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It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
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by Jay Seaver

"Starts getting the audience to laugh and then keeps it up."
5 stars

Depending on which cut you see, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" can run from two and a half hours to over three; the digital restoration that recently played the Brattle Theatre was the 154 minutes of its original 35mm release. That's a downright extravagant length for a film whose ambitions really don't go much farther than making the audience laugh a bit, but it is committed to that single, modest goal, and it never stops trying to make it happen, even when other films would have called it a day.

It starts tragically, as a car driven by elderly crook Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) goes sailing off a winding California mountain road. The men in four other vehicles stop to see if there's anything to be done, but there isn't; before he goes, though, Smiler tells his would-be rescuers about $350,000 buried under a "big W" in Santa Rosita. They initially plan to go together, but arguing over how to split the windfall and basic greed soon make it a race. Buddies Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) & Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett) and married couple Mellville & Monica Crump (Sid Caesar & Edie Adams) take to the air, while a fender-bender has truck driver Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters) and nervous J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle) - traveling with his wife Emeline (Dorothy Provine) and her pushy mother (Ethel Merman) searching for new ground transport. The former hooks up with Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers), who quickly ditches him to go after the money himself; the latter meet English horticulture enthusiast J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas), with the plan of having Emeline's brother Sylvester (Dick Shawn), a lifeguard in Santa Rosita, stake the place out first. In the meantime, the detective who has been working the Grogan case for years, Captain T. G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), is discretely keeping an eye on the lot of them.

That's a lot of names for a story that is not exactly complex, and there are many more passing through, from "Rochester" Anderson to The Three Stooges. Keeping them all occupied is one of the most impressive juggling acts in movie history, as writers William & Tania Rose come up with enough scenarios and obstacles to keep every member of the large ensemble busy while director Stanley Kramer allows them to play out at a natural pace, never cutting away from one group before its bit hits a punchline just to check in on someone else but also not ever letting it feel like characters are gone for too long or losing track of what each is doing. Editors Gene Fowler Jr., Robert C. Jones, and Frederic Knudtson are likely a big help as well; while the end result isn't perfectly smooth sailing - there are moments, when the movie jumps back to the police station and someone brings their neighbor up to date on what's going on, including the scene just prior, when I wonder if Kramer didn't necessarily trust his ability to keep things clear.

For all the skill Kramer et al show in keeping things moving, they're generally telling very basic jokes, from the moment when Smiler Grogan literally kicks the bucket to the last scene, when they pull out maybe the hoariest old chestnut that exists, a gag beloved by small children but obviously unsophisticated by adult standards. But that's when the movie has an overt wink at the audience, saying, sure, these are gags you've seen before, but the simple things work: Everyone laughs at an obnoxious person falling on his or her ass, especially if you don't get so caught up in yourself as to forget that the world is, in fact, kind of mad.

That said - if you're going to go with elemental jokes, it certainly doesn't hurt to fill the cast with folks who have the sort of split-second comic timing and carefully-honed comfort with their persona to make something the audience has heard a million times before hit the funny bone just right. Thus, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Johnathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, and Phil Silvers. Fifty years later, Winters is probably the only one among them that a random sample of the population whose popularity has endured, while the idea that someone as milquetoast as Berle was a superstar can seem downright perplexing to a younger audience, but they know how to handle this material, and their fine-tuned execution should work for even relatively jaded audience members. It's kind of unfortunate that Merman is the only woman in the cast who really gets to be funny - and from doing an often-groan-worthy battle-axe mother-in-law character - but nobody has a joke he or she can't handle. That includes Spencer Tracy, the main actor in the cast, who does a fine slow burn and shares a nice moment with Dorothy Provine toward the end.

A lot of the comedy is physical, and it's some impressive slapstick, both in execution and scope. Kramer's got a great big Super-Panavision frame to play with, so when his characters stumble over something or destroy a building, it's bigger than anything they could do on the stage or the television of the time, or even the silent films that clearly inspired them. It gets cartoonish toward the end, but it's fine over-the-top slapstick. Kramer does a fine job with the other visuals, too - the movie doesn't have a lot of high-speed chases, but the automotive and aerial action is actually very impressive, especially for the time.

"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" is a comedy classic, although it's not the innovative gigantic-guffaws, I-can't-believe-they-went-there variety that makes the label unequivocal. But it tells jokes incredibly well, and keeps on doing so until well past when other movies would have ended and making it work. That it can get those laughs without offense without seeming timid just makes it more impressive.

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originally posted: 12/05/13 20:32:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/05/16 Anne Hilarious comedy - theme is human greed 4 stars
3/11/12 Josie Cotton is a goddess They crammed in every comedian in existence then forgot to give them funny material 2 stars
11/17/09 action movie fan some great action and stunts keep this silly comedy appealing 4 stars
1/11/08 Pamela White very funny and a huge star cast. 4 stars
7/12/07 fools♫gold One of the hardest films to watch ever made. A clever comedy? Sometimes. 5 stars
12/14/05 me old but good 5 stars
7/13/05 Brandy Harrington It's on TV right now! 4 stars
7/16/04 john bale Exhuberant frantic chase comedy with a cast and stunts never equalled, top Cinema experiece 5 stars
7/08/04 Albert A. One of the, if not, THE best comedy ever. Perfect deliveries. 5 stars
7/07/04 Erik Conley One of 10 best comedy films of all time. 5 stars
6/14/04 T. Maj Strange--dozens of funny people but few laughs 2 stars
9/27/03 Alan Rip-roaringly funny at times, but should have trimmed at least a half hour. 4 stars
6/09/03 earl hoffert this is a fucking classic. 5 stars
12/11/02 Charles Tatum Bloated 3 stars
9/01/02 y2mckay Overlong but pretty funny at times - like it's "remake" Rat Race 3 stars
3/26/02 R.W. Welch Should have been tightened up, but still has enough fun in it to make it... 4 stars
10/18/01 Andrew Carden Don't Expect Too Many Really Funny Gags, and Be In For A Very Long Movie. 3 stars
5/17/01 Paul K One of the funniest comedies ever made. Great Cast, fine script; a who's who of comedy. 5 stars
10/11/00 Boingo Incredibly taxing on your patience. It's like the precursor to Spielberg's "1941" 2 stars
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  07-Nov-1963 (G)
  DVD: 07-Oct-2003

  02-Dec-1963 (U)

  03-Dec-1964 (PG)

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