Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, directed by Stanley Kramer
There are a lot of rules when it comes to comedy:
“Less is more.”
“Never play the joke.”
“Small and smart is better than big and dumb.”
“It’s not a job for amateurs,” or, as the great tragedienne Edmund Keane put it, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Of course, good filmmakers can occasionally get away with violating one or two of these rules, but all of them in the same movie? Did you see Spielberg’s 1941? Talk about the baby with the bathwater! You simply cannot do this and expect your movie to do anything but take a pratfall.
So how then do you explain It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? Everything that could possibly go wrong with this movie is up there on the screen: A director who never before nor after showed even an iota of humor, an oversized cast falling all over each other in the mad attempt to “out-funny” each other, and a budget, frame and length that are all simply too much. It can’t possibly work.
But, damn, does it ever.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a rollicking rebuke to those rules that fairly explodes off the screen and in our faces. That it works at all is a wonder. That it works as well as it does is a small miracle.
Director Stanley Kramer had already established himself as the maker of feelgood social conscience movies. Films like The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, and Judgment at Nuremburg were solidly carpentered stories in which we were told that the world is a scary place, but a good dose of liberal common sense will always prevail. For critics and audiences alike, they were like cinematic castor oil; you might dread the dose, but they were good for you so you held your nose and took your medicine. After one too many of these, Kramer was challenged by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to make a funny movie. Kramer not only took up the dare, but promised to make the biggest comedy ever.
A few years earlier, expat screenwriter William Rose and his wife Tania had floated a script about greed and hidden gold in England. Originally, it was meant to be a quaint Ealing comedy that would crossbreed his gentle road rally tale Genevieve with his dark comedy The Lady Killers. Kramer got a copy of this script, brought the Roses back to the U.S. and set them to the task of expanding (and then expanding some more) their little story.
What they came up with was a hallucinogenic The Treasure of Sierra Madre, a tale of greed run rampant in the California desert.
Opening with a spectacular car crash, the driver (Jimmy Durante) tells the motley crew who have stopped to help that he has buried $350,000 under a “big W” 200 miles away in Santa Rosita Park. When he kicks the bucket – literally – these Samaritans set off on a wild and violent chase to beat each other to the money. Along the way, they pick up greedy stragglers all of whom want their own slice of the pie. Or the whole pie, if they can swing it.
Kramer mixes an all-star cast of mostly stage and television comedians – Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers, and Terry-Thomas – stirs in a couple dozen cameos, and stabilizes the batter with the steady presence of Spencer Tracey. What makes it all work, though, is the intricately constructed screenplay. Characters are constantly splintering off into small groups then reforming into new ones. This allows a number of different styles to mix and match while also giving each performer the opportunity to exploit their comedic bag of tricks. The result is that the huge Ultra-Panavision frame is constantly alive with action, but the script is always focused on the interactions.
Where other movies go small, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, goes huge every time. Winters doesn’t just get into an argument with a hapless pair of garage owners (Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan); he uses them as battering rams to destroy their business. Caesar and his wife (Edie Adams) use everything short of a nuclear device to free themselves from the locked basement of a hardware store. And Rooney and Hackett are not only forced to pilot a plane, but fly it under an open hangar, into an airport lounge and, most memorably, through a billboard for Coca Cola.
Comedy guru Harold Ramis used to say that “comedy is someone else’s discomfort.” Here, that maxim is taken to the extreme. Each character causes accidents, mishaps and violence, then has it returned to them tenfold. Like a Looney Tunes writ large, these cartoon characters are indestructible and manage to shake off everything from sinking in a car to nearly falling out of a very slow biplane, from electric shocks to dynamite and, finally, to being flung like ragdolls from a gyrating fire truck ladder. It is, in fact, our knowledge that nothing can kill these people that gives us permission to laugh at all the mayhem they cause to others and to themselves.
There is something in this movie that feels unique even to this day. The budget today for anything similar would be prohibitively astronomical and few filmmakers would have the chutzpah to try such a thing. This is especially true after the failure of so many attempts to recapture It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s manic tone over the years (The aforementioned 1941, The Gumball Rally, Rat Race). More important, though, is that this kind of cast could never be assembled because such talent does not exist today. It’s not that we do not have great comic actors (we do), but we know longer have performers who have been trained in the Borscht Belt or on nightclub stages. We can see the years of training, of communication with their audience, that this extraordinary gang brings to the table. If for no other reason, they make It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a thrill ride to treasure.