The other day, I wrote about the wonderful current issue of Written By, the magazine publication of the Writers Guild of America. They have a special issue centered around the "101 Funniest Screenplays" list that the Guild put together. I linked here to a terrific interview with Woody Allen, and this another very enjoyable piece on Mel Brooks, called "Where Did He Go Right?" (which is an anguished lament from the film, The Producers, when Max Bialystock tries to produce a disastrous flop and intentionally does everything wrong, but the musical turns out to be a smash hit.) The article, written by Lisa Rosen, began as a look about at all of Brooks's career, but though he does talk about a lot, it focuses far more on the history of The Producers.
What I particularly liked about the interview, and found most fascinating for two reasons, is that Brooks talks about the involvement of Alfa-Betty Olsen. That's the first fascinating thing, since it's something he rarely does (though has on occasion). It's always been "Mel Brooks's The Producers", indeed something he won the Oscar for, as Best Original Screenplay. So, it's intriguing to hear him address her participation, especially in the official publication of the Writers Guild.
The other reason is the "mystery" of what her actual participation was. There has been a certain group of thought that her work was significant, even to the point of coming up with the idea or writing much of the script. It's certainly possible, though I've always suspect it hasn't been significant to that level, since for a work this tremendous, her resume is deeply limited and seriously uninspiring. That alone isn't even close to "proof," since a lot of very talented writers have scant produced credits and just weren't able to get other projects off the ground for any number of reasons. But completely unrelated to his reference to Alfa-Betty Olsen is an earlier part of the interview where he talks about the history of The Producers. And that's something I've never heard him talk about, and it added other very important pieces of the puzzle.
For starters, Mel Brooks gives the name of the producer he worked for earlier in his career, which gave him the idea for the story. I've heard him talk about the man numerous times,but I've never once heard him give the name. Here he does -- Benjamin Kutcher.
From there, Brooks talks about writing it first as a novel, but the people he gave it to found it mostly dialogue, and suggest he turn it into a play. Which he does -- but the producer Kermit Bloomgarden (who did The Music Man) was concerned that it required far too many cast members and sets. And he suggested it be turned into a movie. And so Brooks wrote another version, this time as a film. And after that, that's when he brought in Alfa-Betty Olsen, largely (so he says) for her opinion on what worked and what didn't.
I have no idea if that's what her participation was, or if it was more. But given that Mel Brooks on his own wrote The Producers as a novel, a stage play and then a film script, it seems pretty clear to me that the story was absolutely his, as was the foundation and structure. This is not remotely meant to diminish Alfa-Betty Olsen's participation, but to put it in a more rounded perspective than I've ever seen it before, along with her own credits. She likely had a valuable part to play, given that Mel Brooks does bring her up. But it seems likely to me that Mel Brooks deserves his sole credit.
As I said, the article deals with more than just The Producers, and a wider spectrum of his career, and you can read here.
And here he is receiving his Oscar for Best Screenplay. It's presented by Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles -- the latter of whom decides to horn in on Mel Brooks's moment and almost mucks it up, but Brooks is able to politely not let him.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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