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Posts Tagged ‘It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World’

The Big W

February 12th, 2014 No comments

Sid Caesar died today, and as with Monday’s death du jour, Shirley Temple, I was surprised to learn that he’d still been alive. I missed Caesar’s heyday on Your Show of Shows by a good decade, so for me he was more a historical figure than a significant part of my TV viewing, but I’ve actually seen quite a lot of him recently.

That’s because I bought the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release of the 1963 mega-comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Director Stanley Kramer brought together dozens of funnymen–and a few funnywomen–for his epic car chase, and Caesar had one of the largest roles.

If you’re not familiar with it, I won’t try to sell it as the most hilarious film ever, but it’s arguably the biggest movie comedy. That’s not just because of its colossal cast, but its running time (originally 192 minutes) and theatrical presentation (the super-widescreen Cinerama). Mad World was made and marketed as an event, and given a limited, reserved-seating “roadshow” release. Nearly a half-hour of material was trimmed for the later general release, leaving it at a still-bloated 154 minutes.

I recall seeing it a lot as a kid, at least a couple of times in the theater. This was back in the day when long movies were presented with intermissions. A lot of the comedy star cameos were lost on me, but I loved Saul Bass’ animated title sequence, as well as the endless vehicular mayhem.

The plot involves an unrelated group of motorists (including Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters and Milton Berle) who witness the fatal crash of a crook played by Jimmy Durante. As payment for their attempt to help, he tells them of a fortune in stolen money hidden in a state park several hours’ drive away. The only clue to its precise whereabouts is that it’s buried under a “Big ‘W.'”

It’s a deeply cynical film. Sid Caesar’s character is initially the voice of reason, attempting to craft a fair method of splitting $350,000 among the eight people originally at the crash site, but disagreements fueled in large part by Ethel Merman’s harridan of a mother-in-law quickly turn things into “every man, including the old bag, for himself.”

And so the chase is on, with the former good Samaritans taking every opportunity to get out in front of the pack. Others are soon drawn into the hunt, including a conniving Phil Silvers and a fussbudget Terry-Thomas. Meanwhile, all are under the watchful eyes of the police, led by a soon-to-retire captain played by Spencer Tracy. The latter has been seeking the cache of loot for years, and is willing to see the contest play out in order to find it.

By the end, virtually everyone who learns of the money has been corrupted by it, even Dorothy Provine’s lily-white character, who wants nothing to do with it until she spots the Big W and realizes that she could buy her way out from under her horrible family. There’s a lot of tragedy roiling under the surface, and things end badly for most of the cast.

The big selling point of the Criterion release is that most of the footage cut from the original “roadshow” version has been restored, albeit in poor quality and sometimes with only video or audio present. It’s fascinating as a historical artifact, though to be honest, I think the material adds little aside from clarifying Buster Keaton’s brief role in the general release version.

I’ve already watched it twice, once for each cut, and am currently on the third go-round to listen to the highly-informative commentary track by Mad World aficionados including writer Mark Evanier. For me, there’s a megaton of nostalgia packed into this disc.