"Shut up, I'm having a rhetorical conversation."
From a book no one wanted to publish, to a play no one wanted to stage, to a screenplay no one wanted to produce, to a movie that no one wanted to see, to a juggernaut that ultimately garnered two Academy Award nominations, one Oscar, and eleven Tonys. Mel Brooks' The Producers finally arrives on DVD in a very big way.
Facts of the Case
Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a washed up Broadway producer, pilfering money from unsuspecting little old ladies to fund and stage a slew of unimpressive flops. When meek accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) arrives to audit his books, Max sees the road coming to an abrupt end. Like most good accountants though, Leo discovers a loophole—hypothetically speaking, a producer could generate more revenue off a flop than he ever could off a hit. With dollar signs in their eyes and larceny in their hearts, our unlikely pair of con men set off to find, fund, and stage the worst show in the history of theatre. Fasten your funny bones because the laughs are about to hit the fan.
At the age of 16, Mel Brooks worked for an unscrupulous Broadway producer who romanced elderly women in exchange for investments in his latest production and a percentage of the profits. Knowing these adventures would make a good story, he set off intending to write a book and a play, before turning his idea into a screenplay entitled "Springtime for Hitler." Now, Mel was no hack when it came to comedy, having spent 20 years in the business, as both a standup comedian and a writer. His résumé highlights include writing for the legendary comedian Sid Caesar, alongside Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner, before creating the spy spoof Get Smart. With "Springtime for Hitler" in hand, Brooks and friend/producer Sidney Glazier unsuccessfully hit up every studio for funding. Their salvation was found in B-movie king Joseph E. Levine, famous for producing such hits as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Hard Times for Dracula, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and Mad Monster Party?. Cash in hand, Brooks went about casting Broadway heavyweight Zero Mostel, rookie stage actor Gene Wilder, and newcomer Dustin Hoffman in the role of Franz Liebkind. With the start of filming only days away, Hoffman got called to Los Angeles to star opposite Mel's wife, Anne Bancroft, in The Graduate. Filling the void with little known voice-over artist Kenny Mars, the production was off and running. Once complete, the film was screened in Philadelphia to an underwhelming crowd of little more than seven people, including executive producer Joe Levine. Nobody laughed and Levine was ready to shelve the picture until, through a fluke, director Paul Mazursky and comedian Peter Sellers saw a print of the film. So impressed was Sellers that he called Levine in the middle of the night to extol the film's brilliance. The next day, Sellers took out full-page ads in all the industry trade papers, telling the world of Brooks and the film's comedic genius. The show went on win an Oscar and the Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay, an Academy Award nomination for Gene Wilder, and Golden Globe nominations for Zero Mostel and Best Screenplay. And now you know the rest of the story.
Okay, enough with the history lesson. The film itself is a blend of great storytelling and incredible performances. The plot is relatively simple, in that these two con men seek only to reap the rewards of colossal failure. What drives the picture are exquisitely crafted characters. Max is cut from the same cloth as P.T. Barnum—a man who wants nothing more than to live larger than life. In meeting Leo, he sees the one chance he has to regain and surpass his former glory. Max is inspired to do whatever it takes to make this plan work. Leo is a neurotic nebbish of sizable proportions. Imagine Woody Allen to Nth degree. He is racked with guilt, fear, and insecurity. Despite his outwardly consuming faults, Leo is a kind-hearted soul who longs for adventure. Having been a life-long prisoner of low self-esteem, Leo's chance meeting with Max has turned his life upside down. If he can push past the fear, the ride of his life is about to begin. Franz Liebkind, the third and final member of our protagonist trio and author of "Springtime for Hitler," is an off-the-wall stowaway from the fall of the Third Reich. His love for the motherland and its most infamous son springboard our heroes into a hilariously warped mind. What's more, Brooks goes beyond the call of duty, giving great depth and intricacy to even his smallest characters.
Keep in mind, the characters are only as good as the actors who give them life. Legendary stage actor Zero Mostel (Fiddler on the Roof) was born to play Max Bialystock, his presence filling every inch of the screen. The opening title sequence alone shows the power and presence of this underappreciated comedian. Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory), in only his second feature film, is nothing less than brilliant, earning every bit of his Academy Award nomination. Pay particular attention to his panic attack in Act One. Kenny Mars (Young Frankenstein), who went on to become one of those recognizable characters actors you see in everything, provides the balancing force for these other two characters. For as loud and boisterous as Mostel and Wilder are, Mars is quietly insane, frightening even them. Christopher Hewett (Mr. Belvedere) is the embodiment of every idiosyncratic, egotistical theatre director. Although Roger De Bris is a brief role, Hewett chews scenery every minute he's on screen. Quietly supporting him is Greek-born stage actor Andreas Voutsinas (History of the World, Part I) as Carmen Giya (enter rimshot here), De Bris' assistant/partner. Let us not overlook the incomparable Dick Shawn (the voice of Snow Miser in TV's Year Without a Santa Claus) as Lorenzo St. DuBois (LSD), the hipster Hitler. Shawn was a truly brilliant comedic oddball, often ahead of his time—the Jim Carrey of his day. Finally, keep an eye out for appearances by familiar character actors Barney Martin (Jerry's Dad on Seinfeld), Rene Taylor (Fran's Mom on The Nanny), and the late Bill Hickey (Uncle Lewis in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation).
As for the physical evidence, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is unbelievable. A full frame version is available for those who are so inclined. Compare it to the original theatrical trailer (included on the disc) and you will see just what an amazing job MGM did in cleaning up the print. Hokey smokes! The colors are muted, as was the style of the late 1960s, but solid nonetheless. The 5.1 audio is always a welcome addition, although the film mostly utilizes the center channel, with all five kicking in and waking up the subwoofer on Johnny Morris' incredible musical numbers and the explosive climax of the picture.
Before this review gets any longer, let's wrap up by talking about the wealth of bonus features included on this disc. The 64-minute documentary on "The Making of…" is the cornerstone and a must see. I wish more studios would take the time to do pieces like this. There is one deleted scene featuring actor Bill Hickey in an expanded role. While not overly interesting, it does show how important the editing process is in managing the pace of a film. As mentioned, the original theatrical trailer is included, as are the collected sketches of production designer Charles Rosen, and a series of production stills and lobby cards. One other interesting tidbit is director Paul Mazursky reading Peter Sellers' statement in the trades. Why they didn't just include this in the documentary is beyond me, but I'm not complaining. Top it all off with a commercial for the Broadway soundtrack and a series of studio trailers, and you have one fine presentation.
It doesn't happen very often, but every once in a while a great script goes before the cameras with a great cast to create movie magic. For people who have seen the The Producers on the stage, you will most definitely want to see how it all began. For fans of Mel Brooks, this disc receives a buy recommendation of the highest magnitude. For everyone else who loves a good comedy, do yourselves a favor and rent it. You'll be glad you did.
This court finds The Producers guilty of being a Grade A comedy. I hereby sentence the film to be preserved for posterity for the entire world to appreciate. In addition, I order all of Mel Brooks' films to be given equal treatment. This court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• "Making Of" Documentary
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