In today’s guest post, Jim Brymer shares his thoughts on the 1963 comedy classic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Stanley Kramer was a well-known director in his day, one who specialized in “message” films — meaning that there was usually a subcontext to the film, addressing issues of the day. He made some of the classics we all know and love, including On the Beach, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, each one addressing social issues of the time in which they were made.
In 1963 Kramer tackled a genre that he had never before tried — comedy. And he did on an epic scale. Virtually every comedic actor in Hollywood that could get out of bed to go down to the studio was cast in the film. The core group of actors and actresses who had primary roles were the basis of he story, but a cast of a hundred or so other well known comedic stars had brief (and sometimes not so brief) cameos.
The original movie was almost 3½ hours long, but the studio made many cuts to the film, reducing it to a more manageable 2½ hours, much to Kramer’s consternation. The good news is a crack team of restorers found the cut footage and managed to fix it up, so now you can actually see the original version that Kramer made (or at least most of it), on a release that was issued about three years ago. Unfortunately I don’t have access to that cut so this review only covers the standard theatrical release.
The main gist of the story is a group of seven people who happen to witness an accident on a mountain road and are given directions to where a stash of stolen money is buried. The main cast includes a married couple and their mother-in-law, Russell and Emmeline Finch, and Mrs. Marcus, Emmeline’s mother (Milton Berle, Dorothy Provine and Ethel Merman), a young married couple, Melville and Monica Crump (Sid Caesar and Edie Adams), a pair of friends on their way to Vegas, Benjy Benjamin and Ding Bell (Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney), and a truck driver taking a load of freight to Yuma, Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters).
As each group battles the rest of the gang to try to get to the money first, they encounter a variety of other characters (both literally and figuratively…some of the cameos are pure comedic genius).
An added bonus is there is a police chief who is also after the money, ostensibly to return it to the bank from which it was stolen and retire with accolades and commendations from it, but we soon find out that’s not entirely the truth.
Spencer Tracy plays the not-so-goodnik police chief and gets just as many laughs as the rest of the cast. The plot stems from there and it’s just madcap jaunt into the world of greed as the eight main members (and a few more hangers-on) try to get the hidden money.
That’s all you really need know to watch the movie. I would note that I think Merman should have gotten at least an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but she was edged out by nearly every supporting actress in Tom Jones (three actresses nominated, neither of which won…)
Since this post is about the secondary cameos, I won’t delve too much into the story. Following is just some of the funnier sequences that make the movie such a classic comedy.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963):
Setup is important. Our initial cast of characters are tooling down a curving mountain road when they are all passed by a motorist who is driving exceedingly fast. Just as he passes the first car in line his car goes careening off the road and crashes. The men in the four vehicles go down to check out the damage and find Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) in a heap and dying. Smiler tells them about the hidden money just before he “kicks the bucket”. (Literally. See the video clip. It’s one of the first really funny clips in the movie.
Dick Shawn plays Merman’s son (Provine’s brother), Sylvester. The man is a maniac and a dimwit who is totally devoted to his mother. Instead of going after the treasure as mom wants him to do, he instead races to rescue mom, and in the process decides that Russell must pay for treating mom bad.
Early in the movie Culpepper loses his hat out the window and it lands in the middle of the street. A passerby (Jerry Lewis) spots the hat and intentionally swerves his car to crush the hat. Sounds like just the kind of thing I might do…
Many of the cameos are just as brief. At one point, the Finches are pulled over as Merman argues with Berle. A passing motorist stops to ask if they are “having trouble” and Merman tells him to basically go fly a kite. The passing motorist? Jack Benny.
The major cast is joined by others who find out about the dash for the money and deal themselves in. The highlight just has to be Phil Silvers as Otto Meyer. Meyer picks up Pike, who has been stranded and is trying to ride a tricycle in the chase. After hearing the details, Meyer distracts Pike and takes off in search of the treasure by himself. Some great scenes with Silvers includes a scene where he tries to navigate a back-desert road, ending up in a river.
Jim Backus (later famous as Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island, but already familiar to radio listeners and TV and movie fans), plays a hilarious rle as the alcoholic owner of an airplane who helps Benjy and Ding get to the money site. (Well, sort of… He passes out while the plane is in the air leading to a great scene with the clueless pair trying to fly themselves, but Backus is funny in his appearance as a drunken version of Thurston).
In one scene, Phil Silvers’ character, who has managed to ditch Pike, has gotten a ride with a nervous man (played by Don Knotts, with typical fidgety demeanor for which he made his name).
One of the best scenes involves two service station operators, Ray and Irwin (Marvin Kaplan and Arnold Stang) who try to detain Pike. First thing, these guys have a service station out in the middle of nowhere; where were they expecting to get business? And second, I highly doubt the building inspector gave a write off to the construction of this building because it is slapdash to the max. But then if it wasn’t, the scene wouldn’t work.
There are dozens of other great character cameos in the film. This post would become entirely too long if I covered every single one. I will mention that some of the others include a whole raft of familiar faces, including the then current lineup of The Three Stooges, Andy Devine, Jesse White, Eddie Anderson (Rochester from The Jack Benny Show), William Demarest (Uncle Charlie on My Three Sons), Buster Keaton, Carl Reiner, Norman Fell (Jack Tripper’s landlord on Three’s Company),Leo Gorcey (one of the Bowery Boys), Mike Mazurski (a recurrent hood in a lot of classic film noir movies) and Selma Diamond’s voice (she was the first bailiff on Night Court).
If you have a family night with three hours to kill, you can’t go wrong with this one. It’s entertaining to the max. Lots of sight gags, and you will have fun spotting the plethora of guest cameos that appear throughout the film. I’ll leave you with just one last clip to entice you to just WATCH THE MOVIE!
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.