Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Big W

It may not be the greatest comedy of all time, but “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) may be one of the most fun, thanks to the hammy cast. A great cast it is, too, full of wonderful movie, radio and TV veterans who somehow were crammed into one film. Plus, how can you dislike a movie where Milton Berle continually gets bashed with Ethel Merman’s handbag?

And who better to steal the opening scene than Jimmy Durante? Here’s a full version of a column that appeared in papers of July 1962, a full year before the film was released, about his role in the epic comic adventure. The photo is courtesy of NEA and was sent to paper with the column.

Film Has Slapstick . . . With Message Yet?

Hollywood Correspondent
Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

PALM SPRINGS, Calif., July 7 (NEA) It was as gooey and as slick as the custard in one of Mack Sennett's old throwing pies. It was slapstick but it had, substance — there was a message under the meringue.
Stanley Kramer of Movie Messages Unlimited was delivering it under the title, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." With a $6 million budget and a 133-day shooting schedule he had Mads to spare.
With the message came a pie in the face with a banana peel on the sidewalk. With the largest cast of comedians ever assembled in a film, it was greed — with laughs.
Greed consumes the good, the decent and the noble but it is funny, funny, funny, funny.
It was also "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" with laughs — with Sid Caesar turning a hardware store into a shambles, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett beserk in an airplane, Jimmy Durante as a bank robber, Ethel Merman as Milton Berle's heckling mother-in-law.
The cast sounded like a meeting of the Screen Actors Guild.
There was Spencer Tracy as a police captain plus all the others — Jonathan Winters. Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Jim Backus, Peter Falk, Paul Ford, Barbara Keller, Arnold Stang, Alan Carney.
Kramer's films (Judgment at Nuremberg, The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, etc.) had delivered more messages than Western Union but this time he had promised "Something a little less serious."
The greed message would be abridged, on a slapstick, in a mad, hilarious chase for buried treasure. Audiences could laugh all the way to the fadeout as the funny men of movies and television became engaged to calamity and then wed to disaster.
As Kramer directed early scenes here for the film with Caesar, Berle, Merman, Rooney, Hackett, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine and Winters, the stars became more and more aware of another message.
It was the message that Kramer is an uncompromising perfectionist.
After a long Saturday of rehearsing and filming parts of a scene involving, all of them 115-degree temperature on a desert highway, he announced to his film editor:
"Don't print anything we shot today. We'll start fresh, from the top, Monday morning." It was throwing $20,000 (the daily cost) to the desert winds but he said the words with cool patience.
It was a long scene with complicated, argumentative dialog about how the $350,000 treasure, if found, would be split between them. In a way, it sounded like a meeting of Mickey Rooney's creditors, with confused Mickey telling Sid Caesar at one point:
"Sure, I know, you'd rather have one fourth than two-eighths."
Between rehearsals. Buddy Hackett chuckled to us: "I'm going to hire Mickey as my accountant."
For eight hours in the heat they rehearsed, became confused, became unconfused and blew their lines. But all the sweat left nothing on film as Kramer blew the whistle.
Jimmy Durante finally landed in front of a camera for that actor's delight — a big emotional death scene. It wasn't "Camille" but it was true to the code of Laugh Week. Jimmy had the last laugh even after his last breath.
He kicked the bucket both emotionally and literally.
Five top comedians, what's more, had to stand by, frozen-faced and without a line of dialog, while The Nose and the bucket shared the camera lens.
Casting Jimmy as Smiler Grogan, a bank robber whose death in an auto-gone-over-a-cliff triggers a mad rush to find $350,000 in buried cash, was offbeat enough for "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
But Jimmy kicking that rusty old bucket as his leg stiffens in death was an obstreperous clue to the reason for all the "Mad's" in the title of Stanley Kramer's $6 million comedy.
It was funny, funny, funny, funny.
The bucket as kicked by Jimmy in the William and Tania Rose script started clanking down the rocky mountainside with the camera following it all the way. Down and down and around it went, prodded now and then by special effects in some outlandish gyrations.
Jimmy even had time to get up from his "death bed," dust himself off and watch the old bucket clatter until it was out of sight.
"Now dere," said Jimmy, "is a death scene.'
The witnesses to his death and the bucket caper were Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney and Jonathan Winters. But they didn't laugh, anv of them, until Jimmy grinned:
"Yes, sir, how about dat. Who needs one of them method dramamine coaches."
How Jimmy's speeding automobile landed him in its twisted wreckage as a highway statistic for the film was something new for the screen, too. There was a day when a movie stunt man would have been lined to drive a car at top speed, then leap from the wheel at the cliff's edge like Jimmy Dean did in that game of "chicken."
But the guided missile age, has come to movie cars-over-the-cliff, too. The spectacular crash, at 60 miles an hour, was radio-controlled with a dummy at the wheel and a camera in the car's back seat. The camera w«s encased in a shatterproof sphere, like those installed in airplanes for after-crash instrument readings.
Four other cameras at various angles caught the car's plunge off the highway for what will be the opening scene in the film. No penny saver, producer-director Kramer filmed the sequence four times with four autos purchased at a used car lot.
The radio-electronic system worked so well that only one of the cars missed its "landing" mark, end then by only a few feet from a starting line 550 yards from the cliff's edge.
It's a short, short, short, short World, too: Contact lenses come as sun glasses, you know, and Edie Adams was wearing green ones for her hours in the sun on location here . . .
Irving Berlin paged Ethel Merman for his new Broadway musical, "Mr. President," but at the time she was planning a European tour in "Gypsy." "So," says Ethel, a bit sadly, "he rewrote the show and then my tour was canceled."


  1. I connect MMMMW in tone with movie made 15 years later, Steven Spielberg's "1941". In both cases you had directors who had gained fame from doing dramatic movies on the epic or semi-epic scale trying to do comedy ... on the epic or semi-epic scale. Both movies have their moments, but both are trying so danged hard to be funny that they get exhausting (I suppose the only similar situation that could happen today, director-wise, would be if James Cameron announced his next movie would be a comedy that cost $200 million to produce).

  2. I remember this being one of my all time favorite films and one where I couldn't stop laughing when I saw it twice. I gotta see it again thanks to your article to see if it still holds up for me. I remember also really really laughing hard at Laurel and Hardy's "Sons of the Desert."

  3. I'm glad you also didn't mind my latest "experiment" into Facebook. The page is gone now and I was really reluctant to do it from the getgo, but I'm think I'm better off just remaining a commentator on various animation blogs. I'll keep the Twitter page though. My insecurities and other character flaws just get magnified when I try out social networking stuff like Facebook.

  4. You're right it's not the most hilarious comedy of all time but it's what I think of as the epitome of an 'Epic' comedy.
    And for people like me and other Tralfaz followers, the mammoth cast is an asset all it's own.

  5. There are some dead spots, Robto., but you can't keep going full blast during a whole feature. Sorry you're not on FB but you have to go where you feel comfortable. I've learned quite a bit there from animation groups.
    The less said about animation forums on the web today, the better.

    1. Being able to draw cartoons myself is far more rewarding and fun for me and also being able to discover great hidden gems from the past simultaneously. As long as blogs like this continue to exist, I'll be a very happy camper.

      It's a fresh of breath air from all the bitterness and misanthropic attitudes that I keep seeing elsewhere in the animation community for various reasons. I don't wanna get caught up in thinking negatively all the time. It just isn't healthy or productive and does nothing but divide people up into camps.