Video Review: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
by Karl Bowman

When we think of the best movies of all time, we tend to overlook the comedies.  Perhaps it’s hard to place much weight in lightheartedness, but good humor is what gives us perspective and, sometimes, an essential respite from everyday life.  As one entertainer realized:  “Comedy is a serious business”.  It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is a classic movie that excels in its writing, directing and performances.  The fact that it is a comedy makes it even more special in the history of film.

Stanley Kramer, the director of such heavy, politically-conscious films as Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, and The Caine Mutiny, was in the mood to do a crazy comedy – mainly to show the Hollywood bigwigs (prone to pigeonholing artists) that he could.  William and Tania Rose, a husband and wife writing team, came up with an idea for a “comedy to end all comedies” and Kramer jumped at the opportunity.  As producer and director, he knew that casting would make or break this unique ensemble picture with myriad speaking parts.  Almost defiantly, he offered it to the biggest names in comedy: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman and even Spencer Tracy, a friend and collaborator on many serious dramas.  To his surprise, they all responded to the material and signed on at a fraction of their asking price!  The news spread through the Hollywood Hills like wildfire and soon every comedian was begging to be in the movie.  Kramer fleshed out the supporting roles with other talented personalities: Edie Adams, Terry Thomas, Eddie Anderson, Andy Devine, Dick Shawn, Peter Falk, Norman Fell and Arnold Stang.  Still the phone calls poured in.  When Kramer was able to line up The Three Stooges, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner and Buster Keaton for cameos, he knew he had a monster hit on his hands.

The story begins with a reckless driver careening on the edge of the highway and passing up several cars.  Sure enough, he loses control of the car, which sails over the edge and down a steep ravine.  The drivers of the respective cars (Berle, Caesar, Rooney, Hackett and Winters) climb down to investigate.  Near the demolished car, they find the dying driver (another legend, Jimmy Durante) who informs them that he has buried $350,000 under a “big W” in Santa Rosita State Park, California.  As they argue over what the message means, the driver kicks the bucket (literally).  The strangers decide to find the loot, but when they can’t agree on how to divvy it up, it becomes every man for himself on a mad dash to get the treasure first.  All the while, Captain Culpepper (Tracy) of the Santa Rosita Police Department tracks their movements, since the money belonged to a criminal. 

The visual gag of the driver actually kicking a bucket as he dies sets up the wacky tone of the movie.  When the men return to their cars, J. Russell Finch (Berle) informs his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and mother-in-law from hell (Merman) about the tragedy:

Emmeline Finch: Oh Russell, I feel sick.

J. Russell Finch: Now take it easy honey, these things happen ya know.

Mrs. Marcus: Now what kind of an attitude is that, “these things happen’? They only happen because this whole country is just full of people, who when these things happen, they just say “these things happen”, and that’s why they happen! We gotta have control of what happens to us.

This is fitting because over the next two hours (the film is over 2 1/2 hours) we watch as all the characters try to control the “things” that happen to them.  Of course, they are frustrated at every turn.  Even the ones who hop a plane and seem that they will get to the destination first somehow find themselves locked in a hardware store basement full of exploding fireworks.  Aside from the insane situations, some of the funniest moments come out of dialogue that says one thing and performances that say the exact opposite.   

One of the best sequences is when the characters finally reach the destination, but can’t find the “big W”.  They rush all over the park with their shovels in hand, passing the “W” many times.  The character that is appalled by everyone’s behavior and wants no part in the mess ends up making the discovery of what the “W” actually is.  Then, when they have dug up the hidden treasure, they realize that Captain Culpepper is standing around the hole with them.  They can’t figure out who he is, each assuming that the guy came with someone else.  Tracy underplays the moment beautifully.  With an ambiguous grin he confounds everyone.

The power of this comedy comes from our ability to relate to these people.  We all try to control the things that happen to us, but life has a crazy way of turning the tables on us.  Whether it’s humorous at the time or not, our trials can sometimes seem as bizarre as what these characters go through.  The other thing we relate to is the greed that sets us at odds with one another.  How many of us, if we had a chance to dig up $350,000 “tax free”, would have to think twice?  Even the righteous chief of police finds his ethics corrupted.  I won’t reveal the details, but the characters ultimately end up looking and sounding like inmates in an asylum.  It’s the perfect ending and best illustration of the title.  When greed overcomes our personal ethics, it really does become a mad mad world.  It’s so difficult to live life in competition with everyone else.  At last, the characters find one thing that unites them all, their opinion of Finch’s mother-in-law.

Watching It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World to see how many comedians you can name is really fun.  Seeing how many comedians your kids can name may be a little more depressing.  Either way, it’s educational to see most of the icons of comedy in one place. The DVD version features an informative one-hour documentary that discusses the travails the stuntmen went through performing various car chases and crashes, airplane maneuvers, falling buildings, falling actors, explosions and pyrotechnics.  It’s also fun to look at the movie from the point of view of the stuntman. 

It turns out that Kramer did understand comedy after all.  He succeeded in making one of the funniest films of all time a comedy epic that has yet to be rivaled (although it has inspired subsequent films, including the 2001 release Rat Race).  It still stands as a clever comedy with a dream cast guided under the hand of an experienced filmmaker.  Another showbiz adage says:  “Dying is easy, Comedy is hard”.  When it all comes together, it is a beautiful thing. 


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