It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World [50 Films Older Than Me #8]

Just lately, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #8. 

Spoilers ahead.  

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Directed by Stanley Kramer

Release Year:  1963 (7 years before I was born)

What it is about:  When a criminal gives a clue to five passing motorists to a hidden treasure just before succumbing to his injuries from a car accident, it sets off a frantic chase across the country for a prize of buried cash. Others find out about the situation and up joining in the chase, with nobody knowing they are being monitored by the police, who are also seeking the money. But when the police captain overseeing the operation is beset by personal problems, he comes up with own plan for the money.

Starring Spencer Tracy as T.G. Culpepper, the police captain overseeing the operation. Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett are the original five motorists. Ethel Merman plays Berle’s mother-in-law, Dorothy Provine is Berle’s wife, and Dick Shawn is his dilettante brother-in-law. Edie Adams plays Caesar’s wife. Terry-Thomas and Phil Silvers are two other motorists who get wrapped up in the chase. Peter Falk and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson are two cab drivers who join in toward the end. Jimmy Durante is the criminal who originally gives the information.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew the basic plot (a big road-race for treasure) and the fact that the movie is long and full of famous actors.

Reality: I’m not here to make puns it’s hard to avoid them: this movie is mad. Like, kind of bonkers, really. Off-the-wall, zany, madcap, and just plain silly. This is a movie where Sid Caesar tries to use dynamite to get himself out of a locked basement but accidentally sets off boxes of fireworks. Or where Jonathan Winters loses his temper with a couple of gas station attendants and ends up literally knocking down the entire building. Or where Ethel Merman literally ends the entire film by slipping on a banana peel. And the climax features eleven of its lead characters nearly dying on a rickety fire escape, and then all being flung to what should have been their doom by a malfunctioning firetruck ladder.

It is fun, though, at least in doses. Your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for humor and storytelling that is slapstick, hokey and badly dated. Although there was some very good aerial footage and impressive stunt driving. And certainly there were sequences where all the running around becomes pretty transporting, and I was caught up in the madness.

But too often, I found myself pushed away from the characters rather than towards them by all their antics. I think the problem is that nobody is really likeable, and indeed they are not even all that different from each other–everyone is beleaguered, harangued, suffering at every turn, and just a bit greedy, so it’s hard to form any sort of connection with anyone. This is true even though the gags are occasionally funny, like when Milton Berle turns his overbearing mother-in-law upside down to get some keys she’s hidden. As a result, a lot of the movie became an exercise in perseverance for me–a long exercise, as the film runs for more than three hours (it seems like a lot of these films I’ve chosen for this list are really long).

A lot of that length is made up of cameos and bit parts from famous celebrities. Indeed, this is one of the most celebrity-jammed movies I’ve ever seen. In addition to all the big names in the main cast (listed above), some of the ones that I’m familiar with include Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Joe E. Brown, the Three Stooges, Carl Reiner, William Demarest, Jim Backus, Norman Fell, Sterling Holloway, and Jack Benny. There are probably more people whose significance is lost to me. Some have funny parts, like Demarest as a police chief or Backus as a drunken pilot who knocks himself out, while others like the Three Stooges are barely present.

(To make things even longer, the starts with an overture–a black screen with music playing over it, before even the credits role. I actually thought something was wrong with my internet connection at first. I gather that overtures used to be a bit more common in films. But then this movie also had an intermission in the middle, and another blank-screened musical segment at the end of the film.)

The one character in all the nuttiness that one feels you should be able to sympathize with or connect with is Spencer Tracy’s Captain Culpepper, the retiring police officer who is tracking everyone else’s movements. But in the end he becomes just as obsessed and driven as the rest of the cast. His “turn”, where he starts setting things up to steal the money himself, should have been at least clever and surprising, but it becomes quite obvious, and doesn’t allow us to cheer for him. Instead, you just want him to lose (which of course he does eventually). Because nobody is particularly likeable you don’t really want anyone to win, really. There is one nice moment where Dorothy Provine’s Emeline wistfully speaks of her desire to use the money to escape her life, but it’s quickly swept away for more running around.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Even though I’ve been quite negative toward the movie, I do admire It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for just being willing to go big at every turn. This was most obvious for me in the sequence that led up to the intermission. By this point, everyone is in quite a state, and the film cuts between them rapidly while cheery music plays on the soundtrack: Sid Caesar and Edie Adams are trying to put out a fire in a basement they are trapped in, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett are trying to keep their light aircraft from crashing, Ethel Merman and Jonathan Winters are fighting for control of a car (which then roles away with Merman, resulting her cutting a finger), Dick Shawn are screaming and weeping as he drives the wrong way, Phil Silver and his car are sinking in a river, Spencer Tracey is listening to his wife and daughter scream at each other over two separate phones, and American-British relations breakdown as Milton Berle and Terry-Thomas have a hilarious fist-fight as each attempts to defend the honor of their country.

I mean, this is a movie who knows what it is and is not afraid to show it!

See here for the Master List.

2 thoughts on “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World [50 Films Older Than Me #8]

  1. This was a big favorite for me when I was a kid. In this century I finally saw the film again and got to know it even better. I think that Jonathan Winters was my favorite cast member because I liked him in a lot of things back then.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

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