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.