Hollywood Flashback: Hitler Comedy 'The Producers' Won an Oscar in 1969

AVCO Embassy Pictures/Photofest
The "Springtime for Hitler" musical sequence in 1967’s 'The Producers.'

Mel Brooks' film barely broke even upon its theatrical release, but it went on to win an Oscar for best original screenplay before it became a Broadway juggernaut in 2001, running for 2,502 performances and winning a record 12 Tony Awards.

It's been more than 50 years since Mel Brooks' The Producers wrestled with the challenge of courting Oscar for a film offering a comic version of Adolf Hitler, something Jojo Rabbit is facing this year.

"There are many to whom this brand of humor is more an opening of wounds that can never heal," THR said in its Dec. 28, 1967, review. "Those who will not buy Grundig and Volkswagen will probably pass by The Producers as well." (For anyone under 50, the German company Grundig was once the largest radio manufacturer in Europe; Volkswagen was founded in 1937 by a Nazi labor union.) But on the bright side, THR loved the movie. "It is a hilarious film, sparked by the sort of performance in which star Zero Mostel has no peer and marking an impressive directorial debut by Brooks," said the review.

But what THR seemed most concerned about was that Embassy Pictures might have botched the film's chances for Oscar noms by opening it in New York and not having enough trade screenings. "Gene Wilder's supporting performance would have been eligible and perhaps likely to have earned an Academy Awards nomination," said THR. (It turned out Wilder was eligible and did receive a supporting actor nod; Brooks, then 41, won the Oscar for original screenplay.) THR had been following the film's progress for at least 17 months. In August 1966, it announced that Brooks' film, then titled Springtime for Hitler, would be made on a $1 million budget. (The final cost for the 40-day shoot that began a year after the THR announcement was $941,000, or $7.25 million in today's dollars.)

The title, though, was an ongoing problem. Brooks had been thinking about using Springtime for Hitler in something since 1962. Universal's Lew Wasserman was interested in the film but wanted it switched to Springtime for Mussolini because "Mussolini's nicer." It ended up being changed to The Producers because Embassy head Joseph E. Levine said no Jewish theater owner would "put Springtime for Hitler on his marquee." And then The Producers grossed $1.6 million in theaters, which meant it barely broke even. But when Brooks adapted it as a Broadway musical in 2001 with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick starring, it ran for 2,502 performances and won a record 12 Tony Awards. 

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.