The first film written and directed by comedian Mel Brooks was his 1968 film The Producers. The story, as only Brooks can tell it, is about two broke Broadway producers, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who concoct a ridiculous plan to produce the worst show ever written, doctor their books, and then run off with the extra money after the show closes on opening night. The show they decide on is Springtime for Hitler, a tribute to the Fuhrer written by former Nazi, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). The show seems guaranteed to flop until the producers hire flamboyant director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewitt) and, to fill the role of Hitler, Hippie actor L.S.D. (Dick Shawn). De Bris and L.S.D. inadvertently make the show funny, thus making it a success and ruining the producers’ scheme. Not surprisingly, Brooks won an Academy Award for Best Writing.
In 2001, Brooks turned the movie into a staged musical. The Producers immediately broke box-office records and won a total of 12 Tony Award. In 2005, with the help of director Susan Stroman, The Producers returned to the big screen. The 2005 version is almost identical to the Broadway show.
Brooks made only a few notable changes from the original story: First, the setting was changed from 1968 to 1959. Consequently, the character L.S.D. had to be eliminated (L.S.D the drug didn’t exist in the 1950s). The role of Hitler in the production number is taken over by De Bris. Also, the female character Ulla is given a much more prominent role. Ulla, played by Lee Meredith, only appears briefly as Bialystock’s “secretary” in the 1968 film.
In the 2005 version, Bialystock is played by Nathaniel Lane, Bloom by Matthew Broderick, De Bris by Gary Beach (all three of whom were members of the original Broadway cast), Ulla by Uma Thurman, and Franz Liebkind by Will Ferrell.
In general, the cast of the 2005 version is not as good as that of the 1968 version. Lane and Broderick are wonderful; however, no one will ever match the comic genius of Mostel and Wilder. Also, Mars is a much more deranged Franz Leibkind than Ferrell is.
However, the 2005 version has all the fantastic music that the 1968 version doesn’t. Brooks didn’t write very much music for the 1968 film. There are a few bars of Haben Sie gehort das Deutsche Band? during the audition scene and the final song Prisoners of Love is very similar to the expanded version that is used in the 2005 film. Overall, the production number Springtime for Hitler is identical between the two movies. The only difference is the inclusion of Hitler’s solo, Heil Myself, in the 2005 version (Brooks first used the “heil myself” joke in his 1983 World War II comedy-drama, To Be or Not to Be). The 2005 version also includes Keep it Gay, When You Got It, Flaunt It, and The Hop-Clop Goes On, a hilarious parody of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On.
In all honesty, it is impossible to say which version of The Producers is better. The 1968 version has a better cast, and the 2005 version has all the good music; therefore, watch them both!