The Producers is a jet black comedy satire from 1967, with industry legend Mel Brooks behind the screenplay and direction.
Starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as hapless swindlers, the pair hatch a plan to profit from a disastrous and tasteless Broadway production about Adolf Hitler.
It’s a very unusual film and continues to be divisive. But despite showing its age, the peaks are still impressive and often hilarious. Springtime for Hitler and Germany! Goosestep’s the new step… oh, we’ll get to that.
The Producers Turns Nazi Germany Into a Broadway Musical
Mel Brooks thought up the idea for The Producers as a way to light-heartedly “get even” with anti-Semites.
Brooks is now 95. He grew up in New York as part of a poor Jewish family who emigrated from various parts of Europe. During World War II he was actually a combat engineer in the US army.
In a 1978 interview he told Canada’s Maclean’s magazine:
“That may be my Jewish heritage, the Jew being persecuted, especially my mother’s people in the Ukraine, the pogroms. More than anything, the great holocaust by the Nazis is probably the great outrage of the 20th century. There’s nothing to compare with it. And… so what can I do about it? If I get on the soapbox and wax eloquently, it’ll be blown away in the wind, but if I do Springtime For Hitler it’ll never be forgotten. I think you can bring down totalitarian governments faster by using ridicule than you can with invective.”
Other inspiration for the film came from people Brooks had met in his early showbiz days, some of whom slept with older women to get their money and finance plays.
The film stars the American actor, comedian, and singer Zero Mostel (1915-1977) as Max Bialystock, a charismatic, ageing, and very corrupt Broadway producer. He’s fallen on hard times and survives off conning older women of their fortunes (*ahem* Tinder Swindler *ahem*).
One day, young accountant Leopold “Leo” Bloom (Gene Wilder, about 34 at the time of filming) arrives and inadvertently helps Bialystock hatch a plan to dupe investors by overselling shares in a Broadway production.
So long as the show is a total disaster, they’ll be set to earn a huge fortune. Afterwards, they plan to leg it to Brazil and live out their days in luxury.
Bialystock convinces Bloom, a nervous and shy man, to join forces with him. And the two set about finding the worst play imaginable.
They eventually settle on Springtime For Hitler and convince the play’s author, a complete lunatic called Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), to green light the project.
With this all set, they hold open auditions for the lead role of Hitler with a newspaper ad bearing the legend:
Open call for the role of Adolf Hitler
No previous experience required
And that leads to a ragtag bunch of wannabe Hitlers turning up in the hopes of bagging the lead role.
Eventually, they hand the role to stunningly incompetent (and barely coherent) beatnik Lorenzo St. DuBois (nicknamed L.S.D.), played by counterculture comedian Dick Shawn (1923-1987).
This leads to the first show, which Bialystock and Bloom expect to be nothing short of a calamity.
Sure enough, with the opening Springtime For Hitler musical number the audience is left stunned. The song features the lyrics:
I was born in Dusseldorf, and that is why they call me Rolf,
Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party!
Springtime for Hitler and Germany,
Goose step’s the new step today,
Bombs falling from the skies again,
Deutschland is on the rise again!
From the two minute mark, it really enters a realm of one of the most bizarre things you can ever expect to see on film. And it’s also very funny.
What’s weird about Springtime For Hitler is it’s a catchy song.
You could be forgiven singing along to that at work the next day after watching the film, with colleagues giving you all sorts of disapproving glances.
We should imagine that happened to someone in 1967. And we should also imagine that was kind of Brooks’ mischievous intention.
Anyway, to the horror of the two swindlers the play is extremely well received.
This is largely due to L.S.D’s stoner, beatnik portrayal of Adolf Hitler. The audience misinterprets his acting incompetence as satire and find the play hilarious.
In turn, that means Bialystock and Bloom have a massive hit on their hands, ruining their plan. Ultimately, it also lands them in prison. Whereupon they hatch a plan to write a new play about life in prison and hold open casting. That’s where the film ends.
Yes, then! What an unusual film The Producers is.
Key to it working are the slightly bizarre, over the top performances of Mostel and Wilder. That element is a bit overbearing and shows its age, at least for the first hour or so.
It’s when the production of the musical kicks off and they’re looking to hire Hitler that the film impresses. Some of its humour is absurd and brilliant—Brooks’ script is superb.
It was a very brave creative effort from the director. And you can see its influence in modern satires such as The Death of Stalin (2017).
The ridiculousness of The Producers is what makes it work so well, even if some of its comedic chops have aged poorly by modern standards.
But considering this is over 50 years ago now, that’s kind of an inevitability. The film merely reflects the style of acting from that era.
And the highlights remain with the quite astonishing Springtime For Hitler number and the arrival at such an absurd moment.
A classic of ’60s comedy? Goose steps! Sorry… we mean, yes! But by modern standards it shows its flaws.
The Production of Brooks’ The Producers
Brooks specifically asked for Zero Mostel to play the part of Max Bialystock, although his lawyer detested the script and refused to show it to Mostel.
So, Brooks sent it to Mostel’s wife. She loved it and showed it to her husband, who was initially upset about having to portray the rather unflattering role of Bialystock. But his wife convinced him to take the part.
Peter Sellers was initially intended for the role of Leo Bloom and accepted the role. But that fell through as Sellers went AWOL. And Brooks thought of Gene Wilder and offered him the role.
Also, Dustin Hoffman was intended to play the crazy Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. He took the role, but then abandoned the production so he could star in The Graduate.
Filming began on May 22nd, 1967, and was wrapped in only 40 days. The shoot took place at Chelsea Studios in New York.
For the musical scenes, the Playhouse Theatre was used. Although this building was razed shortly after in 1969.
23 years after the end of World War II, The Producers ran in cinemas for the first time. And the reaction was understandably divisive.
Brooks faced criticism for the subject matter (as you’d expect). After seeing the film, apparently one lady said to him it was “vulgar”. He responded by saying:
“Lady, it rose below vulgarity.”
Critics were variously confused, unconvinced, alarmed, and/or delighted with the film. Roger Ebert loved it!
Plenty of others didn’t, accusing it of being “crude” or worse.
Others compared it to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), although believed it was inferior to Kubrick’s brilliantly bleak satire (which actually did star Peter Sellers).
However, The Producers proved to be a sleeper hit at the US box office, providing a solid return on its modest $941,000 budget.
Despite the controversies, and Brooks’ inexperience as a debut director, the film was nominated for two Oscars. It won one, for Best Original Screenplay.
The Producers’ Revival in the 2000s
In 2005, The Producers returned with an all-star cast. Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Uma Thurman, and Will Ferrell took on leading roles.
Gary Beach starred as Hitler. Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan adapted the script.
The film met with middling reviews and was also a box office flop, taking back $28.1 million from its lavish $45 million budget.
Critics lambasted the pointlessness of the remake. It’s basically a scene-by-scene update of the original, just with more lavish production. The dance number, for example, is much more extensive.
However, the reason for The Producer’s 2005 wasn’t just down to Hollywood doing that mindless remake stuff. It was actually due to the successful Broadway run of The Producers as a genuine musical.
Mel Brooks was convinced in the late 1990s by David Geffen (the American business magnate) to turn the 1967 film into a stage musical.
Brooks wrote the full production and added new numbers, with the show debuting on April 19th 2001 at St. James Theatre in New York.
The Producers as a musical was a riotous success—a critical and commercial darling. It won 12 out of 15 awards it was nominated for at the 2001 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
You can see a snippet of it below, with Gary Beach as Hitler kicking off for the main spectacle at the 5:50 mark.
Then, from 11 minutes onward, the arrival of an animatronic saluting Nazi robot army sends the audience off into stitches. It’s quite gloriously absurd.
Just to point out, too, that Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane starred in the production. Although that was just for Broadway, with other actors stepping in for the extensive touring the show did across the US.
It eventually ran for 2,502 shows! The initial run came to the UK’s West End in 2004, too.
So, you can see why it seemed like a good idea to turn the production into the 2005 film. But critics did note the material, as a musical, didn’t adapt well to the big screen. As it’s a theatre production. Ho hum.
After the film flopped, there was another UK tour in 2007 of the musical. And again as recently as 2015!
All we can say is we’re forever thankful we can take the piss out of the Nazis like this, rather than being forced to salute Hitler’s far-right Third Reich each morning.