Movies Of Extraordinary Magnitude

Not one, but TWO of the funniest movies in history have just been released to Blu-Ray this week from the good people at Shout Factory and are well worth your hard-earned comedy bucks. In a week that brings you something as uninspired by Grown Ups 2 (which of course exists to answer all of the questions you had at the end of the first film), consider the double-bill of Mel Brooks’ original 1968 classic The Producers and The Kentucky Fried Movie, the Zucker Brothers’ riotous 1977 collaboration with director John Landis, to be the comedy Alka-Seltzer for the Adam Sandler indigestion on the way.  


It’s hard to imagine a world in which the ditty “Springtime For Hitler” wasn’t part of the cultural lexicon— still stunningly tasteless today, 45 years (!) after its release, you can only imagine what a shocker it was back in 1968, with a tripped-out Adolf Hitler (the screamingly funny Dick Shawn) prancing about on-stage in the fake play created as an investment scam by unscrupulous leads Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Mostel stars as washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock, who’s struck by providence after his meek accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) informs him that he could make a lot more money from a massive flop than a hit. Max convinces Leo to help him come up with the worst play in history, all the while romancing aged widows to get them to invest heavily in his project. The two stumble across crazed ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), who’s written “Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf And Eva At Berchtesgaden,” and the two realize they’ve hit pay-dirt— until the can’t-win production becomes a surprise hit thanks to Shawn’s Lorenzo St. DuBois (“LSD”), an acid casualty whose unhinged performance as Hitler convinces audiences that this is a clever counter-cultural statement.


Everything about the film is brilliant, with Brooks, who, after writing TV’s “Your Show Of Shows” for Sid Caesar and creating “Get Smart,” directing his first feature and winning a much-deserved Academy Award for his screenplay. Brooks found great success in the 1970’s for genre parodies such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (the less said about later works like Robin Hood: Men In Tights and Dracula: Dead And Loving It, the better), but you can’t help but wish he’d pushed more original material like this. Every note rings true here — Brooks wrote the Broadway musical “All American” in 1962 — and the more absurd the story gets, the more believable the characters become, with Mostel’s sweaty intensity being matched by Wilder’s mounting panic every step of the way.

The producers 1968 poster
It’s a pity that most people recognize this title only from the musical stage play adaptation and the not-terrible-but-largely-flaccid 2005 theatrical remake starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. Watching Lane try to channel Zero Mostel’s manic energy is an exercise in frustration— Lane mugs while Mostel completely inhabits Max Bialystock, infusing his sad-sack character with demented energy and a desperation that likely stemmed from Mostel’s own pain at having been blacklisted after being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. While curiously not part of Fox’s otherwise-impeccable “Mel Brooks Collection” Blu-Ray box-set from 2009 (it being a Fox-distributed MGM title), Shout Factory has finally released a fantastic version of the film in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo package. The transfer is a little ragged at times but sharp and well-detailed and the film has never looked better. As per usual, Shout has retained nearly all of the extras from the previous MGM DVD (save for a superfluous “Soundtrack Spot”), including a decade-old fantastic “Making-Of” documentary with interviews with from the surviving cast (including the late Kenneth Mars) and added a new interview with Brooks. It’s a great companion piece to Shout’s “Incredible Mel Brooks” box set from last year (reviewed here).


Shout has also just released The Kentucky Fried Movie, the episodic sketch classic that was the first outing for brothers David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, who would later write and direct Airplane!, Top Secret, TV’s “Police Story” and the Naked Gun films. After making the rounds of the studios with their script — and getting the door slammed in their face time and again — the Zuckers got private investors to back the movie, only after securing a pre-Animal House John Landis (who’d only made one movie, the horror-comedy Schlock, before this) to direct. They filmed one ten-minute segment (at the cost of $35,000 out of pocket) which was enough to convince the investors they had what it took.


The film is an assortment of sketches, vignettes and fake commercials, all surrounding the hilarious half-hour Enter The Dragon parody “A Fistful Of Yen”*. As with the scattershot nature of most sketch films, not everything works — some of the gags ("Feel-O-Rama") have aged badly — but fake movie trailers “Catholic High School Girls In Trouble” and “Cleopatra Schwartz” are brilliant and the TV news segments are still inspired. The educational short parody “Zinc Oxide And You” is hilarious (and itself was parodied on “The Simpsons”) and the how-to segment “The Wonderful World Of Sex” has one of the funniest pay-offs in history (three simple words: BIG JIM SLADE). Celebrity cameos include Bill Bixby, ex-007 George Lazenby, Donald Sutherland and Henry Gibson, whose commercial for “United Appeal For The Dead” is unforgettably droll. Shout has released the film on Blu-Ray for the first time, complete with the group commentary from the Zuckers, Abraham, Landis and producer Robert K. Weiss from the 2000 Anchor Bay DVD and a new informative (if low-key) hour-long interview with Zucker Brothers. Picture quality isn’t going to stun anyone — the TV news segments shot on video don’t handle the transition to HD all that well — but is perfectly serviceable. Let’s face it— when did you ever think you’d see “Catholic High School Girls In Trouble” in high-def?


If you haven’t gotten enough episodic insanity, the unofficial Kentucky Fried Movie sequel Amazon Women On The Moon is available in a special-edition DVD from Universal. The budget is bigger, the cameos more pronounced and the material significally more uneven. But what works is hilarious— John Landis’ commercials for “Blacks Without Soul” (where B.B. King asks for contributions to help David Alan Grier’s whitebread Don “No Soul” Simmons) are hysterical, as is and Kentucky Fried Movie producer Weiss’ teen-condom saga “Titan Man” (co-starring Kelly Preston, Howard Hesseman and a very funny Ralph Bellamy). The Zucker Brothers moved on and their replacements (Landis, Weiss, Jaws writer Carl Gottlieb and “Thirtysomething” actor Peter Horton) are a mixed bag. Other than the “Blacks Without Soul” bits, Landis is slumming (the opening bit with Arsenio Hall goes on forever) and Horton’s date bit with Steve Guttenberg and Rosanna Arquette is eminently skippable. Weiss’ long tribute to ‘50’s sci-fi movies, “Amazon Women On The Moon,” has its moments (he gets the saturated look and feel down pat), but soon outstays its welcome. Gottlieb directs only two segments; one of them, “Son Of The Invisible Man,” a Universal horror parody with Ed Begley Jr. erroneously believing in his invisibility, being one of the most clever of the bunch. It’s Gremlins’ Joe Dante, however, who turns out to be the MVP here, directing the funniest and sharpest segments. The post-end-credit piece “Reckless Youth” — with stern doctor Paul (Eating Raoul) Bartel telling Carrie Fisher about the “social disease” she’s contracted — is a picture-perfect recreation of old public-health shorts and “Roast Your Loved One,” a hilariously cutting sketch about a recently-deceased man (Archie Hahn) being the butt of a funeral-home celebrity roast hosted by the likes of Steve Allen, Henny Youngman, Slappy White and Rip Taylor, is one for the vaults.


Amazon Women On The Moon was barely released to theaters in the fall of 1987 but became a cult classic on video. Universal released a Special Edition DVD back in 2003, complete with outtakes and a number of trimmed and deleted scenes, most of which are forgettable, with Dante’s “The French Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” starring Dante and Roger Corman regular Dick Miller, being the highlight.


You can purchase The Producers from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can purchase The Kentucky Fried Movie from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can purchase Amazon Women On The Moon from Amazon.


*The slightly obtuse title of this review comes from here. 

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