The Producers (Special Edition) Review
And so, the remake craze continues. Currently enjoying a successful spell on Broadway, The Producers has undergone a series of different guises; overseen by the original creator himself, Mel Brooks. A comedy legend, the film stands tall in the annals of American cinema - one of those rare examples of a comedy covering every base. Slapstick, parody, wit, and scathing one-liners combine to form pure motion picture hilarity. Of course, with the state of Hollywood steadily declining, it too has been targeted for a silver screen update, with the stage show providing much of the inspiration. A remake of a show that was itself a remake? The US studios really are low on ideas...
Despite a 36-year life span, The Producers is still grand entertainment. It is hard to disagree with the notion that Brooks has never made anything better. Blazing Saddles was awfully close, but that didn’t have the deliciously inventive plot of its forerunner. These days, when you hear the name Mel Brooks, most people immediately think of lame, unfunny comedies that don't amount to anything memorable. His career has slowly faded with the likes of Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It - parodies that lacked any real wit or staying power. As a directorial debut, The Producers is more or less perfection in this genre. Peerless performances, sure-handed direction, and a truckload of belly-laughs, it remains an enjoyably silly two hours.
Like all of the best comedies, the plot is sparse and character-driven. But the simple set-up works like a charm. Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a washed up Broadway producer. Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) is a mousy CPA, who has an assortment of personal problems. When the two meet, they hatch a foolproof plan to raise as much money as possible, in order to make a sure-fire flop. None of the backers will expect any returns, so the crazed pair could pocket the money generated by their disastrous production. But there is one problem standing in their way - they need a premise for their "masterpiece". Enter Springtime for Hitler - the worst play ever produced! However, their plans take a U-turn when the play becomes an unexpected hit...
When first released in the 60s, The Producers received a mixed reception for obvious reasons. While it may be commonplace now, at the time it wasn't a regular occurrence to make fun of one of the most evil men in history, namely Adolph Hitler. One of the most memorable scenes in the film, is when Max and Leo's production comes to a truly awful halt, replete with loud music and parading acrobats dressed in Nazi uniform, before a baffled audience. Now that's a show-stopping number! The strength of the film really does lie in the screenplay, which won Brooks an Oscar. The dialogue is dynamite, with the type of exchanges that you’ll want to quote later. The song and dance numbers in the fictional play feature some of the most inappropriate lyrics I’ve ever heard, which is a testament to the genius of Brooks. He took an area which was very sensitive to a lot of people, and put a comic slant on the whole affair. One song even features the line "don't be stupid, be a smarty...come and join the Nazi party!" Anyone with that much gall, clearly has a priceless sense of humour.
Most audiences didn’t know what to make of the film - especially the Germans, who banned the film outright. Still, Americans were lucky to see the film at all. If producer Joseph Levine had his way, the picture would have remained on the shelf (he thought the film was mired in bad taste). It wasn’t until comic legend Peter Sellers intervened, that the film was released. Sellers always had a wild taste, and it would take many years for the film to gain the recognition it deserved (it is now a bona-fide classic, appearing in the AFI’s 100 Best Comedy list). Still, it is hard to see why Levine was so put off. While the song and dance numbers do cause a stir, it is clear that Brooks never meant to do anything but take a swipe at the villainous Hitler. In one scene, Max and Bloom retreat from the home of Springtime... playwright Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), after being forced to don swastika arm bands. They promptly throw the symbols into the trash, and spit on them - could Brooks’ hatred of the Nazi’s be anymore blatant? This comedic vein is completed by Liebkind himself. Mars is perfect in the role, playing the Nazi stereotype with wild enthusiasm. He also wears a helmet for every second of his screen time, whether he is donning formal wear, or walking the streets of New York.
Still, the film works best when Mostel and Wilder are chewing the scenery. In most respects, they give the performances of their careers. If you don't laugh loudly at Wilder in at least one scene, your funny bone has been removed. He is a revelation in this movie; as the "hysterical" Bloom he is side-splitting good. The timing between the pair is what makes this film such a joy. Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor after his performance, and it isn't hard to see why. So many of the sequences stick in the memory - especially their first meeting. The exchanges rocket back and forth, and not a second out of sync. Most would say the same about their gifted co-stars, especially Dick Shawn as the inept actor L.S.D. His whacked-out, hippie version of Hitler is certainly memorable. And thankfully, there is some female flesh to accompany the testosterone. The stunning Lee Meredith provides plenty of eye candy as Max’s Swedish secretary Ulla (a role recently given to Nicole Kidman). In my mind, I can’t imagine Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the “new and improved” version. They certainly have a tough act to follow...
While The Producers is clearly a film you should see, I wouldn’t be surprised if many newcomers fail to see its merits. Tastes in the genre have changed, and compared to Hollywood’s current comedy climate, it is fairly low-key. It won’t shock and outrage like it did back in 1968. It does however, stand on its own. The laughs are ten a’ penny; a peek into a time when Brooks could do no wrong. Smart and crude in equal measure, The Producers is still a work of anarchic genius.
Available for some time on Region 1, we finally get to see The Producers on this side of the pond. It was a flipper disc released by MGM, and a pretty good one at that. For our release, Momentum have taken charge, splitting the film and extras over two discs (a better choice in my opinion). Thankfully, they’ve retained the material and quality of the previous release.
The Look and Sound
The Producers is given a glistening anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1), which appears to be exactly the same as the R1 edition. But that’s good, since the print truly defies its age. The image is relatively clear of any intrusive problems (grain does linger, but print damage is absent). The colours are very rich indeed - the Technicolor-look is reproduced to eye-popping effect. It is very impressive, considering the age of the material. Fans will be pleased no end, and I’ve yet to see the film look better.
A new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is offered here, though we lose the original mono found on the previous DVD. Still, the 5.1 option is more than adequate, projecting every sound effect with gusto. There is slight stereo separation evident in several scenes, but most of the track sounds like a mono mix, and there isn't much difference between the two. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and music is vibrant, especially in the stage scenes. Purists may miss the original soundtrack, but it isn't a big loss...
Simple and effective, they work fine. They aren’t animated (which is mildly disappointing), but are pleasing to the eye. The faces of Max and Bloom “greet” us when they load, and the options are clearly displayed. Navigating through these menus certainly won’t give you a headache.
Placed on the second disc, Momentum have been given access to MGM’s material. Everything is present and correct, though I am still annoyed by the lack of an audio commentary. Surely there is more to say about this film? Quality, not quantity, is the key phrase here.
“The Making of The Producers”
A pretty outstanding documentary, which runs for just over an hour. Everything is documented here, from the conception of the film, to production and exhibition. Interviews with cast and crew are present (including Brooks and Wilder), and all of them have great memories of this very unusual film. This is a must-watch, and provides a neat background to the picture; especially anecdotes about audience reactions.
As with most discs, the photo gallery is pretty much worthless, though fans will want to skip through it regardless. There are some interesting black and white stills, around 40 in total, though there could have been more. More entertaining, is a sketch gallery by production designer Charles Rosen. In a rather clever touch, there are comparisons made between the drawings and the final film.
A deleted segment from the movie, called “The Playhouse Outtake” is quite amusing, and certainly worth a look. It is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, and appears in good shape (though I don’t want to spoil it). The most intriguing extra of the set, is a “Statement from Peter Sellers”, which is read by filmmaker Paul Mazursky. It is brief, but very entertaining, providing a clearer understanding of the films hectic release campaign. Last but not least, is the original theatrical trailer, presented in full-frame form.
Momentum have done The Producers proud, and released an above-average disc. It may be the R1 edition repackaged (the extras should have been on the same disc), but it doesn't fail to entertain. Those new to the film will be well-served by this disc, and wowed by the vibrancy of the transfer. I guess there's nothing left to do but see the stage show...