The Producers (1967 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Mel Brooks|
|Produced by||Sidney Glazier|
|Written by||Mel Brooks|
|Music by||John Morris|
|Edited by||Ralph Rosenblum|
|Distributed by||Embassy Pictures|
|Box office||$1.6 million (Rentals)|
The Producers is a 1967 American satirical comedy film written and directed by Mel Brooks and starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, and Kenneth Mars. The film was Brooks's directorial debut, and he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Decades later, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry and placed eleventh on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs list. It was later remade by Brooks as the acclaimed Broadway stage musical The Producers, which itself was adapted into the film also called The Producers starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
The once-great Max Bialystock (Mostel) had once been the toast of Broadway, but now he has been reduced to a washed-up, aging, fraudulent, corruptible, and greedy Broadway producer who barely ekes out a hand-to-mouth existence romancing lascivious, wealthy elderly women ("angels" in theatrical terms) in exchange for money for his next play. Accountant Leopold "Leo" Bloom (Wilder), a young man who is highly nervous and prone to hysterics, arrives at Max's office to do his books and discovers a $2,000 discrepancy in the accounts of Max's last play. Max persuades Leo to hide the relatively minor fraud, and while shuffling numbers, Leo has a revelation: a producer could make a lot more money with a flop than a hit by overselling shares in the production, because no one will audit the books of a play presumed to have lost money. Max immediately puts this scheme into action. They will oversell shares on a massive scale and produce a play that will close on opening night, thus avoiding payouts and leaving the duo free to flee to Rio de Janeiro with the profits. Leo is afraid such a criminal venture will fail and they will go to prison, but Max eventually convinces him that his drab existence is no better than prison.
After reading many bad plays, the partners find the obvious choice for their scheme: Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. It is "a love letter to Hitler" written in total sincerity by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). Max and Leo persuade Liebkind to sign over the stage rights, telling him they want to show the world "the Hitler you loved, the Hitler you knew, the Hitler with a song in his heart." To guarantee that the show is a flop, they hire Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), a director whose plays "close on the first day of rehearsal." The part of Hitler goes to a charismatic, but only semicoherent, flower power hippie named Lorenzo Saint DuBois, also known as L.S.D. (Dick Shawn), who can barely remember his own name, wears a can of soup attached to a rope as a necklace, and mistakenly wandered into the theater during the casting call. Max sells 25,000% of the play to his regular investors.
The result of all this is a cheerfully upbeat and utterly tasteless musical play purporting to be about the happy home life of a brutal dictator. It opens with a lavish production of the title song, "Springtime for Hitler," which celebrates Nazi Germany crushing Europe ("Springtime for Hitler and Germany/Winter for Poland and France"). After seeing the audience's dumbfounded disbelief, Max and Leo, confident that the play will be a flop, go to a bar across the street to celebrate and get drunk. Unbeknownst to them, the audience ends up finding L.S.D.'s beatnik-like portrayal (and constant ad-libbing) hilarious and misinterprets the production as a satire. During intermission, some members of the audience come to the bar at which Max and Leo are drinking and rave about the play, much to Max and Leo's shared horror. The two decide to return to the theater after intermission to hear what the rest of the audience has to say, which echoes what the others have already said. Meanwhile, L.S.D.'s portrayal of Hitler enrages and humiliates Franz, who — after going behind the stage, untying the cable holding up the curtain, and rushing out on stage — confronts the audience and rants about the treatment of his beloved play. However, someone behind the curtain manages to knock him out and remove him from the stage, and the audience assumes that Franz's rant was part of the act. Springtime For Hitler is declared a smash hit, which means, of course, that the investors will be expecting a larger financial return than can be paid out. Bialystock is frustrated and miserable. “I was so careful,” he laments. “I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast... where did I go right?”
As the stunned partners turn on each other and brutally fight over a pile of books, a gun-wielding Franz confronts them, accusing them of breaking the "Siegfried Oath". After failing to shoot Max and Leo, Franz tries to shoot himself, but runs out of bullets. Leo comforts Franz, while Max tries to convince Franz to kill the actors, but Leo intervenes. After a reconciliation, the three band together and decide to blow up the theater to end the production, but they are injured, arrested, tried, and found "incredibly guilty" by the jury. Before sentencing, Leo makes an impassioned statement praising Max for changing his life and being his friend (while also referring to him as "the most selfish man I have ever met in my life"), and Max tells the judge that they have learned their lesson.
Max, Leo, and Franz are sent to the state penitentiary. There they produce a new play called Prisoners of Love, a show which proves to be even worse than Springtime For Hitler (mostly because, this time, Leo and Max are actually striving to make a good play instead of a bad one). While Max and Franz earnestly supervise rehearsals, Leo continues their old scam - overselling shares of the play to their fellow prisoners, and even to the warden. The song "Prisoners of Love" plays while the credits roll.
- Zero Mostel – Max Bialystock
- Gene Wilder – Leopold "Leo" Bloom
- Kenneth Mars – Franz Liebkind
- Dick Shawn – Lorenzo St. DuBois (L.S.D.)
- Lee Meredith – Ulla
- Estelle Winwood – "Hold Me! Touch Me!"
- Christopher Hewett – Roger De Bris
- Andreas Voutsinas – Carmen Ghia
- Renée Taylor – Actress playing Eva Braun
- Barney Martin – Actor playing Hermann Göring
- Madelyn Cates – Concierge ("I'm not a madam!")
- Bill Macy – Foreman of the jury
- William Hickey – Drunk in the bar
- Shimen Ruskin as The Landlord
- Mel Brooks – Singer in "Springtime for Hitler" (voiceover cameo)
|“||I was never crazy about Hitler...If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win...That's what they do so well: they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can't win. You show how crazy they are.||”|
|— Mel Brooks, in an August 2001 interview|
Writing and development
The title Springtime for Hitler was first coined by Brooks as a joke during the press conference for All American in 1962. Shortly afterwards, he also decided to relate this title to a character named Leo Bloom, an homage to Leopold Bloom, protagonist of James Joyce's Ulysses. It was reused by him years later once he had an idea about "two schnooks on Broadway who set out to produce a flop and swindle the backers." The inspiration was some people Brooks met during his early show business days: Benjamin Kutcher, a New York producer who financed his plays by sleeping with elderly women, became the basis for Max Bialystock, and the scheme had origins in two theater producers who had a lavish lifestyle while making various unsuccessful plays. When imagining what play "would have people packing up and leaving the theatre even before the first act is over," Brooks decided to combine Adolf Hitler and a musical.
Brooks first envisioned his story as a novel, and changed it to a play when he realized it had "too much dialogue, not enough story." He wrote the script in nine months, with the help of secretary Alfa-Betty Olsen. During the process, he mentioned in an October 1966 interview with Playboy that he was working on Springtime for Hitler, "a play within a play, or a play within a film – I haven’t decided yet." Then, it evolved into a screenplay to take advantage of various settings, as “it could go places, it wouldn’t have to stay in the office.”
As Brooks sought backers for his 30-page film treatment, both major film studios and independent filmmakers rejected Springtime for Hitler, finding the idea of using Hitler for comedy outrageous and tasteless (with some even stating that they would consider the script if Brooks changed it to Springtime for Mussolini). This changed as Brooks's agent arranged him to have a meeting with a friend of his, New York producer Sidney Glazier. Glazier laughed so much at Brooks' performance of the script, he accepted the project by saying, “We’re gonna make it! I don’t know how, but we’re gonna make this movie!”
Glazier budgeted the film at $1 million, and sought financiers. Half the money came from philanthropist Louis Wolfson, who liked the idea of laughing at a dictator, and the remainder, along with the distribution, was arranged by Joseph E. Levine of Embassy Pictures. Levine's only condition was to change the title, as he felt many distributors would not carry a picture named Springtime for Hitler. Brooks renamed it The Producers, considering it ironic as "these guys are anything but producers." As Brooks "couldn't think of anybody to direct it," eventually he decided to take the task for himself, even though he himself had only directed one play before. While Levine was insecure in having an inexperienced director, Brooks convinced him by saying it would be cost-effective, and he knew how to do physical comedy after being a stage manager in Your Show of Shows.
Brooks wanted Samuel “Zero” Mostel as Max Bialystock, feeling he was an energetic actor who could convey such an egotistical character. Glazier sent the script to Mostel's lawyer, but the attorney hated it and never showed it to the actor. Eventually, Brooks had to send the script through Mostel's wife Kathryn Harkin. While Mostel did not like the prospect of playing “a Jewish producer going to bed with old women on the brink of the grave,” his wife liked the script so much, she eventually convinced him to accept the role. Mostel allowed all his pent-up hostilities towards all the sources of his professional disappointments to spill over into his performance as Bialystock, making his a bitter, hate-filled, and often angry interpretation.
Gene Wilder met Brooks in 1963, as he performed with his then-girlfriend Anne Bancroft in a stage adaptation of Mother Courage. Wilder complained that the audience was laughing at his serious performance, and Brooks replied that Wilder was "a natural comic, you look like Harpo Marx," and said he would cast him as Leo Bloom once he finished the then-titled Springtime for Hitler. When production arrived, Peter Sellers accepted an invitation to play Leo Bloom, but he never contacted again, so Brooks remembered Wilder, who was about to make his film debut in Bonnie and Clyde. Wilder received the script to The Producers as Brooks visited him backstage during a performance of Luv, and his co-star Renée Taylor was brought for a brief appearance as Eva Braun.
Dustin Hoffman was originally cast as Liebkind. According to Brooks, late on the night before shooting began, Hoffman begged Brooks to let him out of his commitment to do the role so he could audition for the starring role in The Graduate. Brooks was aware of the film, which co-starred Brooks's now-wife, Anne Bancroft, and, skeptical that Hoffman would get the role, agreed to let him audition. When Hoffman did win the role of Ben Braddock, Brooks called in Kenneth Mars as Liebkind. Mars was originally invited because Brooks envisioned him as Roger De Bris, given he played a gay psychiatrist on Broadway. Instead, Mars was interested in Liebkind's role, which was his film debut and had him remain on the role while not filming as method acting. De Bris was instead portrayed by Christopher Hewett, the first actor who read for the role.
Once recent American Academy of Dramatic Arts graduate Lee Meredith was invited to audition, she was given the condition of knowing a Swedish accent. She borrowed a book from the AADA library to learn the accent, and won the role of Ulla with the screen test featuring the scene of her dancing. Bancroft suggested her friend Andréas Voutsinas for the role of Carmen Ghia, feeling his thick Greek accent would fit. Brooks thought of Dick Shawn to play Lorenzo “L.S.D.” Saint DuBois, and the actor accepted for both liking the part and having no work. Bill Macy, the husband in the TV series Maude, was brought for a cameo as a jury foreman. Writer-director Mel Brooks is heard briefly in the film, his voice dubbed over a dancer singing, "Don't be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party," in the song "Springtime For Hitler". His version of the line is also dubbed into each performance of the musical, as well as the 2005 movie version.
Principal photography for The Producers began on May 22, 1967. Filming had to be done in 40 days on a $941,000 budget, and Brooks managed to fit both requests. The primary location was the Chelsea Studios in New York City, where the musical version (2005) was also shot. The now-demolished Playhouse Theatre hosted the Springtime for Hitler play, and various actors who heard the film was seeking an actor for Hitler were cast in the musical number. The crew tried to film on location whenever possible, filming on such midtown Manhattan locales as Central Park, the Empire State Building, and Lincoln Center.
Brooks's lack of knowledge of filmmaking had him committing many mistakes during production, requiring the help of assistant director Michael Hertzberg. Being both inexperienced and insecure, Brooks started to have tantrums and behave angrily. He got impatient with the slow development compared to how quick television production was, temporarily banned Glazier from the set, berated a visiting reporter from The New York Times, and had clashes with cinematographer Joseph Coffey and main actor Zero Mostel. Mostel also had a troublesome behavior caused by a leg injury received in a 1960 bus accident, which made his contract feature a clause dismissing Mostel from any work after 5:30 pm. Given the fact that the leg injury got worse in humid weather, the last scene at the Lincoln Center's fountain had Mostel throwing a fit and giving up on production. Glazier had to leave a dentist's appointment and rush to the set where Mostel and Brooks were arguing, and once the producer managed to calm them down, the resulting scene had to be shot all night long.
Despite being described as a lavish production number, "Springtime for Hitler" was not ready until the first rehearsals. Brooks sat with Olsen and first-time composer John Morris at the piano, and improvised some lyrics. Morris then developed the stage performance with choreographer Alan Johnson, instructed to do the number "big, wonderful, flashy, but terrible." As Brooks kept suggesting bizarre costume ideas to enhance the burlesque nature of "Springtime for Hitler," such as women with clothes inspired by beer mugs and pretzels, Johnson decided to showcase them all in a parade.
Few scenes had to be altered from the original script. Leo and Max would visit the Parachute Jump in Coney Island, but the attraction was closed by the time filming began. Brooks filmed Liebkind making Max and Leo swear the Siegfried Oath, where they promised fealty to Siegfried, accompanied by The Ride of the Valkyries and wearing horned helmets. But feeling that it "went overboard," Brooks cut the scene, which was restored in the stage adaptation.
The art direction and costumes emphasized the color yellow, which Brooks considered a funny color. For the posters in Bialystock's office, production designer Charles Rosen found a collector in the Theater District and doctored a few posters to include the character's name. Rosen also incorporated an anecdote of his life, as he had to share a small elevator with a flamboyant Broadway director, to design the lift at Roger De Bris's house. Post-production extended for months, as Brooks had gotten final cut privilege, but still had complaints with Ralph Rosenblum regarding his editing.
According to Brooks, after the film was completed, Embassy executives refused to release it as being in "bad taste." The film's premiere in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 22, 1967, was a disaster and the studio considered shelving it. However, Peter Sellers saw the film privately and placed an advertisement in Variety in support of the film's wider release. Sellers was familiar with the film because, according to Brooks, Sellers "had accepted the role of Bloom and then was never heard from again." The film allegedly was "banned in Germany." Following the film's lackluster response in the UK, German distributors did decline to distribute it, but their lack of interest did not constitute a ban.
In Sweden, however, the title literally translates as "Springtime for Hitler." As a result of its success, all but two of Mel Brooks movies in Swedish have been given similar titles: "Springtime for Mother-In-Law" (The Twelve Chairs); "Springtime for the Sheriff" (Blazing Saddles); "Springtime for Frankenstein" (Young Frankenstein); "Springtime for the Silent Movies" (Silent Movie); "Springtime for the Lunatics" (High Anxiety); "Springtime for World History" (History of the World, Part I); "Springtime for Space" (Spaceballs); and "Springtime for the Slum" (Life Stinks).
When it was first released, the film received a mixed response and garnered some exceptionally harsh reviews, while others considered it a great success. One of the mixed reviews came from Renata Adler, who, writing for The New York Times, stated: "The Producers, which opened yesterday at the Fine Arts Theater, is a violently mixed bag. Some of it is shoddy and gross and cruel; the rest is funny in an entirely unexpected way." About the acting, she writes that Mostel is "overacting grotesquely under the direction of Mel Brooks" and that, in the role of Max Bialystock, he is "as gross and unfunny as only an enormous comedian bearing down too hard on some frail, tasteless routines can be." Co-star Wilder fares better and is called "wonderful," thanks to doing "fine," despite being "forced to be as loud and as fast as Mostel" and "[g]oing through long, infinitely variegated riffs and arpeggios of neuroticism," and playing his part "as though he were Dustin Hoffman being played by Danny Kaye." She also puts the movie into the bigger context of "contemporary" comedy and that it has the same "episodic, revue quality" in the way it is "not building laughter, but stringing it together skit after skit, some vile, some boffo." Her early conclusion, at the end of the first paragraph, is also a comparison to other comedic movies of the time, it reads: "[The Producers] is less delicate than Lenny Bruce, less funny than Dr. Strangelove, but much funnier than The Loved One or What's New Pussycat?"
The more critical and negative reviews partly targeted the directorial style and broad ethnic humor, but also commonly noted the bad taste and insensitivity of devising a broad comedy about two Jews conspiring to cheat theatrical investors by devising a designed-to-fail tasteless Broadway musical about Hitler only 23 years after the end of World War II. Among the most harsh critics were Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic, who wrote that "the film bloats into sogginess" and Pauline Kael who called it "amateurishly crude" in The New Yorker.
On the other hand, others considered the film to be a great success. Time magazine's reviewers wrote that the film was "hilariously funny" but pointed out that "the film is burdened with the kind of plot that demands resolution" but unfortunately "ends in a whimper of sentimentality." Although they labelled it "disjointed and inconsistent", they also praised it as "a wildly funny joy ride", and concluded by saying that "despite its bad moments, [it] is some of the funniest American cinema comedy in years." The film industry trade paper Variety wrote, "The film is unmatched in the scenes featuring Mostel and Wilder alone together, and several episodes with other actors are truly rare."
Over the years, the film has gained in stature, garnering a 91% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus "A hilarious satire of the business side of Hollywood, The Producers is one of Mel Brooks' finest, as well as funniest films, featuring standout performances by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 97 out of 100, making it one of the highest-rated films on the site, as well as the second-highest-rated comedy (behind The Wizard of Oz). In his review decades later, Roger Ebert claimed, "this is one of the funniest movies ever made." Ebert wrote, "I remember finding myself in an elevator with Brooks and his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, in New York City a few months after The Producers was released. A woman got onto the elevator, recognized him and said, 'I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.' Brooks smiled benevolently. 'Lady,' he said, 'it rose below vulgarity.'"
Awards and honors
In 1968, Mel Brooks won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and Gene Wilder was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In addition, Zero Mostel was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, and Brooks was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
- 2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #11
- 2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
Re-releases and adaptations
In 2002, The Producers was re-released in three theaters by Rialto Pictures and earned $111,866 at the box office. As of 2007, the film continues to be distributed to art-film and repertory cinemas by Rialto.
This film has spawned several home media releases on VHS, Laserdisc, CED, and VCD from companies such as Magnetic Video, Embassy Home Entertainment, PolyGram Video, Speedy, and Lumiere Video. A 1997 letterbox edition Laserdisc was released by PolyGram Video, which served as the basis for the extremely rare 1998 PolyGram DVD release.
MGM (which owns most U.S rights to the Embassy Pictures library on behalf of StudioCanal) released The Producers on DVD (R1) in 2002 and 2005 (to coincide with the remake released that year). In 2011, MGM licensed the title to Shout! Factory to release a DVD and Blu-ray combo pack with new HD transfers and bonus materials. StudioCanal (worldwide rights holder to all of the Embassy Pictures library) released several R2 DVD editions and Blu-ray B releases using a transfer slightly different from the North American DVD and BDs.
- Bialystock at one point calls Leo "Prince Myshkin," the titular protagonist in Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot.
- In the search for "the worst play ever.", Max reads aloud from one of the rejected manuscripts. It is the opening sentence of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, where Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a giant verminous bug, and Bialystock dismisses it as "too good."
- Roger De Bris (pronounced "debris") is named for the Yiddish term for circumcision.
- The "singing Hitlers" at their audition sing a number of pieces. Mentioned or performed are Lilac Time, "A Wand'ring Minstrel I," "Beautiful Dreamer," and "Largo al factotum" ("della ... città" being all that is heard).
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