I love introducing people to classic film, particularly younger people. Hook ’em young, I always say. Okay, so I don’t always say that. But I should. And so it’s now my new motto.
Getting back to the point …
Last night, I introduced Jamie, my friend Michelle’s seventeen-year-old son, to the uber-hilarious 1963 farce, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Now, I’ve had my experiences with introducing non-classic fans to some of my favorite older movies. Some of these attempts have been successful, and some of them have been less so–for example, attempting to get Michelle, who loved The Tudors with a passion, to sit through the amazingly awesome 1968 classic The Lion in Winter was like trying to get Mike Tyson to control his anger without anti-psychotic medication. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when Jamie and I sat down in front of the television and fired up the DVR.
The result was rewarding and highly amusing–watching Jamie roll around in the recliner, holding his sides from laughing so hard, made me laugh even harder (and louder) than normal. Which, unfortunately, resulted in waking up the other two members of the household, who were taking naps at the time. But that’s the price you pay when a movie is as riotously funny as this one.
At three-plus hours long, Mad definitely requires an investment of your time, but it’s well worth it. The movie begins with a car weaving in and out of traffic on a California highway; it eventually flies off a cliff and crashes, sending the driver, a crook named “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante), through the windshield. He is found by five passengers of the cars he has just passed: Russell (Milton Berle), who is traveling with his wife (Dorothy Provine) and annoying mother-in-law (Ethel Merman); Melville (Sid Caesar), a dentist traveling with his wife (Edie Adams–side note: Caesar’s part was originally meant for Ernie Kovacs, Adams’ husband, who sadly died in an automobile accident before the movie could be made); Lennie, a truck driver (Jonathan Winters); and comedy writers Dingy and Benjy (Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett), who are traveling together. As Smiler dies, he tells the men that he buried $350,000 “under a big W” in the state park about two hundred miles away. When the men depart, following one another down the highway, all of them begin to suspect the others of trying to go for the loot. But after trying–and failing–to negotiate a fair split of the money, it becomes an every-man-for-himself race to the finish line, and the competitors use anything and everything in their arsenals to get ahead, with increasingly frenetic results.
The movie is directed by Stanley Kramer, who up to this point in his career was mainly known for directing a string of heavily dramatic films: The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). And Mad remained an anomaly on Kramer’s resume–he did not direct another outright comedy in his career. But he demonstrates a deft hand with juggling the numerous stories and characters in this movie (a technique he would reprise somewhat in his next film, 1965’s Ship of Fools).
Mad is a true ensemble piece, with some of the most notable names in comedy in the leading roles and even more of them appearing in small cameos throughout the movie. Almost everyone who was anyone in comedy in the early 1960s is in this film, from Berle to Hackett to Winters (in his first film role) to an as-far-away-from-Andy-Hardy-as-you-can-get Rooney. And the movie pays particular homage to some of the forebears of this younger comedy crop: Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, Jack Benny, and Durante, among many others, show up in the damnedest places throughout the story.
And as the straight man, we have Spencer Tracy, whose brand of sly, bantering humor doesn’t sparkle as much without an equally sly sparring partner (such as his longtime paramour, Katharine Hepburn). Tracy was in his twilight years while making this film, and reportedly so ill that he only worked a few hours every day and was largely shot via close-up to disguise the extent of his deterioration, which was ultimately due, in large part, to his alcoholism, a not-so-well-kept secret in Hollywood (in fact, Tracy would only make one film after Mad, the 1967 interracial marriage drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, incidentally also directed by Kramer). Nevertheless, despite his shortened hours on the set, Tracy was the star around whom all of the comedians gravitated; reportedly, every single one would go out of his way to try to impress Tracy with a gag or a well-timed one-liner, and according to Kramer, Tracy admired each and every one of them in return.
Every type of humor you can imagine is on display in this film: madcap screwball hi-jinks (including my favorite part: Jonathan Winters destroying a garage practically with his bare hands); painful physical comedy (watch Sid Caesar’s expression after he’s thrown from an unstable firetruck ladder); bitingly sarcastic retorts; quick-witted comebacks; and broad, flailing, “look at me!” grabs for attention. There’s even the old slipping-on-the-banana-peel gag. All that’s missing from this film are a couple of pies in the face! Whatever your brand of humor, you’ll find something that tickles your funny bone in this movie.
For me, the real joy in watching this film is to see all of these wonderful funnymen at their frantic best, years before appearing in the roles with which I identified them when I was younger. I mean, when I was growing up, Sid Caesar was the coach from the musical Grease. Mickey Rooney was old Lampie in Pete’s Dragon and Henry in The Black Stallion. Milton Berle was Mad Man Mooney from The Muppet Movie. Jonathan Winters was Mearth on Mork & Mindy. Buddy Hackett was Tennessee in The Love Bug and the unmistakable voice of Scuttle the seagull in The Little Mermaid. The alcoholic pilot (Jim Backus) was the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. The list goes on and on! So not only do I laugh my fool head off while watching this film, it’s an exercise in nostalgia, recalling those great childhood television and movie memories and really making me appreciate this talented cast anew.
You can find Mad on Amazon for a pretty decent price right now; it will also be airing again on TCM on September 4th at 4:45PM EST, so be sure to set aside a few hours to enjoy it.
Aside: The Simpsons (one of my very favorite shows of all time) features an hysterical homage to Mad in the fifth-season episode “Homer the Vigilante.” For some reason, I can’t get the Hulu clip to post properly (even with Vodpod … grrr), so just click on the photo above to watch, and enjoy all of the references to the original film (note the W palm trees to the left of the big T!).