As a filmmaker, Mel Brooks' brand of comedy is often broad, usually excessive and always delivered in the spirit of goofiness. In his best genre parodies — Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety — no gag is too obvious, no joke is too dumb.
Brooks' first movie, though, was different. Released in 1968, Brooks' barbed satire The Producers was considered so edgy and radical that none of the major studios would touch it. The director eventually secured independent distribution, but the film opened in only a handful of theaters and quickly disappeared.
Reissued this week in a new Blu-ray/DVD "Collector's Edition," The Producers stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel as a pair of small time Broadway schemers. Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a washed out stage producer now reduced to seducing old ladies for patronage checks. Wilder is accountant Leo Bloom, a meek and anxious sort who dreams of escaping the sucker's life.
Looking over the books one night, the two discover that a large-scale theatrical flop can be just as profitable as a hit. They hatch a dubious scheme: Mount the worst Broadway musical in history, close the show after one night, and pocket the money from investors.
Scanning through the stacks for the worst and most offensive script they can find, the boys stumble on a musical by Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), a demented ex-Nazi playwright who still wears his German army helmet at all times. The musical? "Springtime for Hitler." The subtitle? "A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden." Perfect.
Next, Max and Leo hire the worst director in town — Broadway castoff Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), whose plays tend to close on the first day of rehearsal. Finally, they hold an open audition for the role of Hitler and settle on Lorenzo St. DuBois (Dick Shawn), an acid casualty who wanders into the auditions by mistake.
It's a very funny setup, and what follows is an extended comic meditation on bad taste. Even 45 years later, the opening musical number of "Springtime for Hitler" clangs with audacious glee. A chorus line of Alpine frauleins morph into sexy Nazi officers, joyously goose-stepping through the confetti. Nazi iconography is brashly displayed, but delivered with Broadway musical pizazz — the dancers form a spinning swastika at one point. Brooks makes a point of cutting to the audience, watching the play-within-the-film. They're shown to be appalled, so that we're allowed to laugh.
The Nazi stuff is supposed to be in bad taste, of course. But the rest of the movie is fairly suspect, too. The Producers is riddled with broad ethnic humor, sophomoric sexism and more than one gay caricature. Many critics at the time were enraged at the film's very premise: Two greedy Jews trading on Hitler's name to make a fortune. It's all part of the the director's plan: Brooks was pushing against political correctness decades before anyone even thought up that ridiculous term.
Brooks' TV writing background is evident throughout. The scenes between Mostel and Wilder are all about old-school comic repartee and timing. You can find here the first recorded instances of Wilder's signature comedic riff: The mild-mannered nebbish who slow-burns into a neurotic frenzy.
The Producers hasn't aged as well as other classic comedies of the era. This was Brooks' first film, and the technical flaws are many and pronounced — choppy pacing, awkward staging and way too many dead spots. Finesse has never been Brooks' strong suit, anyway. The fun is in revisiting the first great prank of a dedicated mischief maker, and admiring the surprising sturdiness of the script. The Producers was rebooted as a Broadway musical with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in 2002, winning 12 Tony Awards.
The Producers: Collector's Edition includes a new high-definition transfer on Blu-ray, plus a DVD copy of the film, a making-of documentary, a new interview with Brooks and some deleted scenes and theatrical trailers.
Also New This Week:
A blistering indictment of America's failed war on drugs, The House I Live In was the talk of the 2012 Full Frame festival in Durham, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance, and was later shortlisted for an Academy Award.
Venus and Serena profiles tennis' most famous siblings, with music by Wyclef Jean.
Still more documentary goodness: The decades-in-the-making Up series has tracked the lives of a dozen or so British subjects every seven years since 1964. The latest installment, 56 Up, has been released to DVD along with a series box set.
The gonzo anthology comedy Kentucky Fried Movie — from the team that brought us Airplane! and Police Squad! — has also been reissued on DVD.
Blood Runs Cold, Death By China, Falcone, The Girl, Inescapable, North & South and Tai Chi Hero