In 1963, a film was released that strived to be an unmatched epic comedy. Filled with an all-star cast of comedy stars, one of the most respected actors in Hollywood, an expansive scale of madcap slapstick, directed by a famed director known for ‘message movies’ and all of it filmed on the brand new expansive widescreen Cinerama!
Of course, the film is It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World! Sixty years on, it continues to be a revered comedy on the grandest scale ever done. Just the cast will make one take a step back and pause in admiration.
Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Casear, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers and that’s just the first batch! Dick Shawn, Edie Adams, Terry-Thomas, Dorothy Provine, Jim Backus, Jimmy Durante, Carl Reiner, Peter Falk, Don Knotts, Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan…..and on and on, including surprise cameos!
Several generations have passed since the premiere of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and younger audiences might not be as familiar with these actors and comedians, but in 1963 they composed the comedy world of entertainment. Seeing them all trading gags with one another on an extra large cinema screen was mind-blowing.
I suppose the plot of the film is necessary to go over. A just-released convict crashes his car in the California desert. A group of motorists come to his aid and in his dying breath tells them there is a suitcase containing $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park under “a big W”.
This group of strangers can’t come to an agreement of how to split this money between them, if indeed this story is true. So, they get in their vehicles and race as fast as possible to get to the loot before the others.
All manner of transit is deployed and destruction, mayhem and madcap antics rain down on all of them as they try to find this ‘Big W’. Meanwhile, a police captain is well aware of what’s going on and is keeping tabs of this wacky group in the hope they will lead him to the money and he can wrap up this criminal case.
The story is as simple as can be. It’s basically a chaotic treasure hunt. The general story is an excuse that provides the set pieces for all the comedy stars to run into problems that hinder their pursuit of this fortune. Car crashes, fights, aerial dynamics, pratfalls, chases all culminate at a building in the middle of the city where some final slapstick rains down on all the characters.
It’s hard not to admire It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Just by its shear size it’s impressive. Typically, films on this scale that clocked in at nearly three hours were reserved for dramatic biblical or historical big-screen epics. It wasn’t the norm for a comedy where the widescreen is filled with mugging faces.
The timing of its release was somewhat ironic. Released in early November of 1963, the epic comedy came out only a few weeks before one of the most tragic moments in American history – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While the nation mourned and were in shock, the film offered up something of a respite from the tragedy.
It’s epic length, (some cuts of the film would reach over 3 hours in its original roadshow release), and the remarkable gathering of the cast made the film a box office hit and one of the most iconic comedies ever made.
As much as it tries to be, I never thought it manages to reach being the funniest quintessential comedy and I can’t say it’s one of my favorites.
There is a lot of funny stuff in it with a whole lot going on. Which is a plus! If these misadventures over here aren’t your thing, then you might enjoy some from the other characters. Seeing it in widescreen to admire all the stunts, falls and cast arguing is a sight to behold.
My personal favorites are Sid Caesar and Edie Adams locked in the basement, Jonathan Winters going nuts and conman Phil Silvers.
Since its release other films have come along that have mimicked It’s A Mad World’s template of a bunch of characters in a crazed road comedy. The Great Race, The Cannonball Run, Rat Race. As much as they tried, I don’t think any has managed to recapture the grand star-studded splendor and comedic pandemonium that the 1963 comedy did.
There are a few comedy icons one can think got left out of the film, but it wasn’t because they were forgotten. The stories I’ve heard is it was either due to scheduling conflicts or they were asking for too much money. That’s probably why Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx and Jackie Gleason didn’t join in on the mayhem. Stan Laurel famously turned down appearing it sticking to his pledge he wouldn’t perform again after the death of his partner Oliver Hardy.
One thing that Kramer said he regretted about the film was he wished he added another ‘Mad’ to the title.
It’s a unique time capsule of comedy. Comedic stars of the mid-19th century, former vaudeville comedians, young up and comers. I don’t think a single project will bring together so many comedy stars together again in such a fashion.
To mark the sixtieth anniversary of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World I made an updated trailer for it. So, here’s the ‘Big W’ sixty years on! Mad fans enjoy!