Monday, August 4, 2008

Film #72: It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, director/producer Stanley Kramer was well-known for his more socially-conscious brand of moviemaking, signified by heady "important" films like Judgment at Nuremburg, The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, On The Beach and The Caine Mutiny. However, in 1962, he was itching to do another movie with his favorite leading actor Spencer Tracy. But Tracy was fighting a long illness (death wouldn't claim him until 1967) and he didn't want a role that would require him to carry the whole movie. AND he wanted to do a comedy. So Kramer jumped into the comedic waters (with a then-breathtaking budget of $7 million, or about $75 million by today's standards) and came up with It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, an epic-scoped ode to all thing slapstick that was the first offering of a genre I like to call "The Chaos Movie."

In this 1963 movie, gangster Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante, the first in a long series of komedy kameos) literally kicks the bucket on a California highway and, with his dying gasp, lets go of his secret to the spectators watching him expire: There's $350,000 in stolen moolah buried under a 'W' in Santa Rosita State Park and it's now up for grabs. Thus begins one of the cinema's most outlandish chase sequences ever--three full hours of eye-popping stunts (Kramer utilized over half the members of the Stuntman's Association of America), memorable visual effects (including some funny stop-motion animation), sharp sound (for which it won an Oscar), fast editing, star cameos and yuks galore.

Let's cover the people racing for the gold. In one car, there's Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett. In another, Sid Caesar and wife Edie Adams. In another, Milton Berle, wife Dorothy Provine, and mother-in-law Ethel Merman (in the movie's best performance). Finally, alone in his truck, we have Jonathan Winters (also not bad)! Along the way we pick up Dick Shawn, doing a dry run for his L.S.D. character in The Producers by playing a beachcombing, womanizing mama's boy! Then we pick up schememeister Phil Silvers, gap-toothed Brit Terry-Thomas, and soon-to-be-stranded Gilligan's Island millionaire Jim Backus. And, all along the way of this 200-mile journey to the 'W', in alphabetical order, we see: Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and his buddy Jack Benny, Ben Blue, Joe E. Brown, Howard DaSilva, William Demerest, Andy Devine, Norman Fell, Stan Freberg, Leo Gorcey, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Marvin Kaplan and Arnold Stang (as shocked gas station attendants, in the film's best scene), Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Zasu Pitts, Carl Reiner, Doodles Weaver, Jesse White, and The Three Stooges as flummoxed firemen! Only Harold Lloyd, Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx (or any of the Marx Brothers), Mae West, Mel Brooks, the Little Rascals, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Charlie Chaplin would have made this unparalled cast complete. Damn, the movie's even got a Saul Bass credits sequence and Mad Magazine's Jack Davis as its poster artist!

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was one of the first movies to cut back and forth between competing storylines since D.W. Griffith's 1916 classic Intolerance. And it's a technique that wouldn't be practiced again until George Lucas cemented its cinematic presence with his massive American Graffiti in 1973. Now, it's a movie staple with entire careers--like that of Robert Altman's and Paul Thomas Anderson's--being built on its foundation (don't forget the blah, multi-storied Crash won Best Picture in 2005, and 2008's winner, No Country For Old Men, like Fargo before it, had competing storylines, too).

It was also, barring the silent era's Keystone Cops and the like, the first chaos movie--that is, a movie in which everybody is trying to reach the same goal at once and is willing to kill everybody else competing with them in the process. It's not a very good genre. Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? might be the best one. Norman Lear's Cold Turkey, about an entire town trying to stop smoking for monetary gain, comes to mind. Million Dollar Mystery, the pathetic 80s Mad Mad World, is another (this film is especially memorable to me as the only film inspired by a TV commercial: Tom Bosley's 80s ads for Glad trash bags; believe it or not...). Million Dollar Mystery's cast? Eddie Deezen, Rick Overton, Rich Hall, Kevin Pollack and...yes, Tom Bosley. Wanna see it yet? Then we have the 90s version, called Rat Race. It was terrible, too, and featured Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, Jon Lovitz, Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Kathy Najimy, Dave Thomas and Paul Rodriguez (at least they ATTEMPTED to get a good cast). I'm sure I could think of more chaos movies but...

...None come close to the greatness of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Watching it now on DVD will dwarf its once-immense size (graced with perfect photography by Ernest Lazlo, Mad World was a Cinerama release, an ultra-widescreen format that used three camera/projectors to compose the image). If you choose to watch it, remember that it's best on a big screen, with an audience to goose you. And, hey, for fans (and this movie does have a sizable cult), check out the site Road Scenes from It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It takes you on the scenic real-life California tour that our "heroes" take, such as they are.  And it says so much about the American chase for the Almighty Dollar. 


Dean Treadway said...

Here's a cut-and-paste e-mail reply from my very good friend, movie expert Jake Jacobson:


Although I agree with you on around 70 percent of films--a fucking amazingly high number for those rare cinenuts who have seen as many films as we--I must take issue with the MMMMW review.

As you probably know, and I back this shit up, I am a lifelong expert on widescreen cinema and particularly Cinerama. I am on the Board of Directors of the Giant Screen Cinema Association (this is not being smug) and am the only broadcast journalist in the world who is a lifetime membership (the other journalist overall is Charles Champlin of the LATimes--doubly not being smug here please). I fly to England almost every March for the world famous Widescreen Weekend held in Bradford each year at the national Media museum.

What does this mean? Does it mean my opinion is more qualified than yours? YES! (Hell, no, of course)

BUT other than the AWESOME Ernest Gold score that always made good Kramer great, and Phil Silvers and Arnold Stang, the film is a loud, obnoxious, cruel and ugly, elephantine exercise in blowsy hysteria. The cameos by Keaton and the Stooges and on and on are welcome Cinerama carnival jerkoff fodder. But this story of greed and pain and suffering is not the Road Runner cartoon you envision. It is huge for hugeness' sake.

It provides some fine photography of LA in 1962-3 and great shots of Ocean View Park and some marvellous stunt work. The great Merman, Shawn, Berle, Falk, Hackett, Rooney etc., etc. are cardboard panic machines. They cause anxiety and unease and I cant recall a single laugh (and I have seen this like25 times and in Ultra Panavision and Cinerama twice). IMMMMW is a unique relic of some great TV, theater and film comedy talent preserved and THAT IS IT. Maybe when Durante kicks the bucket and Hackett says YEP, HE'S DEAD ALL RIGHT was cute, and the finale on the fire escape with the worst doubles/stuntment in history (I think Rooney's stand-in is 6 feet 3 in) is a fine exercise in miniature work.

But this is simply three hours of nasty assholes battling for mobster cash and having NO chance of getting away with it. Crime may not pay is the message but does it have to maim and cripple and destroy? I know it is all slapstick and a stab at good fun but the William and Tania Rose script, who wrote the greatest film of all in 1954 on chases--Genevieve--prove more is less.

Now if I can only find the great Saul Bass intermission animation that got raves in the press back in 1963 and UA destroyed most of the prints. According to a meeting I had with Saul's widow Elaine 10 years ago....

Keep up the entertaining writing. I do appreciate it. But this is more BAD BAD than MAD MAD. You WILL come around one day.......although I DO DO DO DO DO love to hear you laugh in the theater!!!!!!!!!!!


Anonymous said...

It's a Mad,Mad,Mad,Mad World is one, if not the best motion picture ever made. So movie expert Jake "Jackoff" Jacobson can go fuck himself

Dean Treadway said...

You said it, I didn't! Thanks, anonymous.

JAKE J. said...

Wow, Dean and anonymous. Jackoff here. If Anon thinks that IAMMMMW could be the BEST movie EVER made, he is both gutless and smart to remain unknown. At least he defended his position well.