Moviegoers who think that Mel Brooks’ zenith as a filmmaker was marked by flatulence around a campfire, or that the Farrelly Brothers invented the "do anything for a laugh, no matter how offensive" philosophy need to investigate The Producers. Brooks’ 1968 comedy basically served as the There’s Something About Mary of its era. More than thirty years after its initial release, it’s still outrageous as ever and one of the funniest films ever made, an out-of-control mine car of almost manic frenzy and "did you see/hear that?" kinds of comic payoffs.
One suspects that Brooks wrote the film with a stopwatch in hand; it’s never more than a few seconds away from an inspired sight gag or riotous line of dialog. Adding to the mix are high-energy comics Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a bottom-feeder of a Broadway producer. "I’m condemned by a society that demands success when all I can offer is failure!" he laments. Wilder is Max’s milquetoast accountant Leo Bloom, and throughout the film the two bounce off each other like components of a human pinball machine.
Max has been reduced to serving as a gigolo to a harem of old women in order to finance his failed plays. After the latest flop, Leo audits the books and finds that the play actually made money – $2,000. He wryly muses, "You could make a lot of money by over-financing turkeys, the IRS isn’t interested in flops." Max’s eyes pop (at which Mostel is absolutely world-class) at the news and a plan is hatched, he’ll over-sell ownership in a play that’s so bad it’s guaranteed to fail. They’ll make a fortune.
The play they select is "Springtime for Hitler, a gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchesgarten" (even better, it’s a musical), written by neo-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), who still blindly supports the Third Reich – "Not many people know it, but the Fuhrer was a terrific dancer." It’s a horrible script and in the worst possible taste, exactly what Max and Leo want. Max chooses a hack director and casts overgrown flower child Lorenzo Saint DuBois ("L.S.D." – Dick Shawn) as Hitler. Max then launches himself into "little old lady land," sells 25,000 percent of the play to a gaggle of backers, and they’re ready for opening night.
Just as he demonstrated later in Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, Brooks goes just about anywhere to get a laugh. He takes this over-the-top setup and leavens it with Nazi jokes, gay jokes, and takeoffs on cliched movie musicals, among others. And every so often there’s a zinger of a reference to keep the audience on its toes – in one scene Max is reading from a prospective script: " ‘Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.’ Nah, it’s too good."
In almost Shakespearean fashion, Brooks never forgets to pander to the "groundlings" in his films. The Producers is no exception. Lee Meredith is cast as Max’s secretary Ulla, she’s a very buxom young blonde with one small drawback: she can’t speak English. Leo asks Max, "Have you gone mad? A receptionist who can’t speak English? What will people say?" Max’s reply is classic Brooks: "They’ll say, "A wuma wa wa wa wa!"
Mostel plays Max Bialystock as a totally amoral man, which makes the depths of taste to which he plunges seem totally natural. His shady business practices are exceeded only by his vanity and horrific comb-over; through most of the film his hair looks like a drowned anorexic squirrel. Gene Wilder’s performance makes Woody Allen at his most neurotic look like Mr. Rogers. In a classic scene, Max is berating Leo into accepting his plan. Wilder runs into the corner, clutches a scrap of his childhood blanket (!) and screams "I’m hysterical! I’m hysterical!" Mostel throws a glass of water in his face, Wilder screams "I’m wet! I’m hysterical, and I’m wet!" Mostel then slaps him, only to hear "I’m in pain, and I’m wet, and I’m still hysterical!"
Even by 2001 standards the film is in borderline bad taste; in 1968 it was particularly bold. The audacity was rewarded: Brooks won an Oscar for his script and went on to further successes. The Producers endures as a comic marvel.
– Bob Aulert