Theatre in Film Series: The Producers (1967)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

July 13, 2016

Though theatre was my first love, film has stolen my heart in recent years. In Part II of our ongoing Theatre in Film series, we explore the latter years of Classical Hollywood Cinema when Technicolor was new and movie musicals, filled with rich color and vibrant acting, lifted off the screen. For our third film in Part II, we celebrate The Producers from 1968.

The video below carries the ’68 date, but the film was officially released in November of ’67. The premiere was a failure, and it was banned in Germany. The Producers was therefore not distributed until later — in March 1968. For reference, I refer to this film with it’s original release date — ’67.

The Producers (1967)

Director: Mel Brooks
Starring: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Dick Shawn, and Lee Meredith

What happens:

Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a failure of a Broadway producer, and the only way he gets his money is by seducing older women, promising them that their money is going to the next big hit. When accountant Leopold “Leo” Bloom (Gene WIlder) arrives at Max’s apartment to do his taxes, Leo mentions that a person could make a lot of money by producing a Broadway flop. If the producers oversold all the shares (promised 100% of the profits to each investor), they would make money if the show closed on the same night it opened. They set a plan in motion to find the worst script they can, and they settle on the musical Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden by Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), a Hitler sympathizer who has immigrated to America. They hold auditions to find the perfect Hitler, and their production makes its way onto its feet. Max and Leo expect their first audience to be their last, so offended by the play that they would call for its closure. However, the opening night is an unexpected farcical success, and the two producers blow up the theatre in a last ditch effort to save their skins. Unfortunately for them, they are injured, caught, put on trial, and found guilty. They are both sent to prison, where they continue producing small prison musicals and overselling the share of profits.

Why it matters:

Brooks would later make this film into a stage musical in 2001 and a film adaptation of the stage musical in 2005. The Producers from 1967 isn’t a musical, but it’s a hysterical film that captures the realism of how difficult it is to fund theatrical productions and pay the bills at the same time. Max is in debt, and because he needs to use his money to pay his rent, he can’t use money to produce a show, even though a show may bring him money to pay his rent. He’s in an endless cycle of being absolutely broke, and he exploits the interest of older women for his own gain because, well, it’s the only option he’s got (or he thinks he’s got).

Despite the con of Max and Leo, other elements of the film are greatly influenced by the oftentimes ridiculous nature of theatre. The audition process for finding the ideal Hitler mimics awkward casting calls many of us in theatre have been to. The Producers reminds us of when we sit through people singing opera when a ballad is asked for, when directors have to deal with performers who are so outlandish that they are perfect for the role, and when we meet  unconventional but enchanting people in the world of theatre, like Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), the cross-dressing man who Max and Leo hire to direct Springtime for Hitler.

The Producers also garners cultural value, as it was shot and released in a time when the mention of Adolf Hitler was taboo. World War II had recently ended in 1945. When Brooks first approached studios and independent filmmakers about the opportunity to back the film, then called Springtime for Hitler, he was rejected. The film was eventually picked up by Sidney Glazier with the stipulation that the movie be renamed to The Producers. Brooks follows in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch who directed The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942), respectively. Both films mock Hitler during a time that was very immediate to the war with Nazi Germany. Chaplin, Lubitsch, and Brooks use humor, film, and theatre to let audiences know that it’s okay to laugh at people in power, especially those who abuse their authority.

Below are the trailers for Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942).

The Great Dictator (1940)

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

This film is the first featured in Part II of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part II.


Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from The Producers. Copyright © 1967 Embassy Pictures.