Max Bialystock, a Broadway producer whose glory days are far behind him, together with his nebbish accountant, Leo Bloom, hit upon the perfect get-rich-quick scheme. They will finance the most appalling musical ever to hit the boards, closing the very same night, leaving them to pocket the unused capital. The 'perfect' show, written by Third Reich fanatic and flat-out loony, Franz Liebkind, is a celebration of the life of Adolf Hitler put to song and dance.
The legendary Joseph L. Mankiewicz declared that special effects and Mel Brooks were "the death of Hollywood". He was clearly off his rocker about the effects, but on the subject of Mel Brooks we could at least have a heated debate. Brooks was a TV gag-writer in the vaudeville tradition who'd been churning out sketches for the likes of Sid Caesar for over 15 years when The Producers marked his big screen debut.
In both senses of the word a hysterical send-up of Broadway theatre, it launched a career that saw Brooks dominate movie comedy for at least a decade, his name synonymous with spoofs. If you liked spoofs, you liked Mel Brooks. Mankiewicz obviously just hated spoofs. Miserable sod.
The Producers is held by many to be Brooks' finest work, probably because it isn't a simplistic genre take-off like High Anxiety or Blazing Saddles. Certainly it exhibits a lot more depth and invention than his later work - and a lot more knock-'em-dead jokes than Spaceballs (mind you, so does Schindler's List). It satirises tradition and type rather than style and sequence, and in the internal creation of the all-singing, all-goose-stepping Springtime For Hitler, Brooks even attempts to extract his own unique payback for the holocaust. A futile gesture? Not when you consider that Hollywood was built on the creativity, drive and idealism of Jewish immigrants. Showbiz cocking a snook at the Nazis? It's perfect.
There's much to recommend The Producers outside of its wicked political motive. In Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as the producer and accountant who conspire to make a fortune from a tailor-made flop ("This play has got to close on page four!"), the film has a rock-solid performing base, not to mention some marvellous flyaway hair. Their two-handers are like acts in a beautifully-scripted stage play (Brooks' live-TV tradition coming through). Kenneth Mars as Leibkind the raving Nazi playwright is a gem (note: his one-armed Inspector Kemp also stole Brooks' Young Frankenstein), and the pivotal Busby Berkeley-style musical number remains one of the seven wonders of cinema ("We're marchin' to a faster pace/Look out! Here comes the master-race!").
Although the one-liners are solid gold ("Shut up! I'm having a rhetorical conversation!... Wake me if there's a fire... This is wine, women and song. And women."), this is essentially character comedy disguised as gag comedy, a trick that Brooks-acolyte Neil Simon never lost, but which Brooks himself surely did, as box office drew out the very worst in him. In The Producers, the full-size Campbell's soup tin around the neck of Shawn's flower-power actor Lorenzo, Wilder's "blue blanket" and Mostel's cardboard belt were the very best of him. And such a short film.
It's a funny thing that now, after a sell-out full-on musical revival on Broadway and an imminent transfer to London's West End, The Producers is such a toasted classic both on stage and screen. It's the ultimate punchline, the killer gag, that a proto-novel that turned into a proto-play that ended up as a movie about the worst musical in history, is now the most popular musical in town. You can't write this stuff. Well, actually, you can. Mel Brooks did