The Great Race: Prank Falls and Pitfalls

Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid included Hanna Barbera’s Wacky Races, a fun one which involved a cross-country car race, and a spinoff called The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, and another spinoff called Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines. I used to love all of them. There were several significant characters in the original Wacky Races, one of which was the aforementioned Penelope, but also a gentlemanly hero named Peter Perfect, and especially memorably, a black-caped top-hatted mustachioed villain name Dick Dastardy and his incompetent helper a mutt called Muttley.

This being Hanna-Barbera cartoon about a car race, there were of course additional racers, most of which were caricatures of kid-appealing favorites, like the Slag Brothers (A Flintstones-like caveman duo), a pair of hillbillies, and a haunted house on wheels driven by a Frankenstein and a Dracula/mad scientist set of characters.

But the ones I remembered most was the goody Peter, the evil Dastardly and his dog, and Penelope. But I haven’t seen them since I was a kid. So a few weeks ago I bought a box-set of Warner Brothers comedies and one of them was The Great Race, a Blake Edwards movie. I had never seen it before but I gamely put it in my player and after about 15 minutes came to the conclusion that Edwards had made a live-action movie of the cartoon series. Which would have been OK, but I thought Edwards was more original than that.

It turns out I was mistaken. This movie was the original real-deal. Wacky Races was based in turn on the original Edwards movie. Amazingly enough, although I recall watching the cartoons quite often, there were only 17 each of the Wacky Races and its subsequent spinoffs. Needless to say it must have had a profound effect on my memory.

The Great Race (1965):

In the early part of the 20th century there are two competing daredevils. One is The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis), a charismatic knight in white, who performs stunts like escaping from a straight jacket while tied to a balloon.

On his opposite side is a jealous fellow daredevil, Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon, who not only performs his own stunts, but does everything he can to try to sabotage Leslie’s stunts). Of course, these efforts usually backfire to Fate’s dismay and ultimate harm. They end up looking like Wile E. Coyote’s attempts to use intricate devices to capture the Road Runner. Fate must have been one of Acme’s founders, since his devices usually end up with the same results.

Leslie proposes to a car company a plan to promote their company. Cars are a fairly newfangled invention, and the company could use the publicity. What Leslie proposes is a race from New York to Paris. (This movie was partially based on a real event that happened in 1908). Fate, upon hearing about the event, becomes determined to enter the race himself, and hopefully finally beat The Great Leslie at his own game. To accomplish this, he devices his own special car, a monstrosity that has to be seen to be believed.

Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), a suffragette striving to be a female reporter in a world that still considers women to be inferior to men, makes a proposal to the editor of a newspaper, Mr. Goodbody (Arthur O’Connell), to enter the race herself, as a way to report on the race and thus get a job and a success in the fight for the rights of women. Goodbody reluctantly gives her permission.

On the day of the race, Fate and his right hand man, Max (Peter Falk) sabotage the cars in the race. The result is that only Fate, Leslie and Maggie are left in the race. And Maggie, who has chosen a Stanley Steamer, not the best choice for a cross-country road race, breaks down in the middle of the first leg of the race (due to the unreliability of the car, not due to Fate’s sabotage…)

Maggie uses her wiles to tag along with Leslie, at least until the first stop in the trip. But at every point along the journey she manages to find a way to continue on, using blackmail and her sexual appeal to convince Leslie to keep her on.

In Boracho, a western town along the way, there is a female cabaret singer, Lily Olay (Dorothy Provine), who flirts with Leslie, infuriating her boyfriend, Texas Jack (Larry Storch), who then instigates a bar brawl to end all bar brawls. Fate uses the distraction to sabotage the gasoline Leslie needs to continue, but of course, since Leslie is the hero and Fate is the hapless villain, Leslie manages to find a way to stay in the race.

The two cars end up in Alaska where an iceberg makes them allies for a brief period, but once they reach the Russian coast the race is back on.

The racers end up in the fictional country of Ruritania (oops, I mean Carpania) where the prince, Rudolph (oops, I mean Frederick) turns out to be the spitting image of Professor Fate. Which leads to a long parody of The Prisoner of Zenda (so, OK, those weren’t really innocent mistakes).

Ultimately, after a pie fight to end all pie fights, the race continues. Who wins? I’m not telling.

This movie is pretty funny for the first half, but I personally think it breaks down during the parody of Zenda. But it really shines with Lemmon as the Dick Dastardly/Snidely Whiplash-like character, and although I think Wood overacts quite often, she is a treat to watch in this. The only real downside, in my opinion, are the superfluous scenes back home where, while the race is in progress, Goodbody’s wife (played by Vivian Vance, Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy) leads a charge for women’s rights, to the dismay of her husband.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films. This post originally ran last year and is being reprinted as this week’s Throwback Thursday post!