It’s the early twentieth century and the automobile is the latest great innovation. Two competing daredevils, the noble white-wearing ‘The Great Leslie’ (Tony Curtis) and the sinister, mustache twirling Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), compete in a car race from New York to Paris to determine once and for all who’s the better man.
They hop into their unique, specially designed cars and away they go in a seven car race! One of the their competitors is gorgeous, tenacious photojournalist Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood).
It is not a smooth journey between Leslie and Sinister with both their sidekicks in tow played by Keenan Wynn and Peter Falk. Through a series of unexpected speed bumps Maggie becomes entangled in their outrageous feuding duel that escalates with temporary alliances being made and a desperate situation with them having to save a kidnapped king.
The questions build – will Leslie and Maggie fall for each other? Does the Great Race have the best pie fight in cinema history? And which of these men will arrive in Paris first and be declared the winner?
Directed by Blake Edwards, The Great Race attempts to be one of those ‘Big Comedies’, with no expenses spared, no gags too explosive and never enough extras packed in to fill the frame. The film that comes immediately to mind to compare it to is It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World just for the sheer scope of this comedy movie.
Unlike the glorious looking Leslie Special that Curtis drives, the movie itself doesn’t maintain it’s pace and ends up taking such bumpy detours that it very nearly crashes. Fortunately there’s enough in the first half of the film that makes it an enjoyable silly romp for at least half of its runtime. This comes thanks mainly to Lemmon’s over-the-top cartoonish performance, some of the slapstick and Miss Wood looking as ravishing as ever.
It starts with madcap failures of Fate trying to disrupt Leslie’s stunts. It’s right out of an exaggerated cartoon with Lemmon crashing into barns, falling into mud, his car exploding. All of it looks like vaguely familiar kind of gags to Edwards’ own Pink Panther movies, mainly the latter ones. And a bit like Wile Coyote’s mishaps too.
We move to the race and things are looking pretty good. Again some over-the-top visual gags, Curtis acting confident and unflappable and Lemmon screaming and ranting. Wood gets a seat next to Curtis at this point as we approach an extended section in Alaska with both men literally freezing to a stop. There’s some funny visuals and Lemmon continues to steal the spotlight by playing his dastardly villain to the hilt.
He started to remind me of Snidely Whiplash! Actually, I think this performance by Lemmon was the inspiration for that cartoon character.
Up to this point the movie is doing pretty good. Racing mishaps, a refueling stop at a western town that ends in a huge brawl, an Alaskan snowstorm. It’s when the pair of racers arrive at the kingdom of Pottdorf with an idiot prince (also played by Lemmon) that things really start to slow down.
The race gets put on hold as we get involved in some plot to overthrow the prince with Lemmon’s Professor Fate being forced to impersonate him. Wood and Wynn get thrown in a dungeon, Curtis gets into a sword fight, and it all ends with that big heavily advertised pie fight.
It’s really a lot of time wasted for very little. The pie fight is fine, but the rest of this stop really does ‘stop’ the movie. Plus, none of it is particularly funny. When people say The Great Race is too long, (and I include myself along with them) this is the section that I feel should have been dropped. I would have saved the big pie fight at the end when the race finishes in Paris.
So, you end up with half of a decent comedy. Lemmon is a lot of fun to watch. It’s not often he got to play a bad guy and I bet he was relishing it. He doesn’t hold back at all.
It was Lemmon, Falk and their antics that kept me watching. The famous line, “Push the button Max” and the resulting gags to that are consistent highlights.
Curtis is fine, he’s nothing really special. Wood isn’t necessarily funny, but she looks gorgeous, even covered in pies. I read that she didn’t really want to do this movie, and seeing her cast in it does seem a bit odd for some reason. I wouldn’t have thought of Wood to be part of an epic-sized comedy.
It’s not a movie that I think you HAVE to see, but it has it’s moments. The downside is that those moments are spread out across an extremely overlong running time. It would have been much better had Edwards tried to compact all the slapstick into a shorter runtime instead of having it all stretch out over such a long haul. Longer doesn’t necessarily equal better. Lemmon and Falk could have carried a shorter movie by themselves and probably would have made it come closer to ‘the great comedy’ as it was advertised to be.