1968: The Producers
Written and directed by Mel Brooks
One of the toughest things to do on-screen is the “show within a show.” It basically doubles down on the amount of work for the writer. Not only do you have to create the fictional world of the film, you have to create a believable work of art that’s worth all the attention the film is giving it. The biggest downfall of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was that the fictional sketch comedy show around which the series was based was nowhere near as good as the show pretended it was. So no matter how good everything else around it might have been, the very core of the show couldn’t support it. The audience never invests in what the characters are invested in.
Which makes what Mel Brooks pulls off with The Producers even more remarkable. He not only makes a show within a show that’s deliberately bad, he manages to wrap it back around to good. And makes us believe both ends of that spectrum without missing a beat.
A big part of that success stems from Dick Shawn’s incredible turn as Lorenzo St. DuBois, the gloriously tripped-out flower child star of Springtime for Hitler. From his unhinged audition piece (punctuated by perhaps one of the greatest voice-over gags in film history in Zero Mostel’s triumphant, “That’s our Hitler!”) to his hilarious opening night performance, Shawn pretty much owns the middle third of the film. No small feat considering who he’s competing with for screen time, but he’s absolutely crucial to the success of the film’s central conceit. If we don’t buy DuBois’ unintentional hilarity as hippy Hitler, the entire plot twist is doomed. It’s something the Broadway musical sorely missed, opting instead to eventually insert campy director Roger DeBris into the starring role. Granted, DuBois is a somewhat dated character, but his bizarre energy and complete wrongness for the part are totally essential, and much funnier than DeBris’ self-aware turn in the stage version.
I also love the dark turn the film takes towards the end as the producers decide to blow up the theater showing Springtime for Hitler in order to cut their losses. It’s a cynical view of success as something so threatening it has to be destroyed before it destroys those who are enjoying it. You can’t help but look at it through the lens of Brooks’ early career, first on Your Show of Shows and later with Get Smart, and wonder if, despite the success and acclaim those shows brought him, he felt a little trapped by that success, or perhaps enslaved to it. Or maybe it was the idea that he didn’t yet have complete control, something he wouldn’t have until he started writing and directing his own films. In any case, it’s yet another way the film wins out over the musical, which oddly has Bloom run off to Rio in what feels like nothing so much as an effort to squeeze in a few more songs.
And then there’s Mostel. I have never seen someone so dominate a film through sheer presence the way he dominates The Producers. He doesn’t even have to speak a word, and yet your eyes are drawn to him. He’s a force of nature here, somehow managing to be blustery even when he’s trying to be quiet. And yet he’s so darn likeable, we’re with him even as he’s seducing old ladies for their money and browbeating Bloom into joining his scheme. Gene Wilder may have nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, but I think Mostel was totally deserving of one as well. He effortlessly carries the entire endeavor.
There were other Brooks films I thought about picking, specifically the epic one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in 1974 (the only other Brooks films really worth picking, if you ask me). But not only were there logistical considerations — my alternate choice for 1968 would have precluded me taking my choice for 1970, and 1974 is now freed up for a sentimental favorite — I honestly think The Producers is Brooks’ best film. It’s its own thing, without the comforting framework of parody on which to rest itself. Plot-wise, I think it hangs together the best out of any of his films, and while some of the highs of Saddles and Frankenstein are higher, The Producers operates at a consistently higher level for me overall. As funny as Brooks’ other films are, The Producers is the one that feels most like a film rather than a string of — admittedly hilarious — jokes on a common theme. And never since has Brooks’ shocking ribaldry been so on point. I wouldn’t see The Producers until years after Saddles and Frankenstein had become part of my cinematic lexicon, but it immediately supplanted them once I did. To paraphrase Max Bialystock, “That’s my Brooks!”