This month marks the golden anniversary of the release of director Stanley Kramer’s Cinerama “comedy to end all comedies,” It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. With a starring cast that reads like a Hollywood Laughmakers Hall of Fame (Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, and Jonathan Winters, to name just a few) and a slew of cameos from just about everyone else since the days of Mack Sennett, the slapstick spectacle premiered in mid-November of 1963, just days before the assassination of President Kennedy (an unfortunate circumstance which may have actually helped it at the box office, as grief-stricken audiences looked for something to cheer them up). The film would ultimately go on to become one of 1963-64’s biggest moneymakers and take in over $20,000,000–which, adjusted for inflation, would be…a lot of money. It also picked up six Academy Award nominations along the way, winning only in the Best Sound Effects competition. Over the decades It’s a Mad Mad, etc. has garnered a cult reputation, its own Facebook page and legions of devoted fans, and this coming January it will come out in a special Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD combo. With all that going for it, however, I can’t say that the picture totally lives up to its reputation.
For the uninitiated, the basic plot is this: four previously unconnected carloads of people along a California desert road come to the aid of another driver who sped past them and crashed his car down a cliff. Five of the strangers (Berle, Caesar, Hackett, Rooney, Winters) climb down the embankment to tend to the dying speeder, ex-gangster Jimmy Durante. Durante tells them that $350,000 in cash (which, adjusted for inflation, would…also be a lot of money) from one of his jobs is buried in Santa Rosita State Park, “under a big W,” just before he literally kicks the bucket. Returning to their own vehicles–where Caesar’s wife (Edie Adams) and Berle’s spouse and mother-in law (Dorothy Provine and Ethel Merman, respectively) are waiting–the group talks about splitting the money between them before greed ultimately takes over, sending them and several folks they encounter along the way (con man Silvers, British tourist Terry-Thomas, Merman’s beach bum son Dick Shawn, and cabbies Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Peter Falk) on a madcap dash to the park and the mysterious “big W.” Meanwhile, veteran Santa Rosita police captain Tracy, on the eve of retirement, has his department keeping a close eye on the whole gang, waiting for them to lead him to the hidden loot. But with domestic problems and a meager pension awaiting him, does Tracy has his own plans for the money once it’s found?
Around this simple storyline Kramer and writers William and Tania Rose managed to fill up the screen with a veritable smorgasbord of highway chases, car crashes, airplane smahes, hardware store explosions, gas station demolition, and a final pursuit inside an abandoned building (the film used half the membership of Hollywood’s Stuntman Association during its production). Even with the array of funnymen–and a few funny women–before the camera, jokes and dialogue often take a back seat to sight gags and over-the-top mayhem; It’s said that when the lead actors were shown the effects shots and second unit footage already shot, one quipped, “Why do you need us?” While several of these moments do stand out–Hackett and Rooney flying a plane through a roadside billboard and an open airport hangar, an enraged Winters single-handedly destroying the service station owned by siblings Marvin Kaplan and Arnold Stang, and the chase onto a dangerously overloaded fire escape–a little bit of the chaos goes a long way.
And speaking of those funny women: they get precious few chances to be funny here. There’s little for Adams to do but tag along with hubby Caesar (a role which was originally planned for Adams’ real-life spouse Ernie Kovacs, who was killed in an auto accident in early 1962); Provine, whose long-suffering character is the only one not caught up in the search for the money, only has one good scene, an encounter at the park with Tracy; and Merman is an loudly annoying one-note harridan there basically to be the “fall gal” in the closing scene. (Fun Fact: Merman’s part, it’s alleged, was originally planned for Groucho Marx, as Berle’s father-in-law, but he’s said to have wanted too much money. Marx would make his film farewell a few years later in another all-star caper comedy, Otto Preminger’s disastrous Skidoo.) The rest of the female cast members are relegated to cameo status or voice work; one wonders if Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Doris Day, Phyllis Diller, Jayne Masnfield or other contemporary comediennes were considered.
As for the male stars, the interactions between pals Rooney and Hackett and enemies Winters and Silvers (who left Winters tied up at the aforementioned gas station) offer some pleasant diversion, but the true standout is Shawn’s beat-talking mama’s boy Sylvester. The remainder of the leading men are adequate given that they’re basically reacting to the wild proceedings around them. When it comes to the heralded cameos, most are of the “blink-and-you-miss-them” variety: motorists Jack Benny and Jerry Lewis, sheriff Andy Devine, bystander Joe E. Brown, and garage owner Buster Keaton (who was the first choice to play gangster “Smiler” Grogan before his ex-MGM co-star Durante replaced him, and whose scene with Tracy that would have established the pair’s connection was cut from the final theatrical print). The most sublime example of these cameos, however, is the single, three-second-or-so shot of The Three Stooges as airport firemen. When I first saw the movie on TV as a child, I was annoyed that Moe, Larry and Curly Joe got to do nothing but pose at the ready with their equipment, but now I kind of like the idea that the all the boys have to do is stand there to suggest that something was about to go wrong.
With It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Kramer attempted to do for movie comedy what Grand Hotel did for drama and Around the World in 80 Days did for adventure. The finished picture does indeed more closely resemble the latter, as you watch the dizzying goings-on and Southern California scenery (Ernest Lazlo’s Oscar-nominated cinematography must have been a wonder to see on a giant Cinerama screen) while your brain tries to play catch-up as the faces of Joe E. Brown, William Demarest, Edward Everett Horton, Don Knotts, ZaSu Pitts and the like fly by. And there are more laughs to be had here than in such similarly-themed genre entries as Blake Edwards’ The Great Race or Neil Simon’s Murder by Death…or, for that matter, such unabashed rip-offs as Million Dollar Mystery (a film that, fittingly, was made in conjunction with a garbage bag manufacturer) and Rat Race. I just wish that, given the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour to three-hour-plus running time (depending upon the print), there were more of them.
Oh, and by the way, don’t bother going out to Santa Rosita State Park looking for that “big W. The park is fictitious and the natural phenomenon which made up the “W” no longer exists.