The Producers is a farce powered by a classically simple narrative engine. Faded Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and a frustrated, nearly infantile accountant named Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) conspire to stage the worst play in the world so they can pocket the financiers’ money and jet off somewhere to properly shed their nickel-and-dime troubles. As Bialystock sees it, this is a no-brainer, as he’s been staging flops for years anyway, only this time he’ll actually get paid for it and be effectively liberated from a life of hustling sad women old enough to be his mother. All Bialystock has to do, Bloom tells him, is to sell considerably more stock in the play than available, produce a horrendous flop at a 10th the advertised budget that’s bound to close opening night, and the accountant will properly conceal the financial discrepancies. Needless to say, Bialystock and Bloom inadvertently produce a Broadway smash.
There’s a great irony to the premise that’s rooted in Jewish-American humor, and that’s specifically revealing of filmmaker Mel Brooks’s beginnings as a comic on the Borscht Belt. Bialystock and Bloom are so cynical and disenfranchised that they immediately rule out the possibility of success, a suspicion that’s ironically confirmed by their inability to even adequately achieve failure. Contemporary audiences only familiar with the phenomenally successful Broadway adaptation may be surprised by the film’s casual smirking hopelessness, as The Producers is charged with a tension that would govern most other subsequent Brooks films.
It may sound odd to express such a sentiment when discussing an obvious legend, but I’ve never been able to shake the suspicion that Brooks was capable of making better movies, excluding his masterpieces, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. His films are often split between an overwhelmingly needy urge to shower the audience with “bits” and the desire to mine darker and more personal and political terrain. With The Producers, Brooks keeps threatening to veer off into a naked parable of how commercial impulses affect art for both the good and the bad, but he keeps pulling himself back to the over-written zingers which the actors have been instructed to deliver with jolting, nagging loudness.
There are tedious stretches in The Producers that rely on dumb-slut, druggie-hippie, and randy-queer jokes that were probably dated in 1968. But there are also moments in the film that operate on a level of shockingly blunt political satire. The Springtime for Hitler number is a justifiably classic scene in American cinema, as angry and daring as anything in The Great Dictator, and it’s all the more effective for how little Brooks prepares you for it; a contemporary audience member will suddenly feel as if they’ve flipped the channel from a rerun of Your Show of Shows to one of the darkest moments in Cabaret.
The film’s inconsistencies ultimately flatter it. The Producers is a lively entertainment that’s propelled by Brooks’s unruly comic energy, which is also skillfully expressed by his cast, particularly Mostel, whose demented avariciousness, probably purposefully, recalls that of W.C. Fields. The film also has a subtext that renders it eerily prescient: Bialystock and Bloom’s scheme fails because they over-shoot, staging a play so horrendously ludicrous that the audience interprets it as a farce, thus inadvertently redeeming schlock. That’s a plot development that anticipates the exhausting ironic postmodernist awareness that now rules American pop culture, threatening to level the playing ground for all art as brief interchangeable amusements consumed at random.
The image is soft at times, and lighter colors have a slight glare, but that’s probably a reflection of director Mel Brooks’s intentions, as collaborators have claimed that he finds garish aesthetics amusing. Otherwise, the level of detail is strong, particularly in close-ups of the actors, and the colors, for better and worse, really pop. Two audio options are available: The original mono for the purists, as well as a 5.1 DTS Master Audio track for viewers who expect all Blu-rays to look and sound the same regardless of context. Cinephiles will prefer the mono, but in fairness, the 5.1 track isn’t a distracting compromise, as it adds appealing richness to the show-stopping musical numbers.
All of the extras have been ported over from prior DVD editions, and there are two feaurettes that justify the repetition. Both "The Making of The Producers" and "Mel and His Movies: The Producers" benefit considerably from the filmmaker’s storytelling prowess, and they provide evocative and entertaining anecdotes pertaining to the film’s making. (My favorite: A crew member says that Brooks finds the color yellow innately funny.) The other supplementals are skippable, even if it’s diverting to hear filmmaker Paul Mazursky reading aloud an ad that actor Peter Sellers, who Brooks initially courted for Gene Wilder’s role, published in Variety extolling the film’s virtues. An audio commentary, either by Brooks himself or perhaps a scholar or famous fan of the film, is sorely lacking.
Uneven yet undeniably personal and seminal, The Producers receives Blu-ray treatment that’s respectable but not quite red-carpet.