It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Director: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: William and Tania Rose
Stars: Spencer Tracy (Capt. T. G. Culpepper), Milton Berle (J. Russell Finch), Sid Caesar (Melville Crump), Buddy Hackett (Benjy Benjamin), Ethel Merman (Mrs. Marcus), Mickey Rooney (Ding Bell), Dick Shawn (Sylvester Marcus), Phil Silvers (Otto Meyer), Terry-Thomas (J. Algernon Hawthorne), Jonathan Winters (Lennie Pike), Edie Adams (Monica Crump), Dorothy Provine (Emeline Marcus-Finch), Jimmy Durante (“Smiley” Grogan), Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (Second Cab Driver), Jim Backus (Tyler Fitzgerald), Ben Blue (Biplane Pilot), Joe E. Brown (Union Official), Alan Carney (Police Sergeant), Chick Chandler (Detective Outside Chinese Laundromat), Barrie Chase (Sylvester’s Girlfriend), Lloyd Corrigan (The Mayor), William Demarest (Police Chief Aloysius)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1963
Country: U.S.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldDespite its scope and the impact it had when first released back in 1963, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World has been strangely marginalized in most film histories. True, it has developed a fervent cult following and has been subject to two restorations, but crack open just about any of the major surveys of film history—David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson’s Film History, Robert Sklar’s Movie-Made America, Jon Lewis’s American Film: A History, Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art—and you will find no mention of the film. Even books focused specifically on Hollywood cinema in the 1960s—J. Hoberman’s The Dream Life and Paul Monaco’s volume on the ’60s for the “History of American Cinema” series, to name two—are bereft of mention. Gerald Mast and Bruce A. Kawin’s A Short History of the Movies mentions it once in passing as evidence of the difficulties involved in marrying traditional narrative with the Cinerama process, but otherwise Mad, Mad World has been unduly shoved into historical irrelevance.

Why, one might reasonably wonder, is this? After all, Mad, Mad World was a substantial critical success and a significant box office hit, grossing more than $60 million worldwide and landing as the third highest grossing film in the U.S. that year behind Cleopatra and The Longest Day, two other epic representatives of the industry’s attempt to reinvent itself in the shadow of television and the expansion of other leisure activities with scope and scale. It was nominated for six Oscars (deservedly winning a statue for Best Sound Effects) and placed in several “Ten Best Lists” for that year (including The New York Times). Technologically speaking, it was truly state-of-the-art, as it helped introduce 70mm Ultra Panavision as a single-camera replacement for the multi-camera Cinerama process and also featured an outstanding assemblage of special effects artists and stuntmen to pull off its many visual feats, most of which are still astounding today. It also boasted one of the largest casts of comedians ever assembled in a single film, melding together the past (Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges) with the present (Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters).

The only reason I can think for the marginalization of Kramer’s avowed “comedy to end all comedies” is that its overall influence on Hollywood cinema has been negligible. That is, the idea of the big-budget comedy spectacular never really took off in its wake, although there were assorted attempts over the years, most of which were received dismally both critically and commercially (Steven Spielberg’s greatly underappreciated 1941 is certainly the most ambitious attempt to recreate the look and feel of Kramer’s chaotic epic comedy). Kramer himself is something of a divisive figure in film history; despite having directed and/or produced numerous films that warrant classic status (Home of the Brave, 1948; High Noon, 1952; The Defiant Ones, 1958; On the Beach, 1959; Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961, to name a few), he is often derided for his heavy-handedness and written off as a leaden director more interested in conveying social-liberal messages than making good movies. The fact that he is almost exclusively associated with serious dramas also makes his position as director of a large-scale ensemble comedy problematic, and many of the film’s detractors have suggested that he has no real comedic sense or appreciation of the many comic styles he was attempting to meld into one massive film.

Despite Mad, Mad World’s historical marginalization, the world seems to be swinging back in its favor, perhaps because so much film comedy today seems so puny and pointlessly vulgar. The idea of making a comedic film that could rightly be called “spectacular” is an almost alien concept at this point, which makes Mad, Mad World, despite its flaws, a more fascinating film than ever. It is, like most big comedies, a film that appreciates over time. It gets better and better each time you watch it and the more you know it. You learn is beats, become familiar with its patterns of anarchy, and are better able to enjoy the details of the visual overload when you no longer have to pay close attention to the plot because you know exactly what is coming next. It is, in the simplest terms, a true cult film because it rewards devotion and repeated viewings, so it is no wonder that the film’s fervent fanbase has been enough to keep it at least somewhere on the radar, leading to a major restoration in recent years under the auspices of the great Robert A. Harris that has brought it the closest it has ever been to its original roadshow presentation (it initially ran some 202 minutes with opening music, intermission, and exit music, and was later cut down to 163 minutes to squeeze in an extra showing and then down to 154 minutes for general 35mm release).

The film takes place over the course of a day and follows more than a dozen different plot strands as a desperate group of people race each other to locate a stash of stolen money buried on a beach in Southern California. The film kicks off in high gear, with a runaway car jumping a guardrail and crashing in spectacular fashion on a desert mountainside. The driver is a thief named “Smiley” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) who, just before he dies, tells the group of onlookers who have come to his aid about $350,000 he stole 15 years earlier and buried. The onlookers comprise a broad cross-section of American types, each played by a well-known comedic actor: J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), a businessman who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and is traveling with his wife Emeiline (Dorothy Provine) and his insufferably loud mother-in-law (Broadway legend Ethel Merman); Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), an ordinary middle-class guy, and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); raucous friends Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and blue-collar truck driver Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters, in his first screen role). While they at first try to collaborate, soon it is “every man for himself” as the various factions split off and race each other to the loot, whether by car, truck, plane, or bicycle. Along the way they pick up half a dozen others who also want a share of the loot, including Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers), a heartless salesman; Sylvester (Sick Shawn), Ethel Merman’s dim-witted son; and J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas), a limey botanist who becomes Russell’s partner and antagonist. Watching everything from afar is Captain T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), a stern-faced police captain who has been tracking the stolen loot for the past 15 years.

The chase structure of the film allows for screenwriters William and Tania Rose (who had previously collaborated on a number of Ealing comedies in Britain) to present all manner of outrageous scenarios in a wide array of geographic locations, turning the film into a kind of travelogue of southern and central California in the early 1960s. Whatever is big in the script, Kramer endeavored to make even bigger, with massive stunts (a plane flying through a billboard, cars tumbling down hills and sinking in rivers, a bout of fisticuffs between Buddy Hackett and a pair of service station attendants that destroys an entire building) that are all the most impressive and nerve-wracking for having been done prior to the advent of CGI. (The scale of the film’s action has to be considered within the context of its having been shot in 65mm and initially projected on the massive curved Cinerama screen.) Of course, the film relies heavily on all manner of visual tricks and special effects, from optical effects, to rear projection, to the extensive use of miniatures, puppets, and stop-motion animation, especially in the film’s raucous climax in which all the characters are dangling precariously from a collapsing fire escape and then from the violently swinging ladder of a fire truck.

Kramer seems to want to simultaneously make both the ultimate comedy and contradict all the traditional rules of film comedy, especially the admonition that they should never run more than 90 minutes (which is about the point of Mad, Mad World’s intermission). The result is a film of gargantuan proportions that some find overwhelming and others find engrossing. Count me somewhere in the middle: I have thoroughly enjoyed Mad, Mad World each time I’ve seen it, and each viewing reveals more to enjoy. I also can’t help but appreciate its underlying acerbic sensibility, given that the entire film is fueled by the relentlessness of pure, unbridled greed. At the same time, I also recognize that the scale of the film’s production (170 shooting days! 636,000 feet of film! 114 speaking roles!) sometimes overwhelms the film itself, and we sense the effort overtaking the effect. As a whole, though, Mad, Mad World lives up to its intentions as an epic madcap farce, and it offers enough comic variation through the multiple characters and situations that it never feels overlong or monotonous. Rather, it’s like watching a dozen different comedies smashed into one. How appealing that prospect sounds to you will largely determine your response to Kramer’s famous one-off, a film comedy to end all film comedies that few have dared to follow.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Criterion Collection Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack
Criterion’s five-disc edition contains both the 163-minute general release version of the film and a reconstructed 197-minute extended edition
Aspect Ratio2.76:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Audio commentary featuring aficionados Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo
  • Documentary on the film’s visual and sound effects
  • Excerpt from a 1974 talk show hosted by director Stanley Kramer and featuring actors Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, and Jonathan Winters
  • Press interview from 1963 featuring Kramer and cast members
  • Excerpts from the 2000 AFI program 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs
  • Two-part 1963 episode of the TV program Telescope that follows the film’s press junket and premiere
  • “The Last 70mm Film Festival,” a 2012 program featuring cast and crew, hosted by actor Billy Crystal
  • Selection original TV and radio ads for the film, with a new introduction by Stan Freberg
  • Trailers and radio spots
  • Restoration featurette
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Lou Lumenick and new illustrations by legendary cartoonist Jack Davis, along with a map of the shooting locations by artist Dave Woodman
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 21, 2014

    It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World has a long and checkered history on home video, with multiple releases on VHS, laser disc, and DVD over the years featuring different cuts of the film in different aspect ratios, with different sound mixes, and often with errors such as Saul Bass’s opening title sequence being presented in red, rather than in multiple colors. Longtime fans of the film have much to rejoice about in Criterion’s collaboration with MGM and restorationist Robert A. Harris to finally bring the film to home video in the best possible presentation. Criterion’s multi-disc package (two Blu-rays and three DVDs) give us two different versions of the film: the 163-minute general release version and a newly reconstructed 197-minute version that incorporates all known existing film and audio footage drawn from 70mm preview reels, trims, and other assorted sources, some of which is being seen here for the first time since 1963 (an excellent restoration featurette demonstrates the vast amount of work that went into producing the extended version of the film). Both versions were given new high-definition transfers and additional digital restoration and are presented in their proper 2.76:1 aspect ratio with full six-channel sound. The results are superb, a genuinely fantastic presentation of a film that has too often been diminished by the limited presentation capabilities of home video. The Technicolor image pops off the screen with great depth and detail, giving us all the sharp textures and fine gradations of detail present in the 65mm celluloid. The extended version does have some limitations due to the varying conditions of the existing film elements. For example, for reasons more complicated that I care to relate here, some of the trims re-edited back in the film have black-and-white borders around them, and some of the scenes are missing the visual element, so we have to be satisfied with hearing the audio while watching still images standing in for the missing footage. It would be great if all the missing elements had been discovered in prime condition, but I have to say kudos to both Robert Harris for his assemblage and Criterion for giving us such a great presentation of it.

    Given the enormity of the film itself and its presentation here in its close-to-complete full roadshow version, it is only appropriate that Criterion has assembled a genuinely massive assortment of supplements, both newly produced material and fantastic gems from the archives. On the 197-minute extended version we have a bursting-at-the-seams audio commentary by Mad, Mad World aficionados Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo, who seem to have dedicated their entire lives to amassing information about the film. They have a lot of time to talk, and they fill every second of it with background information, production details, and funny anecdotes—a true pleasure to listen to. Also new are a short, but comprehensive restoration featurette that will greatly enhance your appreciation of what it took to create the extended version of the film and an excellent 38-minute documentary on the film’s visual and sound effects. Criterion once against employs visual-effects specialist Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt to discuss the film’s effects, although the real star of the program is the 16mm color behind-the-scenes footage shot by visual effects director Linwood Dunn. The rest of the supplements have been drawn from the archives, allowing us an appreciation of both the film’s initial theatrical release and the impact it has had on comedians ever since. From 1963 we have a press interview featuring director Stanley Kramer and cast members and a two-part episode of the Canadian TV program Telescope that follows the film’s press junket (focusing primarily on Jonathan Winters) and premiere. There is also an extensive selection of original television and radio spots written by humorist and voice-over artist Stan Freberg, who also appears in a new introduction (there are also radio spots and a trailer for the film’s 1970 re-release). From 1974 we get a talk show hosted by Kramer and featuring actors Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, and Jonathan Winters. Somewhat newer, we have 11 minutes of excerpts from the 2000 AFI program 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs, which features interviews with Mickey Rooney, Whoopi Goldberg, David Alan Grier, and Alan King, among others, and “The Last 70mm Film Festival,” a video recording of a 2012 program featuring members of the cast and crew (including Rooney, Winters, and Stanley Kramer’s widow) and hosted by actor Billy Crystal. The insert booklet contains an essay by film critic Lou Lumenick and new illustrations by legendary cartoonist Jack Davis, along with a map of the shooting locations by artist Dave Woodman.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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