The enormous success of Around the World in 80 Days, which featured half a hundred recognizable actors—most in what producer Mike Todd dubbed “cameo” roles—and won the Oscar for best picture of 1956, instantly created a Hollywood vogue for extra-length, big-budget, star-filled movies. They were popular not only with audiences looking for respite from TV but also with the owners of the era’s vast, increasingly hard-to-fill movie palaces. Such films were presented in their initial runs—which might last as long as a year or more—as reserved-seat “road show” presentations, with entrance music, intermissions, exit music, and tickets sold at advanced prices. This trend, which continued into the early seventies, produced hits like The Longest Day and expensive flops like George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told. There had been only one attempt at an epic-length comedy—George Sidney’s disastrously unfunny and deservedly forgotten Pepe—when Stanley Kramer, known for directing “issue” dramas, decided to undertake what he promised would be “the comedy to end all comedies,” reportedly on a dare from New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) may not have quite fulfilled Kramer’s lofty ambition, but it comes close enough to have withstood the test of time—one of the very few comedies that appeal to boomers, their parents, and even many of their children. This superscaled tribute to slapstick remains a landmark for bringing together several generations of brilliant comic legends from vaudeville, radio, television, and the movies, many provided with the best-written and most memorable screen roles they were ever given. And it has continued to attract new fans—and imitators, from Blake Edwards (The Great Race) to Steven Spielberg (1941), though nobody has really topped the original’s once-in-a-lifetime cast or its stunts, staged with spectacular panache for the pre-digital era. Few movies of the 1960s have such a large and passionate fan base, with entire websites devoted to the extensive filming locations, and message boards where devotees argue about what exactly was in the long-missing original 202-minute road-show edition, eventually whittled down to 163 and 154 minutes for general releases. A guy in Queens, New York, used to rent out an auditorium at his local theater every year to show Mad World on his birthday, and more recent screenings of a new 70 mm print prepared by MGM have drawn wildly enthusiastic, sold-out crowds on both coasts. To complain that Mad World is over-the-top and overwhelming—as its critics have done for the past half century—is to sort of miss the point: it’s hilarious and memorable precisely because of its enormous scale and Kramer’s determination to repeatedly cram cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s ultrawide frames with beloved comics, all doing what they do best (including trying to upstage one another).
Mad World was an extraordinary change of pace for Kramer, then near the peak of his fame as a producer-director of prestigious dramas. His only previous involvement with comedy had been producing a pair of flops: his maiden effort as an independent, Richard Fleischer’s satirical So This Is New York (1948), and Roy Rowland’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), a striking musical children’s fantasy written by Dr. Seuss that has accumulated a cult following. Like producer-director Otto Preminger, Kramer gravitated toward the kind of controversial subject matter that the major studios tended to avoid: Army racism (Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave), paraplegic veterans (Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, Marlon Brando’s debut), and most famously of all, McCarthyism, in Zinnemann’s High Noon, penned by Kramer’s soon-to-be-blacklisted producing partner, Carl Foreman. In 1950, Kramer was signed up by Columbia Pictures, still strictly as a producer, for thirty films, but he was let go after only ten—including Laslo Benedek’s The Wild One, with Brando, which invented the biker film—because only one of them (Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny) actually turned a profit.
Kramer returned to his original distributor, United Artists, to direct as well as produce. Still controlled by two of its founders, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, during Kramer’s first tenure there, UA, now under the enlightened leadership of Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, challenged the longtime dominance of the big studios (which were burdened by tremendous overhead) by bankrolling stars and directors who wanted the freedom to make offbeat and risky films like Sweet Smell of Success and The Night of the Hunter—during what amounted to a crucial transitional period between the golden age Hollywood of the thirties and forties and the unplugged New Hollywood of the seventies. After a pair of glossy all-star vehicles, Kramer returned with a vengeance to social commentary and was rewarded with best director and best picture nods for both The Defiant Ones (racism) and Judgment at Nuremberg (Nazi war crimes). Between them he made On the Beach (nuclear proliferation) and Inherit the Wind (the Scopes creationism trial), so small wonder that he announced he wanted to do something “a little less serious” for his next film. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was his last film for UA, which through cost controls, savvy management, and clever marketing had, by 1963, seized the largest share of the American movie market from the collapsing studio system.
The project had its origins in a script by the Missouri-born William Rose, who’d collaborated with director Alexander Mackendrick, a fellow ex-pat, on 1955’s The Ladykillers and a handful of other droll comedies at Britain’s fabled Ealing Studios. Rose and his wife, Tania, transposed the story—set during a single, chaos-filled day—from Scotland to Southern California and tailored roles for an enormous cast, headed by two-time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy, in his penultimate role, bookended by Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Tracy, who died just after completing the latter, was in extremely poor health—with diabetes, emphysema, and heart problems—and his hours and days on set were strictly limited. He appears to be so frail that you fear for him when he starts racing up stairs at the climax (at least until you realize he’s being extensively doubled by a stuntman, sometimes wearing a rubber mask). The actor, whose droll performance holds the entire enterprise together, does not appear until twenty minutes into Mad World—which establishes its premise with great economy and gets off to a fast start.
After his car sails off a curve on a mountain road, gangster Jimmy Durante expires, but not before he urges the occupants of four cars that have stopped to seek out the $350,000 in loot he buried following a robbery fifteen years earlier. A pair of cops arrive shortly after, by which time the witnesses—played by Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, and Jonathan Winters—have already begun the first of several arguments about how to divvy up the booty. Mad World might well have been titled Greed, if that title weren’t already taken, and soon the original five and their riding companions (Caesar’s wife, played by Edie Adams, as well as Berle’s wife, Dorothy Provine, and brass-lunged mother-in-law, unforgettably impersonated by Broadway legend Ethel Merman) are plotting to double-cross one another in a frantic race to the finish line, a state park in the mythical Santa Rosita, where the about-to-retire police captain Tracy is monitoring surveillance reports from the likes of Andy Devine.
The Roses provide Kramer and his longtime cinematographer, the eight-time Oscar nominee Laszlo (who would win for Kramer’s 1965 Ship of Fools), with a durable structure for some great set pieces. The most memorable comes when Winters, in his remarkable film debut, single-handedly demolishes a gas station and tosses its owners (mild-mannered comics Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan) through windows and walls. It’s so inspired that you wonder if Kramer invited Buster Keaton—who has a cameo toward the end of the film—to serve as an uncredited comedy constructionist, as he did at MGM in the 1940s. Paul Mantz and Frank Tallman stage some of their most spectacular (and dangerous) stunts ever, flying a Beechcraft through a billboard and a hangar before a forced landing in a restaurant. These come in an uproarious aerial sequence that cuts between the control tower and a chaotic cockpit occupied by a panicky Hackett, a drunken Jim Backus—erstwhile Mr. Magoo and Rebel Without a Cause costar—and a clueless Rooney, the only one of the twelve top-billed stars besides Tracy who had had a substantial film career (though by 1963, Rooney, Hollywood’s top box-office draw from 1939 to 1941, was mostly doing character work in movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
Part of the genius of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is that while each of the main stars is given plenty of room to do his or her own thing, they all also come together brilliantly as a team. There are few less likely pairings in American film than Berle—a TV icon who made little lasting impression in a sporadic film career stretching back to his childhood in 1914—and the gap-toothed Terry-Thomas, as a British botanist who joins the treasure hunt, but they have terrific comic chemistry, especially when squaring off for a ridiculous fistfight. Caesar, another legend of TV’s early years, shows off his gift for pantomime when trapped in a hardware store basement; it was rumored that he was a replacement for Ernie Kovacs, a comic genius who died in a car crash (Adams, Kovacs’s real-life widow, stayed in the cast to play Caesar’s wife because she needed the money). Phil Silvers, a movie second banana who found stardom on the tube, serves as the film’s closest thing to a villain as a fast-talking con artist—though he scores his biggest laugh when his car silently sinks into a supposedly shallow river he’s trying to cross.
Two more loot seekers have joined the fray by the time our scoundrels arrive at the state park. They’re cabdrivers played by Peter Falk (at thirty-seven, the youngest of the principal male actors, who had already notched both of his best supporting actor nods, for Murder, Inc. and Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles, and would go on to immortality for his work with John Cassavetes, Wim Wenders, and on Columbo) and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (as Jack Benny’s gravel-voiced sidekick was billed after his longtime TV and radio role). One of the subtlest of great screen actors, Tracy needs to do little more than exchange silent glances with Silvers to score a big laugh. When he meets up with Rooney (they made four films together in their glory days at MGM, most notably Boys Town), their expressions speak volumes. Rooney’s lifelong pal and frequent costar Judy Garland was originally supposed to play his wife but couldn’t participate because of her TV schedule. Others who were asked but declined or were unavailable included Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, and Jackie Mason—though Benny, Jerry Lewis, and the Three Stooges, among many others, drop by for cameos.
Kramer pulled out all the stops for the climax, which has everyone hanging from the collapsing fire escape of a building under demolition—Joe E. Brown, best remembered for the curtain line in Some Like It Hot, is on-screen long enough to yell out a warning with his trademark wide mouth—before clambering onto a fire truck ladder that sways breathtakingly back and forth. The creation of this jaw-dropping sequence brought together some of the greatest technicians from Hollywood’s golden age: Willis O’Brien and an uncredited Marcel Delgado, the stop-motion animation team from King Kong; Linwood Dunn, master of optical special-effects printing; and the ubiquitous Farciot Edouart, Paramount’s longtime expert in process (rear-screen) photography. It’s an unprecedented convergence of talent—and that’s not even mentioning Saul Bass’s sophisticated yet extremely funny four-minute title sequence, a series of visual puns revolving around a globe of the world that brilliantly sets the audience up for the mayhem to follow. Bass also did an elegant poster for the film, but the most famous ones—employing caricatures of cast members—were drawn by another great graphic artist, Jack Davis, then best known, appropriately, for his work on Mad magazine.
The film was originally slated to be shot in Cinerama, a widescreen process that produced spectacular images but proved too cumbersome for shooting and exhibiting narrative features (it required an enormous camera and three synchronized projectors). Because of soaring costs for the previous year’s How the West Was Won, Cinerama decided to abandon the process and license its trademark for the exhibition of films like Mad World (and The Greatest Story Ever Told) that were shot in Ultra Panavision, a single-camera 70 mm process that produced very high-resolution, very wide images (in this case, 2.76:1, or nearly three times as wide as they are high). Kramer and Laszlo take full advantage of the huge frame, whether they are providing a California desert vista, in what amounts to a comedic spin on Lawrence of Arabia, or gathering huge numbers of cast members in single shots.
The star-studded world premiere of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, on November 7, 1963, was the inaugural presentation at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome. The New York premiere, at the long-gone Warner Cinerama, a benefit for a pair of Kennedy family charities, was held just five days before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination—the symbolic beginning of what we now refer to as the sixties, when the growing “generation gap” made it increasingly unlikely (at least for a while) that young people would join their elders in embracing films like Mad World that unironically paid homage to the Hollywood of an earlier era. The film went way over budget, to $9.4 million, but racked up $43.6 million in domestic ticket sales—the equivalent of $439 million today—before it premiered on NBC in 1972. It’s been in heavy rotation on TV ever since.
Mad World has provided the template for countless other chase comedies in the decades since its release, among them Ken Annakin’s Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (1981), Richard Fleischer’s Million Dollar Mystery (1987), and Jerry Zucker’s Rat Race (2001). There was even a loose Bollywood remake, Dhammaal, in 2007. Why has Mad World maintained its hold on the popular imagination after half a century when other popular comedies from the time—for instance, Disney’s Son of Flubber or Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce, both from the same year—seem like museum pieces? While the film’s archaic technology (trying to find a pay phone is a big deal) and its view of an underdeveloped Southwest exert a certain fascination, there are no topical references to date it—except maybe when Barrie Chase, as the girlfriend of Merman’s mama’s boy of a son (Dick Shawn), performs the Frug. Even contemporary audience members unfamiliar with the cast quickly realize they’re watching a murderer’s row of comedy. Kramer, still lionized when he died in 2001, is out of critical fashion these days, sometimes criticized for delivering liberal messages with a heavy directorial hand. But it’s precisely this lack of restraint, when applied to comedy—and Kramer’s ability to marshal these disparate talents in an anarchic but recognizable universe—that makes It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World such a flat-out joy, as well as Kramer’s most fondly remembered picture.
Lou Lumenick is the chief film critic of the New York Post. He has also written for Moving Image Source and been a guest programmer for Turner Classic Movies.