Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a theatrical producer who has something of a scam going on. His trick is to collect money for his plays by taking it from rich little old ladies - what do they get in return? They get seduced, a last thrill before their trip to the cemetery as Max puts it, although he has to juggle various appointments with each of them and risks wearing himself out with his sexual exertions. But one day, during one such encounter, he is interrupted by an accountant, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who wishes to go over his books; after managing the current little old lady, Max invites him in reluctantly as business is not going well - but how about a variation on that?
The Producers was the first film written and directed by Mel Brooks, and its cult reputation has gone as far as generating a comedy classic status, albeit only belatedly. It may be difficult to believe, but the film was absolutely lambasted on its original release, indeed it was almost never released at all until Peter Sellers recognised its quality and managed to get a deal arranged for Brooks. Not only that, but once it was out in the world the public didn't want to know and stayed away, making it all the more remarkable that Brooks received a Best Screenplay Oscar for his efforts, which did indicate someone out there "got it" and what he was aiming for, it's just the subject matter was touchy.
Jewish groups were especially angered, no matter that Brooks was of that persuasion himself and argued that building up the Nazis as taken very seriously gave them a power they did not, in his view, need at all. What he wanted to do was what countless propaganda movies from the Allies in World War II did, make fun of Adolf Hitler because that would be the thing he most hated: to be detested for committing the acts he and his cohorts did at least contained a certain respect for going as far as they did, but to posit that they were really pathetic men worthy of nothing but derision was a tricky proposition when so many millions had died thanks to their machinations. Yet you can see Brooks' point.
This was down to the play that Max and Leo team up to produce was so bad that if you're not utterly averse to the idea of taking the piss out of the Nazis then you can appreciate belittling the movement in that manner can be liberating, it's like "Screw those guys, they were idiots, look at them in their stupid uniforms trying to rule the world, they're ludicrous if they believed they were anything but awful people." Naturally, even now, decades after The Producers was made, the allure of Nazism as an ideology has never gone away, and neither has placing them as go-to villains in pop culture, which though the trappings of the film may look perfectly sealed in 1968, the themes resonate down through time and one of those is how bad taste, or its perception, began to dominate the cultural world.
Back then it was called camp and mostly the preserve of cultists who had a fascination with how a production believing itself to be classy could fall so far below that line, but now the cult of "so bad it's good" has expanded to create works that deliberately go after that sensation, and you can trace that back to here. The musical the title characters stage to make a fortune when it is supposed to flop on its opening night, leaving the investments all to Max and Leo, is genuinely dreadful, but hilariously so, Dick Shawn finally getting a role worthy of his singular talents as the hippy Hitler and the big numbers staged like Busby Berkeley had somehow been driven insane by his choreography. The open-mouthed reaction of the audience turns to laughter as they see the joke that nobody involved could ever had imagined, especially not the crazed author Kenneth Mars who like all blind adherents to evil cannot see why he is absurd. By the end, as the great screen double act of Mostel and Wilder realise they have legitimately enjoyed themselves despite their personal disasters, The Producers, for all its crassness and shouting, is oddly uplifting. Music by John Morris.
[The Producers will be released in UK cinemas for one day only on August 5th 2018, and then on DVD/Blu-ray/EST on September 10th. I can attest that seeing this film with an appreciative audience is a great experience.]