Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) used to be a hit Broadway producer, but a string of flops have left him hard up, forced to woo old rich old women to fund his latest endeavours. That is until easily agitated accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) shows up to go over his books, and strikes upon the idea that a devious producer could make a great deal of money raising funds for a show that is bound to flop. This sends Max on a mission to produce the worst show in town.
I’m quite familiar with most of the story of The Producers. I’ve regrettably seen the Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick Lion King reunion remake and the fourth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which saw Larry David cast in a stage adaptation of the story, was amongst my favourite runs of that show, so I knew the general set-up, characters and mid-film plot developments, although I was a bit hazy on the ending. I’d looked forward to seeing this, the original, because the Mel Brooks films I’ve seen so far have been mostly great – Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – and I’m eager to watch more. Especially High Anxiety, that looks perfect for me and my Hitchcock obsession.
So, given I knew what to expect plot-wise, was there anything for me in this film? Hell yes, by way of Brooks’ Oscar-winning script, and the delivery of it predominantly via Mostel and Wilder. I’ll watch Gene Wilder in anything, and from The Producers it’s easy to see why. He sinks head-first into everything he does and always manages to make it hilarious. His Leo is a man unused to excitement and happiness in his life, being more familiar with mundanity. Compare the kind of laughs Wilder gets out of that role to, say, Jason Bateman in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and, as much as I like Bateman, there’s no contest. To be fair, the performances here derive their comedy from being largely over the top and extreme, often to a farcical degree. This is no more apparent than with Mostel’s Max. The first twenty minutes of this film drove my girlfriend out of the room because, after Mostel’s encounters with a couple of his elderly “benefactors” there’s a scene that basically just sees Mostel and Wilder bellow at one another. I’ve never encountered Zero Mostel before – apparently he’s more known for his theatre work, which would explain the exaggerated delivery and physicality – but he was a definite highlight.
Elsewhere there are some equally broad and ridiculous supporting performances, such as the Nazi of the chosen play, Springtime for Hitler, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars) who wears a German war helmet at all times and barely conceals his dedication to his heartland, and the actor Lorenzo St. DuBois (Dick Shawn, who I know from his similarly insane turn in It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World). I also must mention Ulla (Lee Meredith), the “receptionist” Max hires as a treat for himself when the money starts pouring in. She’s essentially little more than a collection of perfectly formed body parts employed the dance and jiggle as required. It felt more than a little seedy that the joke here was Max and Leo drooling over Ulla, whilst the camera is more than willing to linger on her various wobbly bits for extended periods of time, giving a king of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too feel, but it was par for the course in an occasionally silly film that features comedy in such places as a chorus line of girls wearing SS uniforms and a man in a dress.
Whilst it’s often politically incorrect, sometimes not in the ways intended back in 1967, and the comedy comes off as too broad and low-brow at times, there’s still a great time to be had here. The jokes come thick and fast, the performances are mostly hilarious and there’s even a couple of catchy tunes thrown in too. It’s a great start to 2016’s Blind Spot series.
Choose Film 8/10