Was it “The Comedy to End All Comedies”? Not quite, but it remains a comedy classic to this day. Throughout all of film history, no comedy feature has matched the grand scale, brilliant cast of comedians, and physical energy of It’s aMad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, released sixty years ago on November 7, 1963.
Chances are pretty good that if you’re reading this, you’ve seen …Mad, Mad World at least once in your life. If not, the epic boasts a cast of comedians the likes of which have never since been assembled for one film. It is also crammed with dozens of brief, sometimes fleeting cameos by comedians from virtually every era and medium of American comedy. Director Stanley Kramer, known to that point for his intense dramas such as Inherit the Wind, The Caine Mutiny, and Judgement at Nuremberg, wanted to prove to himself — as well as to his peers — that he could, in fact, direct a comedy. And the leading stars, who were at various stages of success in their respective careers when filming began in 1962, came together to form a delightful ensemble.
The story, from a massive screenplay by William and Tanya Rose, consists of little more than a race among the principal characters across the southern California desert to find a buried treasure. The story purportedly took place in Scotland at first, but with Kramer’s interest in filming it, the locale was switched to the U.S.
William Rose, an American who spent years living in the U.K., already had screenplay credits for the British comedies Genevieve and The Ladykillers to his name at the time, and would later write the American hits The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The story for …Mad, Mad World begins when the group of motorists happen to witness a speeding car careen over a side rail and down a slope. As they reach the lone, dying career criminal Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he tells them of his hidden money “under a big W” in Santa Rosita Park. He then quite literally kicks the bucket.
The witnesses gather at the side of the road to discuss the supposed $350,000 in cash buried somewhere in the park, and how to divide it fairly among themselves if they find it.
From that moment, the frantic chase is on, as the witnesses use whatever means possible to reach Santa Rosita and find the money. They encounter many equally eccentric individuals and hair-raising situations along the way, while the police, led by a hassled Capt. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) keep close tabs on the motley gang of treasure-seekers.
Sid Caesar as Melville Crump, who, at one point in the race, reluctantly agrees with his wife (Edie Adams) to charter an old, rickety biplane (piloted by silent film comedian Ben Blue) that lags behind the speeding cars on the ground below, and who later has to blast his way out of a hardware store basement.
Milton Berle as J. Russell Finch, president of an edible seaweed company, often needs to pop his pills for his nervous condition, as his mother-in-law from hell, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman) further aggravates it with every shrieking bombast or complaint. Later on, they encounter Englishman Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas) who provides them with much needed transportation.
Jonathan Winters as Lennie Pike shines as a slow-on-the-take truck driver who encounters fast-talking con man Phil Silvers, and who later single-handedly demolishes an entire (and brand new) service station in his rage.
Mickey Rooney (Dingy Bell) and Buddy Hackett (Benjy Benjamin) find themselves desperately trying to fly a small plane with its owner/pilot (Jim Backus) passed out in the back, as Paul Ford offers less than helpful instructions from the airport control tower.
William Demarest, Peter Falk, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Jim Backus, Jesse White, Jack Benny, and countless others also lend their particular talents to the mix.
These comedy stars were at various stages of success in their respective careers when filming began in April of 1962. Tracy’s illustrious career was winding down, due mostly to his ill health (he worked a total of only nine total days on …Mad, Mad, World). Caesar, Berle, and Silvers had already seen their heyday on television come and go; Berle hosted television’s first hit program — indeed, one that ignited the boost of television sales nationwide upon its premiere in 1948, thus earning him the nickname “Mr. Television.” Caesar hosted the landmark comedy-variety series Your Show of Shows between 1950 and 1954 and its the follow-up, Caesar’s Hour until 1957. Both programs employed the greatest comedy writers in TV history, including Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen. And Phil Silvers gave viewers the irascible Sgt. Bilko on The Phil Silvers Show from 1955–1959.
Among the fresher faces in the cast at the time — but already familiar to many comedy fans — were Hackett, Dick Shawn, and Jonathan Winters.
Shawn comes close to stealing the entire film with his over-the-top role as Sylvester Marcus, who misinterprets his stranded mother’s phone call and launches into his perceived, manic rescue mission to save her from her assailants (Russell and Hawthorne).
Winters had actually just been released from a mental institution for treatment of depression and bi-polar disorder shortly before being asked to take part in the film.
The sprawling cast of supporting players — some as cameos and even in non-speaking parts — includes Peter Falk, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Andy Devine, Don Knotts, Norman Fell, ZaSu Pitts, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, and on and on.
Of course, the overall chemistry among the veterans and rising stars is obvious throughout, as they tear their way through the film together in various combinations. They later regaled interviewers in the decades since with stories of how they kept each other laughing between takes.
The film’s length necessitated an intermission, but not before providing audiences with a wild montage of the characters as they deal with their various obstacles on their way to “the big W.”
Just as a side note — it’s interesting to consider a number of comedy stars who are not in the movie, either in principal roles or as walk-ons: Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx, Ed Wynn, Joe Besser, and Eve Arden were all worthy of inclusion. Determining whether or not each was actually asked would require additional research, but perhaps there was simply not enough room for all of them, while some may not have been approached, but were unimpressed with the pay offered.
As the group of money seekers close in on Santa Rosita Park, Capt. Culpepper daydreams of tossing aside all of his troubles (especially those caused by his wife and daughter) and getting away from it all.
After they all converge at Santa Rosita Park (where Pike discovers “the big W” formed by criss-crossed palm trees), they begin digging and continue bickering, until Culpepper arrives and convinces them to avoid jail by handing the money stash over to him for safe keeping.
The climax of the film nears as the group realize Culpepper has double-crossed them (to finance his own plans of leaving the country with the cash, and start life anew in Mexico).
Beware — spoilers ahead, for the two or three of you who may never have seen the film:
As they chase him and the satchel of money up the stairs of an abandoned building, they eventually find themselves swinging (and falling) from a fire company’s hook & ladder engine high above the crowd below. The money ultimately cascades down to the surprised but thrilled recipients. The treasure seekers end up sharing a hospital ward in the aftermath.
Filming was completed in December of ’62, with the intimidating task of editing to follow. The original rough cut reportedly ran over four hours, so extensive editing was needed to whittle it down to a more practical running time. A subsequent cut ran just over 3 1/2 hours, then was edited to the premiere cut of 192 minutes, then again to the theatrical cut of 161 minutes. And nary a minute of footage as we view it today seems unnecessary or in any way drags the frenetic pace in any way.
For the aficionados among you, here is a 38-minute compilation of scenes and short takes that were edited out of the theatrical release version. Many of these brief clips indeed fill in bits of the plot, and better explains the motives of some of the characters. It makes for fascinating viewing, but probably only if you’re already familiar with the movie.
The film premiered on November 7, 1963, at the new Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to the world at the time, would be just two weeks before the assassination of President Kennedy (had it been scheduled to open at a later date, it likely would have been lost among the nation’s shock and grief following the tragedy).
The critics were somewhat mixed in their assessments, but mostly quite pleased with the final product, admiring the sheer size of the undertaking, its relentless pace, and tried-and-true slapstick sequences.
The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called the film “A wonderfully crazy and colorful collection of ‘chase’ comedy…It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is everything down to redundant, that is extravagant title suggests…[Kramer] and his nimble scriptwriter, William Rose have gleefully gathered virtually all the sure-fire slapstick comedy tricks and chase routines that were patently developed in silent-film days. They have put them together in a story that has eruptive energy and speed; and they have got a bunch of actors to perform it with the fervor of demented geniuses…”
Variety called the film “overdone in spots but on the whole an explosive entertainment…a spectacular achievement in cinematic architecture and a significant addition to Hollywood film comedy…the film is both a throwback and a milestone.”
Some other major publications were a bit less kind, but the film’s popularity with audiences — both in theaters (to experience the full effect of the wide-screen Ultra Panavision 70 filming process), and on countless television showings thereafter — have pretty much won the argument comparing…Mad, Mad World’s assets with its shortcomings.
In answer to the charge that the film is crammed to just too much of everything, Kramer wrote in his memoirs, “I had made the calculated assumption that, in a comedy, too much is better than too little.” Besides, he adds, “Those clowns had given me several thousand laughs off-screen, plus so many more onscreen, that I could be well-pleased with our accomplishment.”
Until next time…
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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:
“Halloween with Abbott & Costello” https://garryberman.medium.com/halloween-with-abbott-costello-2d39a21bbbba
“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab
“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45
“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0
“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
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