Director Blake Edwards wanted to craft a tribute to Laurel and Hardy films, turning out the 1965 road movie, The Great Race. It fits the “road movie” moniker in two ways: characters are literally on the road, and it also boasts a lengthy runtime (complete with intermission) as part of its designation as a traveling “road-show” film. The actors all have a penchant for comedy – with Natalie Wood being a wonky exception – and although its lengthiness and broad comedy won’t attract everyone ,Warner Archive’s lovely Blu-Ray gives you enough reason to get in the car with it.
During the early 1900s there’s no two greater rivals than Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) and The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis). Leslie envisions a grand race between New York, the perfect place for Professor Fate to show up the man. Along the way, a tenacious suffragette (Natalie Wood) causes frustration between the two men.
The Great Race plays like a living cartoon with its reliance on slapstick and explosions; there’s even a messy pie-fight! Professor Fate’s iconic pronouncement to his partner-in-crime, Max (Peter Falk), “Push the button, Max” would make Daffy Duck proud. Ironically, The Great Race ended up as the inspiration for the 1970s cartoon Wacky Races with Wood’s Maggie DuBois being turned into Penelope Pitstop and Professor Fate becoming Dick Dastardly. The various schemes are hilarious, and there’s a Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote mentality as the hijinks between Fate and Leslie increase.
The actors are all fantastic and the sheer abundance of stars reminds audiences of other big ensemble films (such as 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). There’s actors from all facets of screen and television including Ethel Mae Potter herself, Vivian Vance as a suffragette who isn’t afraid to send her editor husband to the loony bin in order to take control and turn the public opinion away from The Great Leslie; Dorothy Provine plays a luscious saloon singer with a jealous boyfriend; and Keenan Wynn is the bald-pated Guy Friday to Leslie. The whole movie becomes a game of “I know that person from somewhere,” giving everything a freshness or familiarity depending on your speed.
Edwards enjoyed bringing up the battle of the sexes, and it’s best exemplified here. The film is set right smack in the middle of Women’s Suffrage, and Maggie DuBois makes an inauspicious introduction…by handcuffing herself to the men’s room door of the newspaper she wants to work at. There’s some hilarity over the question of how to remove her, but Maggie knows how to hit the guys where it hurts, by blocking their bathroom.
There’s also some cheeky conversations between The Great Leslie and Maggie, particularly as they go back and forth, neither one wanting to submit to the other. The love story here can feel contrived, but it comes off better than each of them blindly falling for each other quickly or by story’s end because it’s required. The two verbally spar with each other, never letting up in what they truly want. When Maggie asks Leslie why he expects their relationship to stay the same, with him never letting her be in control, he succinctly replies: “That’s the way its been for a thousand years and I see no reason to change it.” The various innuendos and risque situations the two are put in also hearken back to the great world of pre-Code.
At over two-and-a-half hours much of The Great Race follows a simple formula: Driving + plot to slow everyone down = eventual destination. There are a few musical moments shoved which always tend to feel inorganic, particularly Wood’s – dubbed once again – song “Under the Sweetheart Tree.” The other songs, especially the ones by Provine, are quick and fit the situations. There’s also an additional subplot involving Maggie’s newspaper; the one Vance ultimately takes over. Edwards interjects a bit of satire against the newspaper industry, turning public opinion around based on gender, but Vance ends up disappearing around the halfway mark and there’s never a proper conclusion.
Jack Lemmon’s son, Chris considers this his father’s finest film and he’s right. Lemmon is nearly unrecognizable in dark makeup, complete with mustache and bushy eyebrows. Professor Fate is the aforementioned Wile E. Coyote with things never working out for him. It’s easy to hate The Great Leslie because Lemmon’s the perfect lovable sad sack; the super-villain who can never best the hero. It makes sense then to put Tony Curtis in the opposing role of The Great Leslie, a man who remains impeccably clean in white and whose teeth twinkle for the camera. It’s strange watching these two, particularly Lemmon whose attempts to kill The Great Leslie border on the murderous, act as adversaries considering their perfect pairing in Some Like It Hot. The one who stands out is Wood who didn’t enjoy making this and only did so to secure the lead in Inside Daisy Clover. She’s game in the scenes with Curtis but, for the most part, she’s simply serviceable which sticks out when everyone else is so wacky.
The new Blu-Ray from Warner Archive looks beautiful, but the sound does sound muffled here and there (an issue that could be my speakers). There’s also a fun making-of documentary and a trailer. Blake Edwards, never shy with self-awareness in his films, gives several winks to the camera, even if The Great Race doesn’t pack the same punch as something like Victor/Victoria. Overall, The Great Race is a fun movie with driving (see what I did there) performances. If you enjoy Looney Tunes or Lemmon, give it a watch.
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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.