‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’
Re-visiting ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ last night I felt like Peter Venkman in the ‘Ghostbusters’ jail scene as every time I’d found myself thinking “I guess they don’t make them like they used to, huh?” I’d slap myself on the head replying “No! Nobody ever made them like this!”
Either way, I was surprised at exactly how much fun I had with Stanley Kramer’s ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ and the fact there is almost nothing else like it is certainly part of the reason as it’s a comedy that is almost three hours long, shot in 70mm and filmed on a scale that would make David Lean hesitate to tackle. Surely a recipe for disaster but as a massive fan of 1960s race/chase movies such as ‘The Great Race’ and ‘Monty Carlo of Bust’ and having seen the film loads as a kid, I was curious to re-visit it.
The set up is simple — there is a car crash and as the driver lays dying he manages to tell the small group of people that have stopped to help that there is $350,000 hidden in a park in Santa Rosita underneath “the big W” before he, literally, kicks the bucket. After a brief attempt at discussing searching for it in solidarity this group of strangers (all played by famous comedians of the time) decide it’s every one for them self and so a mad dash ensues to be the first to reach the cash.
And that’s pretty much it plot-wise. Sure, there is some stuff about the police tracking them but that’s, for the most, in the background. No, this film is simply about people getting, by whatever means, from point A to B, and that can be what puts some people off ‘Mad World’; it’s three hours of nothing but set-pieces with no character development or even a story, just a mad dash. Yet that is also what I think works in ‘Mad World’s favour as for all its excess and extravagance it never feels messy or unfocused because the set-up is so simple. It doesn’t become a narrative clusterfuck the way the 60s ‘Casino Royale’ did or like some of the other large scale comedies of the time.
But in terms of being purely a “comedy”, ‘Mad World’ has problems. It is three hours of variation on a theme and despite being so long it also feels overwhelmingly relentless (actually something I got off on), like having Ethel Merman yelling in your face all evening. And that could be another issue for a lot of folk as the pacing seems more geared around the chases and stunts rather than nuanced wit. It reminded me of why Steve Martin stopped doing stadium gigs as the scale of the event was so large it was smothering the actual comedy. And not all the of comedy works: Mickey Rooney becomes tiresome; Ethel Merman, wonderful though she is, can become grating and there’s only so many times you can smirk at her showing her bloomers and even Sid Ceaser stuck in the basement seems to drag on way too long (although Terry Thomas’ tirade about Americans obsession with boobs is hilarious and Jonathan Winters is awesome).
Fortunately it is not the cast of comedians that are the stars of the movie and providing the best gags, but the stuntmen. With the location of hidden money buried somewhere being revealed and setting a race in motion to get there first with ridiculous stunts filmed on a widescreen format, ‘Mad World’ plays best when watched as ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ directed by Hal Needham. Approached like that and ‘Mad World’ is a blast with some of the best stunt work I’ve seen in, in… ever? Technically this film is remarkable and not just with its scale but precision. Watch the way the police cars and taxis all move during the final act. The choreography is incredible! And the final car chase precedes ‘Bullet’, ‘The French Connection’ and countless others by a good few years and stands up to any of them in terms of visceral speed and excitement.
Even the plane flying through the bill-board, a shot I’ve seen countless times, still takes the breath away. It is precise, spectacular, exciting and, almost best of all, aesthetically impressive as hell. I also love the shot where the plane almost hits the radio tower, not because of the great suntwork, but because it simply looks so pretty, so wonderfully composed and with such vibrant reds and blues.
And that was one of the best aspects of ‘Mad World’, what made me kinda fall in love with it a little, and that was the look of the film — all the early 1960s cars and planes with their sexy lines and colours and contours set against the gorgeous landscape and cities of Kennedy-era California all shot in 70mm and looking stunning. This is a genuinely beautiful film.
Add onto that the fact that all the special effects — everything from rear-projection to model work to matte paintings to practical work etc — are technically impressive as hell (the rear-projection work is better than a lot of what came after) to the point of (sometimes) almost being flawless and along with a sound effects track that is now one of my favourites means that even watching ‘Mad World’ from a purely technical view point is a delight.
So yeah, as a comedy ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ doesn’t have that fleet-footed delicacy of other great comedies. It doesn’t have the deft touch of Preston Sturges or the sure timing of Mel Brooks but that’s because as a road-show, large format, surround sound, technically ambitious, delirious piece of insanity of epic proportions, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World’ has much more in common with ‘Apocalypse Now’ than, say, ‘Some Like It Hot’ or ‘Pillow Talk’.
I was surprised at how positively I responded to re-visiting ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ after all these years. Sure, it’s not the funniest movie ever made and some of the humour has dated, but it is all the rest — the stunts, effects and spectacle — that have aged incredibly well that are the real joys here. It is a mad world and I kinda like it that way.