Taking a brief detour from Marilyn for a moment to discuss another film I recently had the pleasure of watching, Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy classic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (not to be confused with a similarly titled film lacking one of the ‘Mad’s’). Comedy to me is a genre that isn’t always timeless, there’s the ability to have it feel dated. As much as I love Airplane, some of the jokes really don’t pack as much of a punch for me if I had grown up with it (and probably seen the ‘Airport‘ films on which they’re based). Either way I was not looking forward to watching this, as if that didn’t scare me enough the 2 hour and 40 minute runtime certainly was. Despite all that I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I may finally get some comments, of the hate variety, when I say I don’t see this as the funniest movie of all time (Airplane would rank higher in my personal list) but it’s a well-acted, madcap romp that I enjoyed devoting a three-hour tour to.
The story follows a group of motorists who just happen to hear the dying words of thief Smiler Grogen (Jimmy Durante). Smiler tells the group they can find $350,000 buried “under a big W” in Santa Rosita State Park. With their various companions they all decide whoever gets their first gets the money. On the way they all fall into various hijinks, accidentally tell others who get in on the race, and alert the soon-to-be retired Captain C.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) who might have his own plans for the money.
I’m not sure if the movie Rat Race is a direct remake of this movie but I know my brother loves it and based on IMDB it seems to have a similar plot. Regardless, I knew next to nothing about this movie. I knew it was a comedy, and that it had pretty much every star from television at the time. As a film student this was great to watch as it’s a pure and simple example of film in the 1960s. Most films like this were “road show” event pictures meant to get audiences away from their television and into the theater. Theatergoers usually paid more to get in (akin to our 3D prices although not as exorbitant I’m sure) and were getting an experience on a huge screen that they couldn’t get at home. Most of these roadshow movies touted big stars and a lengthy runtime (I do miss the intermissions in film). I think the humor can be seen from the history behind this film. The movie was meant to entice audiences away from their television, giving them something they supposedly couldn’t see on TV, yet it starred pretty much every important star from the TV they would be leaving! Hilarious!
The writing, courtesy of William and Tania Rose, is where the movie is strongest. Sure there’s a mix of slapstick and pratfalls but the dialogue and one-liners were killer. A scene of Culpepper refeering an argument between his wife and teenage daughter Billie Sue only has Tracy but hearing the two women on the other line and watching him try to convince them (with one telephone on each ear) to talk to each other was genius. You learn the most about Culpepper through the scenes of him and his off-screen family making you sympathize with what he wants to do at the end of the film.
The rest of the group is a mix of great and fantastic. Any movie that boasts the voices of Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) and Scuttle from the Little Mermaid (Buddy Hackett) is tops in my book! Winters is the best as the put-upon furniture mover Lennie Pike. His look of defeat and sadness when a passing motorist dupes him and leaves him on the side of the road is like a puppy dog.
What’s shocking is how the film ends, and I won’t spoil it since I’m trying to keep this blog spoiler free to entice you to watch these films, is how ambiguous in tone it is. It makes you question whether it’s a happy or sad one as one character hopes that he “can look back and laugh.” Mind you said character has lost everything, not just finances, and it makes you wonder if a person’s quest for money is truly worth it. Another character says the concept of having the money is “a nice dream. Lasted almost five minutes.” It’s scenes and lines like that make you realize Kramer and crew didn’t set out to make a big comedy. Sure it’s funny, but the things the characters do for money have consequences which this film is brave enough to acknowledge. I’m almost tempted to go further and say the film is making a comment about the industry and the world during the 60s. The 60s were quite as turbulent by this point, but they were getting there, and when it all comes down no amount of money in the world can prevent chaos and doom from befalling. The characters realize this, and are forced to ask “Was it worth it?”
I didn’t expect such a thought to arise from a film billed as “the best comedy of all time” but I did. The cast is phenomenal and I didn’t mention them all here (you’ll thank me for not discussing Ethel Merman’s character), making this a movie you should seek out. It’s long but if you sit back and take it in, you’ll fell like your sitting shotgun with these characters as they look for $350,000. Better yet, watch it with an In N’ Out Burger if you’re on the West Coast (check IMDB trivia for the reason why).
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.