‘The Producers:’ Still funny at 50
Before Blazing Saddles (1974), before Young Frankenstein (also 1974) and High Anxiety (1977), Mel Brooks made his big-screen bow as writer/director with The Producers, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Boasting the unlikely but uproarious star duo of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and featuring the even unlikelier musical number “Springtime for Hitler,” The Producers remains an incorrigible, irreverent, one-of-a-kind comedy. Not only did the film provide a major career springboard for Wilder (who’d made his screen debut in Bonnie and Clyde the year before), earning him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, but in a surprise upset, Brooks took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, all the more remarkable when you consider the other nominees that year: The Battle of Algiers, Faces, Hot Millions and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
To mark the momentous occasion of The Producers’ 50th birthday, Fathom Events has joined forces with Turner Classic Movies and Rialto Pictures to bring the film back to the big screen as part of the ongoing “TCM Big Screen Classics” series, with special screenings June 3, followed by encore screenings June 6. More than 700 cinemas nationwide will present The Producers – including the Greensboro Grande Stadium.
Mostel, in a performance perhaps best described as “unhinged,” portrays Max Bialystock, a has-been two-bit Broadway producer who now specializes in seducing elderly dowager ladies in order to finance his fictitious upcoming productions. Wilder plays Leo Bloom – so named by Brooks in honor of the protagonist in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – a timid accountant who goes over Bialystock’s financial statements and realizes he’s a complete and utter fraud.
Bialystock doesn’t deny it – and fact, he revels in it – and he manages to cajole, coerce, and finally convince Bloom to help him produce a Broadway play that can’t help but flop, thereby allowing them to escape with the investors’ money. After all, who would seek returns on a flop? To further pad their pockets, Bialystock and Bloom essentially sell 250 percent of the play to investors.
And what a play it is: “Springtime for Hitler,” a fond – and thus far, unproduced (with good reason) – valentine to the Third Reich as penned by Franz Liebkin (Kenneth Mars), a former Nazi determined to celebrate his Fuhrer as he remembers him – with love and affection. The director, one Roger DeBris (Christopher Hewett), is a clueless cross-dresser whose track record is that his plays usually close on the first day of rehearsal. Finally, for the all-important role of Hitler, they select Lorenzo Saint DuBois (Dick Shawn), an over-the-hill flower child who goes by the nickname “L.S.D.”
Not unlike the characters in the story, Brooks had considerable difficulty finding backers for The Producers, which he initially considered as a play. He even cast Dustin Hoffman as Liebkin, but the actor begged off when movie mogul Joseph E. Levine – one of The Producers’ backers – tapped him to audition for the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967). When the film was initially screened in late 1967, audience response was so poor that the distributor (Levine’s Embassy Pictures) seriously considering shelving it and taking, yes, a loss. In this case, however, life did not imitate art. Actor Peter Sellers, whom Brooks had once considered for the role of Bloom, hosted a screening of the film at his home in California and was so entertained he took out a full-page ad in Variety trumpeting its merits. When The Producers finally saw release in 1968, some critics were tickled and others appalled. The same could be said for audiences, some of whom simply weren’t prepared for the sheer audacity and rapid-fire farce that became a Brooks trademark.
In the end, Brooks certainly had the last laugh, to say nothing of an Academy Award: In 1996, The Producers was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
As a bonus, Brooks and TCM Primetime host Ben Mankiewicz appear in a brand-new interview segment in which Brooks discusses not only the film’s genesis but its enduring legacy, which included a smash Broadway musical that opened in 2001, earned a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards and ran over 2,500 performances.
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The TCM Big Screen Classics presentation of Mel Brooks’ The Producers will be screened 2 pm and 7 pm June 3 and June 6 at Greensboro Grande Stadium 16, 3205 Northline Ave., Greensboro. Tickets are $13.34 (general admission) for all shows. For advance tickets or more information, check out www.FathomEvents.com.