Aug. 17, 2006
The Producers (1968)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Mel Brooks
Stars: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars

What it's about. Cunning Broadway show producer Zero Mostel concocts a get rich quick scheme with nebbish accountant Gene Wilder: take investor's money, use a fraction of it to produce a complete flop, then keep the remainder, without any payments to investors, since the show is a flop. The plan goes awry when "Springtime For Hitler" is interpreted as a comedy, and becomes a hit. Now what?

How others will see it. This well-known and highly regarded cult film led to Brook's successful 1970s comedies, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which also featured Wilder. The Producers was eventually revived by Brooks as a musical, and it ran for years on Broadway, leading to a second Brooks film adaptation. The outrageous production number "Springtime For Hitler" is the 1968 version's classic moment, and even though the rest of the movie isn't as good, viewers are likely to be forgiving.

How I felt about it. Gene Wilder must be the world's greatest accountant. One glance at the books, and he concludes that Brooks has stolen $2,000 from investors. Mostel is also too quick in raising multiples of the money required to stage a Broadway show, and the homosexuality of the director and his assistant is laid on way too thick.

But then, subtlety is not a Brooks trademark. This is why the bombshell secretary is also really stupid, even though her English improves dramatically between her appearances. It's also why Wilder has a panic attack when his little blue towel is taken, and it's the reason that the hippie singer is a ham who finishes every sentence with "Baby!"

Slapstick is supposed to be somewhat crude. It should be funny, however. Mostel dances with Wilder, a man he just met five minutes before, and Wilder falls flat on his back and tells Mostel, "I know you're going to jump on me." This is funny? It doesn't even make sense.

What Brooks is the master of, and always has been, is delivering the joke in such a way that even an idiot would get it, in such an exaggerated fashion that only an idiot would be delighted.

Yes, the musical number "Springtime For Hitler" is funny. At least, its final moments are, when it reaches its ridiculous climax. The scene works because it is edgy, rather than merely eccentric, obvious, or chaotic. But we can tell too quickly that the play's director is gay. How flamboyant does he need to be for us to get the joke, to the degree that there is one? It's more reminiscent of a 1930s "comedy," where grown blacks act like the have the minds of children. And Germans can't be too happy about the lunatic playwright, whose bird fascination lasts for a single scene.

Brooks' penchant for over the top characters and situations affects even his three most beloved films, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, andThe Producers. He needs to take it down a notch or two, and learn from the master of slapstick, W.C. Fields. The central character needs to be unaware of his own combination of luck and incompetence.