It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A 50th Anniversary Look Back

2 Dec

On Saturday night, November 30, I realized it was the last night of the 50th anniversary month of the release of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, which opened in New York on November 17, 1963. So, while I had enough time to watch it in its entirety, I put in my Blu-ray copy of the film and watched it. The Blu-ray, an MGM release, offers the standard theatrical cut of 159 minutes, which includes overture, intermission and exit music. When I saw the film in February 1965 at a neighborhood theater in the Bronx, none of that stuff was offered, so the print I saw back then, according to an issue of Cue Magazine from January 1965 that a friend of mine helpfully consulted, was 152 minutes. This is in contrast to the 2-tape VHS copy I bought many years ago that offers a print of three hours and one minute thanks to numerous “trims” (lines of dialogue or bits of action cut here and there from the heads or tails of different scenes) inserted back into the film. I wasn’t crazy about that version since I tend to think that there was a good reason those bits were taken out in the first place. The film moves quicker and is much more streamlined without them.

Blu-ray cover

Instead, the Blu-ray comes with a special feature devoted to 59 minutes of “extended scenes.” Nearly half of these 59 minutes are raw trims thrown together and plastered one after the other without rhyme, reason, or chronological order, as if the creators of this edition could not be bothered to hire an editor. Some clips are repeated a second time, right after appearing, with no change in the repeat clip. The other half consists of entire existing scenes from the film with cut lines of dialogue intact within the scenes. Some of the cut bits aren’t bad, including a Buddy Hackett line demanding a parachute while in the plane that’s going out of control. But most of them simply explain things we eventually see and don’t need to be explained, like how six of them wound up in the positions they are in the stolen garage service truck that takes them to Santa Rosita Park. None of the “extended scenes” feature the Three Stooges or Buster Keaton. They do feature some character actors, such as James Flavin and Roy Roberts among the highway patrolmen, who are absent from the standard cut.

James Flavin in a shot cut from IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD

One big problem with the “extended scenes” on this Blu-ray edition is that they’re all shown anamorphically stretched out so that everyone looks fat. When my bigscreen TV is in HDMI mode, so I can watch Blu-rays, the remote doesn’t offer a “normal” mode to compensate. Each of the three modes available keeps the image stretched out this way, and thus, severely distorted. I believe this material was all transferred this way and no one bothered to check it and correct it. It strikes me as seriously sloppy on the part of the technicians who mastered this Blu-ray. (I’ve since experimented with the settings on my TV and remote to see if I could correct this. I could. See addendum at the bottom of this piece.)

I’ve seen the film many times since that first big-screen viewing in the Bronx and I should point out that I’d been wanting to see it since it first premiered but had to wait 15 months(!) before it came to neighborhood theaters. Talk about delayed gratification. In the 1970s, I saw revival screenings at the Victoria Theater in Times Square and the Elgin Cinema in Chelsea (on an all-night quadruple bill with PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM and WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY?, along with a fourth film that isn’t worth the time it would take to explain). I watched it on TV many times after that, pan-and-scan and cut to fit into a three-hour time slot filled with commercial interruptions. One holiday afternoon some 20-odd years ago, it ran back-to-back on two different local channels (WOR-TV and WPIX-TV) in two completely different pan-and-scan prints, meaning if you watched them side-by-side you’d see the whole frame. I took my daughter to see it when the Thalia Soho announced a restored print and it turned out to be a 16mm print of the standard 152-minute cut.

It became one of my all-time favorite films after that first screening almost 49 years ago. (I ranked it #3 after WEST SIDE STORY and THE GREAT ESCAPE.) I’ve enjoyed it every time since then. I never fail to leap up in my seat at that moment when the 14 treasure seekers suddenly realize that Captain Culpeper is making off with the money they dug up rather than taking it to the police station and they all pile back into the two cabs to give chase.

Sure, there are parts that have gotten tiresome after repeat viewings. The phone conversations that Culpeper (Spencer Tracy) has with his unseen wife and daughter and their cartoonish voices (supplied by Selma Diamond and Louise Glenn) were grating even back in 1965. It’s just a plot contrivance designed to help push Culpeper into a state of readiness for a clean break by stealing the ill-gotten loot. (The town mayor has also denied an increase in his pension.) Also, the long sequence of the Crumps (Sid Caesar and Edie Adams) trying to break out of a locked basement of a hardware store gets tiresome. And that long tangent where Phil Silvers drives off into a deep canyon at the behest of Mike Mazurki really drags that part of the film down.

But there are certain things that keep me engrossed no matter what. The stunt driving and photography of the cars is amazing, especially when you consider the sheer range and number of vehicles at play during the film’s running time. There may be more spectacular or more destructive car chases, e.g. BLUES BROTHERS (1980), but you don’t get such beautifully choreographed driving the way you do here. It’s almost like a ballet at times. Same for the planes in the air. The flying by Paul Mantz and Frank Tallman is unlike any other plane action I’ve seen in a movie. You’re watching expert performers at work here, but their tools just happen to be cars, trucks and airplanes.

I also like the way Southern California looks throughout this movie, particularly on the Blu-ray. You really get a sense of the landscape, its texture and its bleached surfaces. You also get a palpable sense of time passing, from the early morning when the drivers first encounter the mortally wounded “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) and hear his story of $350,000 buried under a “big W” in Santa Rosita State Park to the late afternoon when most of the cast of main characters has wound up at the top of a condemned building battling each other for the money as the fire escape they’re on suddenly begins to collapse. Even though the sunlight doesn’t exactly change in all of that time, one definitely gets the sense of a full day passing, one filled with once-in-a-lifetime adventures.

I like watching all these disparate performers acting together. They’re not doing the characters they’d played on television for many years, but playing real scripted characters, with backstories, who suddenly find themselves in an unusual predicament. Granted, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers each do a version of the schtick associated with their TV characters, but it never overwhelms their performances. Milton Berle, in particular, seems to have toned down his usual madcap performing and plays a believable, flawed character who behaves in ways that shock his wife and mother and even himself. Despite his lapses, he is, arguably, one of a handful of genuinely sympathetic characters among the 14 who get entangled in the race to get to the money. I would argue that Jonathan Winters, Dorothy Provine and Edie Adams–the one true innocent in the film–are among the others. Even Dick Shawn’s character, Sylvester, as crazy as he behaves, is driven less by greed than by a genuine devotion to his mother and an urge to protect her. It’s quite touching, actually. In fact, now that I think of it, Shawn’s scenes are among the best in the film. They don’t go on any tangents away from the narrative and the character is one of the most skillfully fashioned and portrayed in the film.

I never made the connection before, but the presence of Zasu Pitts in the cast of a film about greed brings to mind the film she’s most famous for—Erich von Stroheim’s GREED (1924). Sadly, this was Pitts’ last movie; she died in June 1963, five months before this film came out. Here she is, as Gertie the switchboard operator in Captain Culpeper’s office:

One of the long-term pop culture outcomes of MAD WORLD’s success was the production of a host of similar films. I saw at least four in theaters before the end of the 1960s: THE GREAT RACE (1965), THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966), THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES (1965) and THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR JAUNTY JALOPIES (1969). All four had at least one cast member from MAD WORLD. THE GREAT RACE had three: Peter Falk, Dorothy Provine and Marvin Kaplan. THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, my favorite of this bunch, had five: Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford, Ben Blue and Cliff Norton. The other two films both had Terry-Thomas in them. Another comedy, PENELOPE (1966), with Natalie Wood as a bank robber, was not thematically related to MAD WORLD, but had three of its cast members: Dick Shawn, Jonathan Winters and Peter Falk.

The Criterion Collection will be releasing a new dual-format edition of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD in January 2014 and is promising the following:

New high-definition digital transfer of a 197-minute extended version of the film, reconstructed and restored by Robert A. Harris using visual and audio material from the longer original road-show version—including some scenes that have been returned to the film here for the first time—with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray

I checked the original review of the film in The New York Times and it gives the running time as 192 minutes when the film opened. The reviewer, Bosley Crowther, confirms that time in the body of his review. So Criterion is offering an even longer cut than that which opened on Broadway at the Warner Cinerama. I’m curious to see what will be in it, but I’m not so sure it’ll be an improvement on the 152-minute version I’ve known and loved for almost 49 years.

ADDENDUM: On the advice of members of the Home Theater Forum, I went back and changed the settings on my TV to see if it made a difference in the way the extended scenes looked: stretched out, squeezed or normal. Yes it did. But I found I had to use the “wide” modes on my remote (Wide Zoom, Full, and Zoom) to correct for flaws in each clip. There was no consistency. And some clips looked like they were shot with wide-angle lenses under this setup.

Look at the distorted doorway lines in this shot:

And this one looked squeezed:

…until I used my TV remote to switch to “wide zoom”:

But I still insist it’s an authoring problem with the Blu-ray. I shouldn’t have to change the settings on my TV set and toggle the remote just to get through one extra on a Blu-ray.

ADDENDUM (Jan. 31, 2014): Criterion has issued a new Blu-ray of this film, with both the standard release version and as close to a complete version of the original Roadshow version as we’re likely to get. I haven’t ordered it yet–what am I waiting for?!!–but I will report back after I’ve seen it. Meanwhile, on The Digital Bits website, there’s a piece on this new edition, complete with an excellent roundtable interview with those who produced the new Blu-ray, those who made it possible, and those who provided audio commentary. Please go to this link:

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Retrospective


4 Responses to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A 50th Anniversary Look Back”

  1. Bob Lindstrom December 3, 2013 at 12:50 AM #

    As always, Brian, a well-written piece. I’m hoping that the additional few minutes that Criterion is claiming (comparing to the NYT’s 191) is some combination of preshow music, those intermission police calls, and playoff music.

    I’m fond of the film, perhaps not quite as much as you, even though I must confess that I don’t think it’s as funny as the movie thinks it is, and Kramer really isn’t a comedy director.

    That said, my favorite aspect of the film is how clearly Kramer loves those performers. He just lingers on an unparalleled assembly of comic actors and lets them do their brilliant best. The film is truly a valentine to (and a showcase for ) that remarkable cast. Despite the stunts and other spectacle, the film most often works because the actors truly “sell” it. That Kramer and the script (by the Roses) create a framework in which they do that is, I suppose, testament to the brilliance of both.

  2. Owen December 4, 2013 at 9:42 PM #

    I remember watching it on TV. There was a scene where a black farmer in a truck is driven off the road by our heroes madcap driving, and his belongings were scattered. My dad was totally bothered by that. I wanted to say “dad! he’s an actor, he didn’t lose anything”, but that is the power of the visual moving image.
    The scene may have been funny.

    • briandanacamp January 31, 2014 at 12:10 PM #

      The actor who plays the farmer was Nick Stewart (aka Nicodemus Stewart), famous for playing Lightnin’ on the old Amos ‘n’ Andy TV show. He was often assigned to stereotypical roles in the “feets don’t fail me now” vein, but he was more often very funny in a more layered way even in such roles. He’s excellent in a major supporting comic role in GILDERSLEEVE’S GHOST (1944). He later turned up in SILVER STREAK (1976) as the guy operating the shoeshine stand in a funny scene with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

  3. Andrew Gore March 3, 2014 at 3:46 AM #

    I came here whilst trying to find out what cameo role Zasu Pitts played in the movie, and thank you for that. But I find your review of “Mad World” to be great. If I had to choose the best comedy movie ever, I’d have to choose this. The most surprising thing to me is that it’s directed by Stanley Kramer, the only comedy he ever made. This guy is known for directing movies like “Judgement at Nuremberg” and “On the Beach”, about Nazi war crimes and the end of the world after nuclear war. I think my favorite character must be Ethel Merman as the archetypical mother-in-law, loud and irritating. And her son Dick Shawn, when he’s first seen ignoring the phone while dancing with that crazy hipster girl. I hope you will review the Criterion DVD when you get it. I really enjoy your blog overall.

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