It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Where, But In America? asked an early working title for Stanley Kramer’s extravagant Ultra Panavision progenitor of the ‘epic comedy’ genre. Scotland is the sensible answer, the planned location of a wacky race that the transatlantic writing duo of William and Tania Rose, famous for Ealing comedies such as The Ladykillers, drew up in an outline for Kramer. But the rhetorical question still stands, not only because it’s difficult to envision this $10 million dollar farce existing outside of the Hollywood system and being aimed at any audience other than a mass American one. It’s the cast that is ineluctably, defiantly American. On that side of the pond, the fools and misfits who race each other across California to recover the buried treasure of the late ‘tuna factory’ robber Smiler Grogan are an incontestable who’s who of comedy, a hall of fame covering two thirds of a century of hijinks. It’s true, there are showboating cameos by the likes of Jerry Lewis, Buster Keaton and Carl Reiner, but of all the chief racers, only three have much chance of being recognised internationally: Spencer Tracy and, to a lesser extent, Mickey Rooney, the diminutive ex-avatar of wholesome ‘50s suburban boyhood; then there’s British character actor Terry-Thomas, taking his gap-toothed, plummy cad persona to vicious new extremes in the colonies.

That’s because for the most part this is a parade of America’s greatest TV comedians, not necessarily past their prime but certainly veterans of entertainment, all over the age of 35: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers and Edie Adams (none of whom I had any familiarity with until two days ago) were quite literally household names in America, all regular fixtures inside that tiny box in the living room. They all mug through their roles as if their careers depended on it, which is not inconceivable. Mugging doesn’t mean they lack subtlety, though; sharing space in the widescreen frame, none of them can wait to pull focus from each other with practiced miniature versions of their signature physical shtick, but the combined effect is like multiple instruments in an orchestra, only obnoxious and loud in isolation. The plot is about the excessive greed of 15 people hunting for a buried treasure, but the director is greediest of them all, shaking down his cast for every last cent of zany, off-kilter energy.

Kramer intended to make ‘the comedy to end all comedies’, but It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a swan-song in lots of unintended ways. Widescreen roadshow presentations of 3 hour epic movies were on their way out; the last Ultra Panavision movie (until Tarantino revived the format with The Hateful Eight) was 1966’s Khartoum. Legendary entertainer Jimmy Durante passes the baton to these younger comedians in the guise of Smiler Grogan, but they weren’t the stars of tomorrow, merely the slightly younger faces of an ageing generation. The spectacular effects work was handled by a team of old pros overseen by Linwood Dunn, who had pioneered the use of image compositing in the ‘30s at RKO; his credits include King Kong and Citizen Kane. Spencer Tracy would die soon after completing his last ever film four years later.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World announces itself with a blaring fanfare, and a bravura animated credits sequence by the legendary Saul Bass, whose use of subtly variegated blocks of colour is as inexplicably moving as any work by Mark Rothko, except Rothko, to his detriment, never scribbled endearing cartoons over his paintings. Robert Harris, the go-to guy for restoring 70mm films (including Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo), has made this one good as new. It’s pristine, the colours are rich and saturated, and even now, in a home viewing environment, it evokes some of that sense of post-war American optimism about a technologically advanced future. The stunt driving, featuring performers like Carey Loftin and Loren Janes (who would go on to invent the modern car chase in Bullitt and perfect it in The French Connection) is startlingly ahead of its time. One cannot fault the filmmakers for their ambition or their comprehensive vision. The carnivalesque, one-danger-after-another adventure structure even seems to anticipate the eclectic pulp thrills of Indiana Jones.

This is, however, a film predominantly concerned with looking backwards: to silent comedy, to vaudeville, to the British tradition encapsulated in the films of Ealing Studios; to the career highlights of its entire cast, with Ernest Gold’s score occasionally providing cues that mimic the iconic TV theme tune of whoever’s on screen. The Three Stooges, when they make their truncated cameo appearance, sit still and do nothing, looking dishevelled and hang-dog. In the immortal words of Tears for Fears, I find it kind of funny; I find it kind of sad. Not least because Spencer Tracy forgets, halfway through, that he’s in a broad comedy, playing his role with a quiet, genial dignity that his character, beset by money and family problems, fails to maintain (unprecedented for a Tracy role of this era). The closest the film gets to the kind of preachy monologue Kramer favoured in his serious dramas— this was his only successful attempt at comedy, and he more or less achieved it via brute force— is put-upon wife Emmeline’s dejected speech to Tracy’s police captain about the hopeless greed of her husband and the rest of the treasure hunters.

The fact that this is precipitated by such a deeply silly series of events means that, yes, I am taking it too seriously, but the silliness emphasises the undercurrent of melancholy cynicism. What is zaniness, non-stop Rube Goldberg machine zaniness, if not an act of pure desperation? This is an almost 3-hour long film that refuses to be serious for its entire running time. It exhibits no shame in beating any dead comedy horse, right down to the inclusion of a banana peel pratfall. Amidst all its slapstick, one-liners, drunkards, fools and pugnacious simpletons, there’s roiling frustration. The characters often become totally exhausted, especially from trying to communicate with each other. I couldn’t help but absorb some of that worn-out feeling, as if I had been running and driving all over California too. Mad World was never intended for home viewing, especially not alone. Kramer even edited the film with gaps between lines of dialogue that anticipate the audience’s laughter. If you’ve seen the film before with an audience, then I suppose you had the privilege of surfing on those waves of laughter, vicariously enjoying any jokes you might have otherwise missed. This was my first viewing of any kind; I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Partly thanks to some excellent special features on this new Criterion set, though, I did appreciate it. VFX expert and film historian Craig Barron and legendary lightsaber-wooshing sound designer Ben Burtt provide the most interesting angle on the film’s production in a featurette, while the commentary track for the film is a barrage of insight from three passionate fans who came well-prepared. There’s an extended edition that restores lost footage from the original 3 and a half hour roadshow version with varying degrees of success; at best there’s a loss of colour, at worst only the audio track remains, but it might hold some interest for completists. The real star of the show is the blu-ray transfer, which recreates that unmistakable 70mm epic feel as best it can.

In the standout scene in the film, hyperactive improv comedian Jonathan Winters (a huge influence on Robin Williams, and the most likeable performer here by far) destroys a rickety gas station in a mad, vengeful rampage. The gas station’s slow collapse mirrored that of my psyche over the course of two and a half hours. Kramer didn’t know how to make a comedy, so he threw everything that United Artists would give him at the wall to see what would break through and leave a funny outline. The sheer insistent loudness is tough on the nerves, and can easily stop being remotely amusing. But whether the humour still holds up is almost irrelevant; I was too busy marvelling at how this overambitious folly managed not to fall apart completely.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is out now on Criterion UK Blu-Ray

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