Mel Brooks’ first effort was the Citizen Kane of debut comedies: The Producers is as good of a film as you’ll ever see.
Brooks had written a film previously in the 50s and done some voice work—and of course was a famous comic by that point (he’s still doing his nightclub act at 92), and he had been behind the Get Smart TV show with Buck Henry. The film emerged from an idea Brooks had for a long time, but no one wanted to make it. Maybe it was the original title: Springtime for Hitler, which he had also thought of writing up as a novel. Luckily he chose to write a screenplay instead. He pitched it to every studio as a treatment, and every studio turned him down (although they were more OK with Springtime for Mussolini, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it…)
Finally he met producer Sidney Glazier, who thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Eventually Avco Embassy came on board, a small company that had so far only had a few hits—it specialised in British releases and was one step above AIP in terms of prestige. But in December of 1967 they had a shocking massive hit with The Graduate. There are links, in that Anne Bancroft is Mrs Mel Brooks, and Dustin Hoffman was slated to star in The Producers when he was offered his role in The Graduate. Half the money came from a wealthy donor who liked the idea of laughing at Nazis.
Gene Wilder was the actor Brooks always wanted, but Zero Mostel hated the script, and the idea of his role as a Jewish producer making a Nazi-themed play. Max Bialystock (Mostel), along with Leo Blum (Wilder), is trying to make the most unpopular play ever as part of a moneymaking scheme, which then becomes a smash hit. Mostel’s wife finally prevailed on him to take the part.
Basically, it’s Brooks at his funniest. When the big reveal of the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number comes, it’s just hilarious. Hitler is portrayed as a camp beatnik. Wilder is at his nervous best, and Mostel is brilliant. Brooks pops up in a cameo with the famous, “Be a smarty, join the Nazi Party!”. Every time the line is performed on stage in the musical version it’s Mel Brooks’ voice it’s a part of the deal.
The Producers is of the great comedies of all time, always watchable. There’s a funny joke or gag in every scene, ranging from broad slapstick to dark humour to intellectual jabs. Also, the art direction is great.
When the film was complete, Embassy really didn’t want to release it, because they felt it was in bad taste. The person who helped get it eventually released was Peter Sellers (who had been cast as Blum but ended up missing out). Sellers placed an ad in Variety saying “Why aren’t you releasing The Producers?” His star power pushed Embassy to brave it, and despite extremely mixed reviews. It ended up being a small hit, with Brooks grabbing a much-deserved Oscar for best original screenplay. Since then it’s been a big seller in various formats, with a growing reputation as one of the greatest comedies of all-time.
The disc includes a new 4K restoration and the old one-hour documentary on the making of The Producers, which is excellent. New additions include a Q&A at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2018 with Brooks, hosted by Ben Mankiewicz of TCM and the Young Turks; and an episode of Tempo with Zero Mostel. The rest of the features include a deleted scene; some soundtrack spoofs, and the new trailer for the recent theatrical re-release.