Stanley Kramer was a producer and director of very austere films, often with social messages. Kramer regularly made pictures involving racism, fascism, and evolution. His classics included High Noon, The Caine Mutiny, The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremburg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But when a colleague challenged him to produce and direct a comedy, Kramer didn’t back down. Instead, he gave the world a classic. Despite his large body of cultivated work, the slapstick comedy It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World remains his most popular and best-remembered.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was three-and-a-half hours of absurd nonsense, which featured almost no witty one-liners, and could have worked just as well had it been an animated feature. So why is this film so beloved? Several reasons come to mind, but first let’s refamiliarize ourselves with this comedic monstrosity. Spencer Tracy plays a California police detective who’s been working for years to crack the big “Smiler Grogan” case. Grogan, played by Jimmy Durante, is a robber who’s been on the lam for 15 years. He dies in a single-car crash in the film’s first scene. Several other drivers stop to help, and Grogan informs them of his treasure — $350,000 buried underneath a giant “W” in the Santa Rosita State Park, located about 200 miles away from the accident scene.
Intrigued, the other drivers return to their vehicles and plot to be the first to unearth the loot. The remaining three hours are nothing more than a race to the finish, during which time we are treated to airplanes that fly slower than automobile traffic, exploding fireworks in the basement of a hardware store, inept air traffic controllers, bumbling firemen, drunken pilots, the destruction of a full-service gas station, more car crashes than you can count, and one obnoxiously loud mother-in-law (Ethel Merman). Every comedic stereotype imaginable is thrown into this long treasure-hunt. Heck, when Smiler Grogan dies (or kicks the proverbial bucket) at the film’s outset, he literally kicks a bucket down a hill. This is broad comedy at its most low-brow. So why is it a classic?
First, its flamboyant ostentation represented the last gasp of the old studio system. With the advent of television, Hollywood tried desperately to hold onto its audiences by offering long, big-budget films that were simply “too big” for TV. These were “event” pictures, complete with intermissions, which were shown only once an evening, due to their length. Cinerama, Super Panavision, Ultra Panavision, and other wide-screen filming processes were borne of this fear of television.
So were large casts. In 1956, Michael Todd’s cinematic telling of Around the World in 80 Days employed over 50 actors and personalities in cameo roles. It’s almost as fun to watch Around the World to pick out the famous celebrities as it is to actually pay attention to the plot. Seven years later, Stanley Kramer did Michael Todd one better, employing well over a hundred actors and comedians in cameo roles. While the primary characters were played by the top comics of the day (Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters, Ethel Merman, Terry-Thomas, Dick Shawn, and Phil Silvers), everyone from Jerry Lewis to Jack Benny shows up in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. And yes, it is a great deal of fun to identify them along the way.
But while television certainly kept Americans in the comforts of their own homes more regularly than before, the French New Wave film revolution had begun, with Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut breaking down the longtime traditions of moviemaking. The New Wavers did not employ establishing shots at the outsets of most scenes, they filmed with (primarily) hand-held cameras, and they typically filmed on location rather than in studio backlots. These two phenomena (the advent of television, and the arrival of European art cinema) led to the rapid collapse of the old Hollywood studio system, in which actors and actresses were employed by various studios much as professional athletes are employed by team owners today.
By the end of 1965, almost all television programming was in color (except on NBC, where it was presented in “living color”). Then in 1967, two developments put the final nail in the Hollywood studio coffin. First Richard Fleischer released the overblown, overstuffed, and overwrought musical atrocity, Doctor Dolittle, a critically-panned bomb so expensive it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Later that year, Mike Nichols released The Graduate – a brilliant coming-of-age story of a young college-educated man trying to find his way in a rapidly changing world. The Graduate was the first successful American film made in the style of the French New Wave. It was critically acclaimed, and was a huge hit.
Now what does all this have to do with It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? Well, you see while Stanley Kramer primarily worked independently of the studio system, his epic comedy is representative of a long-gone style of moviemaking which signaled the end of an era. The long, narrative comedic sagas of the 1960s (which would also include the likes of The Great Escape, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, The Great Race, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) look and feel nothing like the quick-witted Mel Brooks and Zucker Brothers comedies to follow in the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s like a comedic time capsule, if you will.
The timing of its release also plays a part in its cherished status. It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World premiered at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles (constructed to accommodate pictures made using any of the wide-screen processes available at the time) on November 7, 1963, in a “roadshow” format. No longer used today, the roadshow films would open in certain theatres in one or more large market cities for limited engagements, requiring reserved seating, and carrying price tags higher than typical motion picture fare. The roadshow versions usually contained extra footage, which would then be cut when the films would go into wide release – sometimes a month or more after its premier.
Now consider that opening date again – November 7, 1963. Notice anything historic about that date? Fifteen days later, President John Kennedy would be assassinated, and the United States left to mourn his death. The hope and idealism of the Kennedy Administration was gone in a flash, and America was forever changed. What a terrible time to open an epic, broad, slapstick comedy. Universal wisely pulled It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for a month – releasing it across the nation at the very end of December. How would Americans react? Would they consider its release a tasteless move by a greedy Hollywood studio during a time of crisis? Or would the film serve as a “release” mechanism for Americans who desperately needed a good laugh?
The answer is: It was a release mechanism. America had held its collective breath, wiped its tears, and buried a modern-day hero. America practically required a good laugh. And boy did Stanley Kramer deliver! It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World became an enormous hit, winning over audiences across the nation. Devoid of topical references of the day, it was a ratings success when it premiered on television as a two-night marathon in 1972 – and continued to find success on network TV for many years to follow.
But there’s a third important aspect to this film’s longevity. And that is its length. While the two-and-a-half-hour wide release and television version is certainly adequate, it always seemed as though something was missing. As the four sets of crime-scene witnesses wrap up their individual adventures and converge on the fictional town of Santa Rosita, the pace of the editing picks up. The stories conclude almost too quickly and too neatly. Would the meticulous Stanley Kramer really cut corners to fit his picture into a specified running time? Of course not! And Mad World aficionados have suspected for years that whatever footage was cut from the original roadshow version must exist somewhere – either at Universal or with the Kramer family. Indeed, entire web-sites and blogs were devoted to the “missing footage” of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
With the help of Stanley Kramer’s widow Karen, The Criterion Collection released a five-disc DVD/Blu-Ray version in 2014, which restores (as closely as possible) the original long version for home viewing. While it is fascinating for hardcore fans, be forewarned that some of the splices are a bit rough around the edges. You’ll occasionally see where the old footage has been spliced in. A few times, the audio breaks in mid-sentence, and Criterion has placed subtitles at the bottom of the screen to fill in the missing dialog. A couple scenes have missing video, but the audio has been preserved. In these cases, we hear the dialogue, while still shots (photographed during the filming) are supplemented for us to watch. It’s not technically perfect, but it won’t matter to diehard admirers.
Having watched the newly-restored long version, I was amazed that the missing sequences occur all throughout the picture – not only during the “Descent on Santa Rosita” portion I referred to earlier. It must have been quite the editing chore to prepare Mad World for wide release, as the little connecting scenes were apparently those cut. All the slapstick was left in, but some of the fine plot details were eliminated. One that particularly stands out for me is a sequence in which the video has been lost and replaced with still shots. It features Spencer Tracy calling a man named Jimmy the Crook from a pay phone. The two men plot to store the loot in Jimmy’s seaside home until the dust settles. Jimmy turns out to be Buster Keaton, who appears late in the film in a non-speaking role that lasts all of about ten seconds. Heck, I never even knew Buster Keaton was in Mad World until I watched the newly-restored long version. That’s a scene important enough it should never have been cut. (Personally, I don’t think any of it should have been cut, but it was.)
And in answer to one of the most asked questions on any Mad World blog: No, the Three Stooges don’t do anything. They just stand there, the way they did for years on the shorter wide-release/television version. Some of us assumed they (as firemen tending to a crash landing at a small airport) must have done some of their famous shtick, and their scene was cut. But alas, no. In the biggest waste of talent in the film, the Stooges are introduced, and then never seen again. Five seconds of Jack Benny as a passing motorist? Fine. But the Three Stooges? If Kramer were going to give them a cameo in his film (He did), he should have let them be funny (He didn’t).
There are some extras on the 2014 Blu-Ray/DVD. Most of them aren’t particularly interesting as far as shedding light on the mystery surrounding this classic. But they are worth watching, if for no other reason than to see the incredible comic genius of Jonathan Winters. A more-controlled version of Robin Williams, Winters could slide in and out of various characterizations during a five-minute interview. Because of his rubbery facial expressions and vocal chameleonics, we feel like we know everything about each of his characters – even if we’ve never seen them before. Comedic masters like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar watch in awe, as Winters entertains audiences at the 1963 Los Angeles premier, during a 1974 talk show with some of the other cast members, and at a 2012 reunion where those still living were treated to the first showing of the newly restored version.
If you’ve never seen It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, you’re in for a treat. Don’t expect anything clever or high-brow. This is as dumb as any old-school big-budget Hollywood release – and more entertaining than almost anything Hollywood has ever churned out – all wrapped up into one giant, excessive, over-the-top romp!