“A flop—that’s putting it mildly! We’ve found a disaster, a catastrophe, an outrage! A guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty! … Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Wow!”
It’s been a long time since World War II ended, so it’s become more acceptable to joke about Hitler. But there was a musical parody of Hitler that hit much earlier. The Producers was released in 1967—a mere 22 years after the war ended—so it’s easy to forget today how audacious this film was in its time. Directed by Mel Brooks (Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles) and starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, this film was made to be vulgar, and it’s the film’s audacity that makes it such an enduring classic. (Brooks’s parents were both Jewish immigrants who had escaped from WWII Europe, so if any director has a right to joke about Nazi Germany, it’s this one.) Honestly, Mel Brooks films are kind of hit or miss for me. I loved Spaceballs, but wasn’t so crazy about Blazing Saddles. The Producers, a movie about a flop, is a certified hit. This is one of Brooks’s finest films, and it’s stood the test of time, even warranting a remake in 2005 (that wasn’t nearly as good).
The story opens with Max Bialystock, a washed up Broadway producer, trying to seduce old rich women so they’ll back his productions financially. His accountant, Leo Bloom, unwittingly hatches a scheme to defraud his investors by producing a musical that’s so bad that it gets canceled after the first night, allowing them to pocket the rest of the money. After a thorough search, they find a sure-fire flop: Springtime for Hitler. They recruit the musical’s writer and the worst director in the business and set out to make a musical that everyone will hate.
Don’t be stupid, be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi party.
This is a Mel Brooks film, so the comedy is the star of the show here, and what a star it is. As I mentioned, this film is intentionally somewhat vulgar, but not so much that it interferes with enjoyment. The jokes are more than the vulgarity. They’re smart—smarter than a lot of other Brooks films, and a lot of other comedies from the 60s. It’s daring, but it’s also competent. This film beat 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Battle of Algiers for the Oscar for Best Screenplay. (Brooks himself was shocked at the announcement and had no speech prepared.) If that’s not a testament to its intelligence, I don’t know what is. It artfully mixes highbrow and lowbrow humor without running too far with either.
Remember, the original audience of this film had a lot of people that remembered how devastating World War II was. The film was banned in Germany upon its release. It was nearly banned in America, until some lobbying from Peter Sellers convinced the studio to release it if they changed the name from Springtime for Hitler to The Producers. Imagine someone writing a comedy about 9/11 today. In 1967, this was worse. Brooks once said that it was his lifelong job to make people laugh at Hitler—it was the only tool he had available to him to get revenge. That ill intent is probably a big factor in why this film was made at all. It’s not as shocking now as it was in 1967, but context clues in the film give us a clue as to how innovative and delightfully disgraceful it was when it came out.
Is The Producers the best Mel Brooks film? Most would say no, but it’s certainly one of his better ones and it’s actually my favorite. And, considering this was his first film, I’d say it’s outstanding. I would not describe myself as a Mel Brooks fan, but I loved this quirky, irreverent little comedy. Modern filmmakers take note: this is how irreverent comedy is done.
Director: Mel Brooks