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TCMFF 2021: The Producers (1967)

The work of Mel Brooks is iconic. The man is largely responsible for crafting the Hollywood comedy as we know it today thanks to his work throughout the middle of the twentieth century. Most have seen Blazing Saddles. Still more have watched Young Frankenstein. I would argue that The Producers deserves a spot just as high as these other two equally classic films in the director’s lengthy filmography.

The Producers follows Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) who teams up with his accountant (Gene Wilder) after the young man has an unconventional idea, “A producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit”. So, the two men set out to craft what is lovingly described as a “sure fire flop”. The film co-stars Kenneth Mars, Dick Shawn, Christopher Hewett, Lee Meredith and Estelle Winwood. Mel Brooks directs the film from his own script.

I came to The Producers by way of the 2001 Broadway musical of the same name starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. I found the show magical when I first watched it and it only grew more so when I found my way to the movie version. While the feature film isn’t a full fledged musical, fans of the Broadway show will see more than a hint to the content they’re familiar with.

Though, the first thing to leaps off the screen when watching The Producers is the tremendous talent in this cast, particularly leads Gene Wilder and the always delightful Zero Mostel. Regular readers know there’s always one person I need to call out as not getting the love they deserve, and today, that is Kenneth Mars. The actor is probably best known for his work (also with Brooks) in Young Frankenstein. However, Mars was a staple on television and in voice work throughout the middle of the twentieth century. If you’ve watched Columbo and Fernwood Tonight through Wonder Woman and Car 54, Where Are You, you’ve seen Kenneth Mars. The problem becomes, he’s so versatile that he becomes unrecognizable from one part to the next.

The Producers is also a notable film entry into the career of comedian Dick Shawn, who TCM fans will recognize from a recent airing of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. As Lorenzo St. DuBois… LSD… Shawn is such a small, but vitally important part of this film and in that, the part couldn’t be tackled by another actor. It wouldn’t be the same. Shawn’s manic and wild screen persona is so out there that suddenly, the ending makes so much sense. “Springtime for Hitler” isn’t bad… it’s wacky, weird and completely and utterly fascinating.

When considering all this though, it is impossible to talk about The Producers without commenting on Mel Brooks work not only as director, but screenwriter. The Producers stands apart as Brooks’ feature film screenwriting and directorial debut. He’d been writing and creating for the small screen for the better part of the previous decade with work going back to Your Show of Shows with Sid Cesar. Even at this relatively early point in his career though, Brooks shows his trademark flair for parody and the distinctive authorial voice he would bring to his works throughout his more than sixty year career.

Believe it or not, this was a surprisingly hard piece to write… how do you review those iconic and familiar Hollywood comedies which have always been with us? Perhaps it comes from nostalgia or could they just be that delightful? This is where we find so much of the joy in Mel Brooks’ work and the Hollywood comedy wouldn’t be what it is today without his influence. The Producers sits right alongside movies like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in the pantheon of classic Hollywood comedies and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Producers airs very early in the morning on March 8th as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival at 1:15am EST.

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