. Then, after the play bombs, they'll skip the country will all the money.
What could possibly go wrong?
The initial scene between the larger-than-life Bialystock and the uber-neurotic Bloom is the stuff of legend. I watched the movie with some friend back in grad school over—well, a long time ago—and we were howling; Mostel and Wilder play off each other so perfectly that even when they go a wee bit over the top ("I'm in pain! And I'm wet…and I'm still hysterical!"), it almost seems natural. Really, the key scene in the early going is Max and Leo just wandering around New York City, enjoying themselves, culminating in a lovely sequence at the Lincoln Center fountain. It allows Leo to come out of his shell enough to function properly, and it keeps Max from coming off as mean-spirited. That sort of goodwill was needed, particularly for Mostel, who channeled a lot of his own personal frustrations into the role—his career never quite recovered from being blacklisted in the 1950s, and he was still recovering from being hit by a bus eighteen months earlier; he almost lost his leg, and his movements were still hampered.
Part of the brilliance of the plot is in how the major characters are introduced. Max and Leo are our baseline, and they're kind of off the charts whackadoodle themselves. So how do you top these two outrageous characters? Enter playwright Franz Leibkin (Kenneth Mars, Young Frankenstein), pigeon raiser and former Nazi, determined to make everyone realize what a swell guy the Fuhrer was (Wilder notes in one the featurettes that he was never sure if Liebkin was crazy or Mars himself was crazy). So how do you top that? Meet Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett, (Mr. Belvedere), a director whose plays are so bad that they close on the first day of rehearsal; in addition, if he were any more flaming, he could talk to Moses. At that point, you're saying to yourself, this just can't get any weirder, but up pops Dick Shawn as Lorenzo St. DuBois (LSD), a flower child so detached from reality that he's destined to play Hitler. (Brooks shrewdly omitted LSD from the stage version of The Producers; no one could have possibly matched Shawn's performance.) Each major character we meet is crazier than the one before—a damned impressive achievement.
While the movie is far from perfect, its infectious energy grabs you up and carries you headlong to the film's pièce de résistance, the opening performance of Springtime for Hitler. Here's the thing: With all these whackjob characters, with Max continually going on about how bad this play is going to be, the buildup gets to the point where it's impossible for the play to meet expectations. Then they go and do just that: it's gauche, tasteless, and utterly without merit—and I still laugh out loud during the damn thing. In the extras, the composer and the choreographer talk about how much fun it was, trying to make each moment more outrageous than the next. It is an absolutely brilliant set piece, something Brooks never comes close to matching in his career (with the possible exception of "The Inquisition" in The History of the World, Part One).
Shout!Factory has done a wonderful job with this release. The AVC-encoded video has great detail, as well as outstanding color depth. Some blemishes remain, but they are few and far between. Colors pop off the screen—the costumes in particular benefit from the high-definition transfer—not just the costumes for the musical, but the regular clothing—Max's smoking jacket looks exactly like something that was opulent many, many years ago, but now is a sad, rumpled, faded relic of happier times. The images are somewhat soft in several of the outdoor scenes, but that is likely a function of the film stock, as the film was shot on a shoestring. Also encouraging is that the film hasn't bee DNRed within an inch of its life; there is a consistent amount of grain throughout. The uncompressed LPCM mono track is crisp and clear, but you also have the option to go with a re-mastered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Before you get too bunched up, note that while the remastered audio isn't that big an improvement over the original, it does have two things to recommend it: 1. Sound effects have been re-mastered somewhat to open up the sound field somewhat. 2. John Morris' and Brook's musical score benefits tremendously from the new mix, even before the curtain rises on the duo's magnum opus.
All of the extras have been brought over from the earlier DVD edition, including the hourlong "The Making of The Producers." However, you also get an excerpt from "Mel and His Movies," an American Masters segment aired by PBS earlier this year. The 18-minute segment has Brooks talking about how The Producers fits into his filmmaking oeuvre. (I've just used "oeuvre" in a sentence. Correctly. Suddenly those six years of grad school don't seem like such a waste anymore).
There's even a bonus extra of sorts. The cover art features a nice portrait of Max and Leo; however, if you remove that sheet from the case and flip it over, you'll have a cover based on the original poster art: a showgirl with a Hitler moustache.
Trivia I: Dustin Hoffman had agreed to play Franz Liebkin, but had to beg Brooks to release him when Mike Nichols asked him to fly out to California and audition for The Graduate (incidentally, co-starring Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft).
Trivia II: After the movie was finished, they were having trouble getting a distributor, Paul Mazursky, who had just written I Love You Alice B. Toklas, had a small film club with some of the cast and crew. One night when he had forgotten to get the Fellini movie he had intended to show, the projectionist suggested this new film on the shelf. The Producers had everyone on the floor, and one of the cast members, chap by the name of Peter Sellers, was so delighted by the movie that he took out a full page ad in Variety extolling the brilliance of the film. The film was released shortly after; it still didn't do well at the box office, but Brooks often credits Sellers' ad for winning him the Best Original Screenplay Oscar that year.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
OK, yeah, the movie's dated, the direction is far from polished, and it's full of howling stereotypes. Fortunately, the pacing keeps any of these issues from becoming a serious impediment.
Where did they go right? In this case, just about everywhere.
We find the defendants incredibly innocent.
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