The Producers

Watching The Producers, the Birth Of A Nation of tasteless comedy, is a little like listening to a James Brown or Parliament album from which each song has been sampled a dozen times: Every aspect has been strip-mined or stolen, but that hasn't detracted from the original's freshness and vitality. Seemingly everybody, from the Farrelly brothers to South Park, has stolen from Mel Brooks' classic comedy, which makes it strangely fitting that it's enjoyed a profitable second life as a hit Broadway show. Newly released on DVD, the film stars Zero Mostel as a once-great Broadway producer reduced to playing the gigolo for randy old ladies in a bid to raise money for his shows. In an Oscar-nominated, star-making performance, Gene Wilder co-stars as a meek accountant who discovers a strange paradox in Broadway financing: If the books are juggled correctly, a failed show can net its producers more money than a hit. Inspired, Mostel quickly ropes Wilder into helping develop what's intended to be the worst show in Broadway history: a musical paying homage to the lighter side of Nazi Germany, directed by a flamboyant queen (Christopher Hewett) and starring a hippie space-case (Dick Shawn). The Producers is justly revered for the boundary-pushing shamelessness of its "Springtime For Hitler" production number, but the film's sweetness and craft stand out more than its shock value. Tightly structured, briskly paced, and loaded with one-liners worthy of Woody Allen at his best, The Producers has a sense of focus and narrative economy largely missing in Brooks' later work. The Producers takes sadistic pleasure in Mostel's debasement, but it also betrays a fondness for his rakish charm, lust for life, and huckster's spirit. He's a hustler and a con man, but the film identifies with his anything-goes vulgarity, and invites the audience to share in his and Wilder's conspiratorial glee as they try to outwit the system. The DVD lacks an audio commentary, but it includes an entertaining (if standard-issue) documentary on the film's making, highlighted by Paul Mazursky's strangely fascinating impersonation of Peter Sellers, who loved the film so much that he took out a newspaper ad to praise it.

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