The Great Race

As part of TCM’s Summer Under The Stars event taking place all throughout August, this Wednesday August 22nd salutes an entire day, with a collection of 11 of films, devoted to Jack Lemmon.  To promote this mega cinematic event on Turner Classic Movies this month, Jill of Sitting On a Back Yard Fence and Michael of Scribe Hard are hosting the #SUTS Blogathon which can be followed on either of their sites or via twitter @TCMsutsBlog. I happily join the blogging fun by discussing my love for a madcap comedy favorite, Blake Edwards’ THE GREAT RACE (1965). You can join the fun at 2:45pm EDT.

This hilarious slapstick spectacular truly has it all~ comedy, romance, adventure, music, gorgeous costumes, classic ‘motor cars’, magnificent saloon brawl, a grand scale pie fight, swashbuckling fencing and a truly stellar cast. Tony Curtis stars as our dashing hero always dressed impeccably in all-white, The Great Leslie. Natalie Wood plays the beautiful and feisty suffragette, Maggie Dubois. Jack Lemmon steals the show as the dastardly villain, Professor Fate. Peter Falk plays Professor Fate’s ever-loyal and dutiful side-kick Max Meen. Sporting a handle-bar mustache,  Keenan Wynn portrays The Great Leslie’s faithful companion and mechanic, Hezekiah Sturdy. Many wonderful supporting cast continues the list like Arthur O’Connell, Vivian Vance, Dorothy Provine, Larry Storch, Ross Martin, George Macready, Marvin Kaplan, Hal Smith and Denver Pyle. 

Director Blake Edwards sets the tone, even before our story begins with an illustrated turn-of-the-century ‘magic lamp’ slide projection of credits that introduces our main characters. This comes complete with audible cheers for our hero, jeers for our villain and wolf howls for our femme fatale. Another Edwards touch is placed right at the start with his dedication “For Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy”, as this film was his homage via slapstick and style to the greats of silent film. 

Our story begins as we see ladies helplessly swoon over the Great Leslie, the professional daredevil and consummate gentleman. As he confidently masters daring feats of bravery with ease, arch-rival Professor Fate and Max unsuccessfully and comically attempt to make their own record-breaking daring feats. Always decked in black, our villainous duo obsessively make repeated attempts to sabotage and thwart any of Leslie’s successes. Then, Leslie presents the ultimate daring challenge to a motor car company, an westward route automobile race from New York to Paris. As Leslie, Fate and others prepare for this enormous challenge, an unforeseen contender enters the scene. Maggie Dubois forcefully utilizes her feminine charms her way into the role of the new and only female reporter for the The New York Sentinel. She makes it known to her fellow racers and her new employer that she’s entered the race for the dual purpose of covering the story with a truly first-hand perspective but also intends to win the race to prove the emancipation of the female sex. There are many funny and running gags throughout so be sure to look for them… like the shimmering occasional glints coming from Leslie’s eyes and smile or the moose head in Fate’s dark, eery mansion (if you look closely you’ll see the rest of the moose on the other side of the wall.)

The race begins and takes us into multiple cities, cross-country and cross-continent paced in a heavily competitive adventure. As they each try to stay ahead in the race, they occasionally meet hilarious challenges both on and off the road. This leads to everything from an Old West mega bar brawl to a polar bear encounter on a floating ice block to bare-chested saber fighting to pie fights and even imprisonment. One item I failed to mention earlier (SPOILER ALERT!), Lemmon actually plays another role- one he fails to get properly credited for… Prince Hapnick. This additional role is hysterical and displays more of Lemmon’s extraordinary acting gifts. These dual role scenes of Fate and Hapnick are Edwards’ salute to The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). Throughout, Maggie Dubois struggles to assert her female independence while reporting the race updates via pigeon carrier. As you might expect of any classic romantic comedy, the feisty and beautiful Dubois and our debonair Leslie fall for each other despite themselves. 

This was a highly anticipated reunion of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis after the popular SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959). While the two met earlier in 1951, they became close friends when Lemmon was working with Curtis’s wife Janet Leigh in MY SISTER EILEEN (1955). Natalie Wood met Jack Lemmon at the 1956 Oscars’ ceremony. Both were nominated and Lemmon won that year! He was nominated and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Ensign Pulver in MISTER ROBERTS (1955). Wood was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her legendary role in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). After the L.A. screening of THE GREAT RACE, Natalie Wood said of her co-star’s brilliant performance: “He can do mad slapstick comedy and is an incredibly funny guy off-screen too. But he can also certainly do drama, and that showcases what a wonderfully amazing actor he is, so versatile.” As a matter of fact, when Natalie was pregnant with her first child Natasha in 1970, Jack Lemmon was with her when she fell into labor and he was the one who drove her to the hospital! Lemmon also became fast friends with Peter Falk as a result of this film. Lemmon, Curtis and Falk all loved playing pool so much that they arranged for a pool table on the set to play in between filming. Falk was known as the best player amongst them. Peter Falk stated THE GREAT RACE as his personal favorite film of his entire career.

For me, there are many highlights I adore about this film. Jack Lemmon’s brilliant performance is foremost. His maniacal laughter and expressive responses crack me up every single time I’ve seen this. The multitude of costumes are visually stunning, especially for Natalie Wood’s Miss Dubois which were mostly in a flattering pink and absolutely gorgeous. The song, “The Sweetheart Tree” is a real lark because while it’s a lovely song that holds it’s own it also comes with a bouncing ball lyrics scroll along the bottom of the screen. I can’t help but enjoy the famous pie fight. It’s actually a record-holder as the largest pie fight in film history. They used 2,357 REAL pies of fruit, custard and whipped cream variety. In the midst of the pie-throwing chaos Lemmon’s Prince Hapnick shouts, “more brandy!” with his face covered in brandy-flavored pie and he gets smacked in the face with yet another. He then tastes the new pie smatterings from his face and announces: “Rum! I never mix my pies.” The best bit here is that while pies are constantly flying all over the room, Leslie stays untouched in his all-white outfit.  

Warner Brothers spent a whopping 12 million dollars to make this film- an investment that paid off. This film received five Oscar nominations including Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Music Song (“The Sweetheart Tree“) and won in the category of Best Sound Effects. If you’re a Jack Lemmon fan and have somehow missed this gem, this is a MUST SEE. It’s also a great one to enjoy with the entire family. If you can’t play hooky to see this technicolor treat, by all means- DVR it! And for you ‘cool kids’ out there, there’s an actual GREAT RACE ‘drinking game’ I’ve discovered. (Non-alcoholic beverages work too). I’m happy to provide the details~ just let me know! Now…Ready, Set… “Push the button, MAX!!”


13 thoughts on “The Great Race

  1. Loved your write up of this film. Obviously a real favorite of yours! I'm usually one not to miss anything with Natalie Wood in it, but sadly it appears I didn't record this today :/Another time, I guess…so many films, so little time šŸ™‚


  2. Shauna, I was watching this with Duncan yesterday- his 1st time. He kept giggling and mentioned a couple of times how funny it was (and he's such a tough critic so it's rare for him to praise anything unless he REALLY means it.) Made me smile to convert another Great Race fan!


  3. Thanks so much for reading my review and commenting! I'm glad to hear your kids loved it too. I know I've loved it since a kid too- what a fun film to share as a family tradition! Thanks again!!


  4. So much to love about this movie. All the principals seem like they’re having the time of their lives and they’ve brought us along for the ride (no pun intended). Sad thinking that Curtis, Lemmon, and Wood are no longer with us. Such great talents; they are missed.


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