Sunday 11 February 2007

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) Stanley Kramer

This one was always going to be interesting, especially to me because it contains in its cast almost every single comedian in the United States who was still alive at the time. I know many of these names, but I recognise almost none of them, even with IMDb in front of me to tell me who's who. And that's what it is: a Who's Who of American comedy: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman and her huge mouth and so on. I know some of them well: Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, and even Dick Shawn from The Producers.

Further down in the supporting cast are Joe E Brown, William Demarest, Andy Devine, Peter Falk, Leo Gorcey, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Mike Mazurki, Zasu Pitts, Carl Reiner and the Three Stooges. People like Jack Benny, Minta Durfee, Allen Jenkins and Jerry Lewis don't even get credited, there are so many names in the cast! There's even Terry-Thomas, about as far from an American as you could imagine, and over all of them is no less a leading man than Spencer Tracy.

It starts with a big stunt but then takes a while to get moving. Jimmy Durante is chasing around winding roads at high speed but ends up flying out into the desert. Men from each of the four cars he's just overtaken head on down to see if he's OK and find that he's at death's door with every bone in his body broken, but he finds the time to explain that there's a huge amount of money buried underneath a big W in Santa Rosita State Park. Durante is Smiler Grogan, a thief, and now his loot, from a job fifteen years earlier is up for grabs. The eight occupants of the four cars can't come to an agreement on how to split the loot so it becomes a race with every man for himself.

Tracy is a cop, a police captain no less, and while he only had one more film left in him, you wouldn't have believed it from his performance here. He's a dynamo, pure and simple, as Capt Culpepper, who can't stop the racers until he finds out where the money is. He's by far the most fun thing about the film, except watching for all those cameo appearances, because all the leads are presumably just playing their traditional comedic personas. Naturally, not being either American or alive when this came out, I don't recognise any of these so all I see is a bunch of comedians I don't recognise overacting more than a little.

There are magic moments here that I'm sure are priceless to the target American audience. One example is when the camera pans across three firemen who are instantly recognisable to one and all as the Three Stooges: we laugh even though absolutely nothing happens because we could see the next ten minutes of plot that could have been. I get the impression that there are a whole bunch of these magic moments even though I hardly recognise any of them. Another is the Jack Benny cameo which obviously means something but I don't know what. Maybe the American audience who laugh themselves silly at this film would be just as confused about something very English like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, while I'd be in stitches. What this one can say for itself is that it's presumably the first in a trend that led to many other such race films including that one and The Great Race, on to The Cannonball Run and even the far more recent Rat Race.

It's a long film that seems far too long to me. It even admits it, to my thinking, when Spencer Tracy has to sum up everyone's positions in the race after the intermission and entr'acte. It also feels dated to my English palate, as do most of the other films I've just mentioned, to be fair, but while they've aged well this one hasn't.

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