Director: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: William Rose, Tania Rose
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine
Running Time: 163 min – theatrical cut, 197 min – road-show version
BBFC Certificate: 12
Back in the 1960s, Hollywood was struggling. Television, which had grown in popularity during the 50s, had become commonplace in homes around America and the quality of programming was increasing. Due largely to this, audience numbers for films were falling and studios were struggling to find success with their tried and tested production line techniques. In a bid to draw people back to theatres, studios turned to making films on an epic scale, with widescreen photography being employed more regularly (as TV was still in academy ratio back then of course) and budgets escalating on blockbuster pictures. One unusual example of this 'bigger is better' mentality at the time was Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Most Hollywood epics back then were grand period dramas, such as Ben Hur, Cleopatra and How the West Was Won. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World however, was a modern comedy, a genre generally kept cheap, short and snappy, yet it cost $9.4 million dollars (quite a lot at the time) and runs at a bum-numbing 163 minutes (or 197 minutes in its roadshow version before hitting theatres and even longer supposedly in its original form). Featuring an endless slew of famous TV and film comedians and a huge amount of on-screen carnage, the film is the very definition of Hollywood excess. It proved a successful formula though and the film made a decent amount of money and has gone on to be a favourite comedy to many. I hadn't actually seen the film before, so Criterion's decision to release the film in the UK on Blu-Ray as part of their prestigious collection was more than welcome and I snapped up a screener straight away.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World opens (after a lengthy 'overture') with a car crashing in the winding hills of Palm Springs, California. A group of five motorists (Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett and Milton Berle) pull over to help the driver, ex-convict "Smiler" Grogan (Jimmy Durante), who stays alive just long enough to tell them he's buried $350,000 in Santa Rosita State Park near the Mexican border under a big W. The five men and the family some of them are travelling with at first pretend to think the story they heard was nonsense, but none of them can resist the lure of all that money and thus begins an epic chase to be the first to travel down south and take the money for themselves.
It's a film that really shouldn't work and indeed many of the flaws I expected are evident. It is too long and overblown and there are so many cameos, a lot are wasted (I had to look up online for when Buster Keaton was supposed to have appeared). However, it's a film that somehow makes these excesses work. The ridiculous over the top nature of everything is part of the charm and it's a testament to the script by William and Tania Rose that the various narrative threads never get lost amongst the chaos. In fact, one of my favourite aspects of the film is how characters' journeys all get sidetracked, clash and intertwine. As mad as it all seems, everything is handled very cleverly in the background.
The humour, on the other hand, is largely very broad and physical. There are some funny lines here and there, but the jokes come more from the delivery and the wild set pieces. The film feels like a precursor to The Blues Brothers in this aspect, as there's a huge amount of stunt work and scenes involving mass destruction of property. The car chase/crash scenes in particular are fantastic and put most action films of the era to shame, let alone comedies. A lot of rear projection inside the cars has dated somewhat, but when we cut outside with stunt drivers in control, it's wonderful to watch. The endless destruction of buildings and things does get a bit much after a while though and more than a couple of these scenes could have been trimmed to be more effective.
The cast is one of the biggest draws of course and they don't disappoint. There are a lot of egos in play, so you can see some performers trying to outdo their co-stars, and this makes for some enjoyably larger than life characters. Phil Silvers and Ethel Merman were the two stand-out comics for me, although the whole main cast are fantastic. Spencer Tracy is excellent as always in the relative straight-guy role too. He has a lot less dialogue than the rest of the cast, but remains the top-billing star due to his quiet command of any scene he appears in.
The Ultra-Panavision photography looks great too, making the most of the largely desert locations. I watched it on my projector and it's a joy to see on a big screen. I'm glad I waited to watch it for the first time like this rather than on a cropped version on TV as you'd lose a huge amount from the super-wide frame.
Yes, there are dated aspects to some of the humour (it's quite sexist), the jokes can be very hit and miss, and it does run out of steam a little around the two-third mark. However, there is plenty of fun to be had in this epic madcap farce. The stunts, the carnage, the star-spotting and the plotting all make for a great time at the movies. Set up the biggest screen you can, crank up the volume and get comfy, because you've got a long wild ride ahead.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. I saw the theatrical cut (see below for details) and the picture and sound quality are fantastic. The colours really pop and the picture and sound are pristine. The roadshow version sees the formerly deleted sections look a bit washed out with strange colour banding at the sides, but when you watch the restoration featurette included you realise how much work was done to get it to look as good as possible.
Fittingly for a film so long and crammed with stars, the 2 disc set is crammed with several hours worth of special features. Here's the list:
- Restored 4K digital film transfer of the general release version of the film, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
- New high-definition digital transfer of a 197-minute extended version of the film, reconstructed and restored by Robert A. Harris using visual and audio material from the longer original road-show version—including some scenes that have been returned to the film here for the first time.
- New audio commentary featuring It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World aficionados Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo.
- New documentary on the film’s visual and sound effects, featuring rare behind-the-scenes footage of the crew at work and interviews with visual-effects specialist Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt.
- Talk show from 1974 hosted by director Stanley Kramer and featuring Mad World actors Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, and Jonathan Winters.
- Press interview from 1963 featuring Kramer and members of the film’s cast.
- Interviews recorded for the 2000 AFI program 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs, featuring comedians and actors discussing the influence of the film.
- Two-part 1963 episode of the CBC television program Telescope that follows the film’s press junket and premiere.
- The Last 70mm Film Festival, a program from 2012 featuring cast and crew members from Mad World at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hosted by Billy Crystal.
- Selection of humourist and voice-over artist Stan Freberg’s original TV and radio advertisements for the film, with a new introduction by Freberg.
- Original and re-release trailers, and re-release radio spots.
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Lou Lumenick and illustrations by legendary cartoonist Jack Davis.
It's an overwhelming selection, but maintains Criterion's high standard of additional material. Little of what is included feels like throwaway fluff. The commentary is particularly good and I very much enjoyed the 1963 press interview with several of the lead cast members too. Surprisingly interesting is the piece on the visual and sound effects, which makes you realise how much inventive and extravagant work was done on these aspects. The Telescope episodes offer a refreshingly raw look at the cast and crew during a press junket and premiere too.