This week, Kevin O’Connor brought us a film which is (somewhat shockingly) 50 years old and is considered one of the all-time great comedies of the sixties – It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, directed by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg).
The film is a very long slapstick comedy – in fact the pace quickens so thoroughly right before the intermission (!!) that some of our audience expected the movie was about to end. But the true strength of the film isn’t its screenplay, it’s the cast.
The majority of the cast, who are embroiled in a madcap chase through southern California after a $350,000 buried treasure, can be seen here shortly before the denouement looking at the exhumed suitcase, which does in fact contain $350,000 (well, nobody ever actually counted, but…)
The cast? Going counterclockwise (because why not?) from the lower left corner: Peter Falk, Ethel Merman, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Dorothy Provine, Spencer Tracy, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. And on top of several notable cameos I will not picture here (The Three Stooges, Don Knotts, Buster Keaton, Carl Reiner, William Demarest, Andy Devine, Norman Fell, Sterling Holloway, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis among them) there were a few others, like:
Jimmy Durante, playing the bank robber Smiler Grogan, who kicks the movie off with nothing other than reckless driving on a mountainous desert road. He goes off the edge of the highway and both figuratively and literally kicks the bucket, but not before telling the assembled cast of four vehicles he had screamed past about the buried $350,000, which is to be found under a “big W” in Santa Rosita park (apparently “San Diego” was trademarked).
The four parties agree to drive to Santa Rosita together, but naturally they are unable to hold to this pact and the race begins. Interestingly, none of the four arrive in Santa Rosita in their original vehicle.
The Crumps (Caesar and Adams) leave the road to charter a rickety plane from the 1910s and arrive in Santa Rosita first, only to find themselves locked in the basement of a hardware store when they try to buy a shovel and a pick. Multiple forms of incendiaries ensue (candles, fireworks, blowtorch, an actual fire, dynamite).
Two buddies (Hackett and Rooney), have the same idea as the Crumps and manage to charter a much better plane – a jet – with a significantly worse pilot. Jim Backus is sauced when he starts flying, and knocks himself out when he goes to the jet’s minibar for an old fashioned, leaving Hackett and Rooney to pull off a tower-assisted emergency landing.
Meanwhile our delivery truck driver (Winters) and the Finches (Berle and Provine, with mother-in-law Merman) have a collision, variously bringing snotty Englishman Terry-Thomas, conniving Phil Silvers and beach bum brother-in-law Dick Shawn in on the plan as they commandeer vehicles to get to Santa Rosita.
Of course, it’s never quite that simple, as the Santa Rosita police have been tracking Smiler Grogan and following his death they realize that the motley crew that witnessed it are about to lead them to Grogan’s heist stash. Spencer Tracy is the underappreciated Chief coming into a small pension and saddled with an irritating wife and daughter who hatches a plot to get his own hands on the money under the aegis of authority and then flee to Mexico.
They all arrive at Santa Rosita park more or less simultaneously (bringing along two taxi drivers in Falk and Anderson) and eventually figure out where the “big W” is and dig up the loot, which is immediately seized by Tracy. But the cast smell a rat and thus results in a zany chase which eventually leads to a rickety fire escape on a multi-story building.
The fire escape comes loose, leading to their rescue by an even more rickety ladder from a fire engine, which slings around in a not-so-comic fashion (a large portion of the ladder scene is done via cheesy special effects, which is not par for the course in a movie where the majority of the stunts and crashes are real), sending the money (and the cast) raining down on a large crowd which has gathered below. Remarkably, even though each cast member is separately thrown from the crazy ladder, they all managed to land in fountains or trees or awnings…enough for a hard landing but not enough to die. OK, I’ll give it a pass…it IS a comedy.
And thus, the film becomes one of presumably very few to finish up with a majority of the cast in traction. Fortunately, even the now-disgraced Spencer Tracy is finally able to laugh – when the scolding Merman slips on a banana peel. Yes, the movie ends with a banana peel gag. How can you not respect that?