Growing up as a kid, classic comedies were a shaping influence in my life. My earliest memories of classic film derives from the comedies I watched with my family. I recall my grandmother and my uncle Patrick introducing me to comedy classics like Marx Brothers films, the Pink Panther films, Blake Edwards’ THE GREAT RACE (1965), George Cukor’s THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) and countless screwball comedies. And whenever life hits those bumps in the road, I’ve always sought comfort in a small handful of films guaranteed to cheer me up so I can escape into laughter. One of my favorites on this list of chuckle-inspiring classics is Stanley Kramer’s IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963).
It seems fitting to write about this hilarious classic at this particular time to honor the recent passing of IAMMMMW co-star Jonathan Winters. It’s also timely with this past year’s (also in April 2013) Turner Classic Movie Film Festival’s debut screening of IAMMMMW for its 50th anniversary celebration, at Pacific Theater’s famed Cinerama Dome. Fifty years ago the Cinerama Dome, the world’s only concrete geodesic domed structure, kicked off their grand opening with this film’s premiere as the world’s first new 70mm single strip projected on the Cinerama curved screen, to mimic the effect of the three-strip Cinerama processed movie.
IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) is a fast-paced, action-packed race brimming with cameos of laughter legends and a large cast of comedy greats. This cinematic roller-coaster ride of an adventure starts with a speeding car recklessly careening in between cars down the twists and turns of a California highway. [By the way, you may likely experience SPOILERS along this bumpy ride, so buckle up buttercup!] Soon, this car loses control and goes flying off the road, crashing into the rocky desert canyon below. Witnesses of nearby drivers immediately pull over and rush to the wreck below.
Legend Jimmy Durante plays the role of Smiler Grogan, the man who has been thrown from the car. The immediate ensemble of drivers that rush to aid crash-victim Grogan are: J Russell Finch (Milton Berle), Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney), Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett) and Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters). Grogan proceeds to share his deepest secret in his last dying words- there are “350 G’s buried under a big W in Santa Rosita park.” He says that he earned every penny but it’s there for the taking. Norman Fell portrays the police detective who arrives immediately on the scene after Grogan literally ‘kicks the bucket.’
The group of witnesses reveals nothing to the detective of the confessed crime of buried loot moments prior. Instead, they get back into their cars and head back on the road, but shortly pull over to discuss this incredible discovery. Sid Caesar’s Crump is joined by wife Monica (Edie Adams) in their vehicle. Rooney’s Bell is riding along with Hackett’s Benjamin. Berle’s Finch has the hilarious misfortune of being joined by his wife Emeline Marcus-Finch (Dorothy Provine) and his bossy and ‘in your face’ mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman) in their vehicle. [You might recognize Provine as the entertaining ‘native of Burracho’ singer Lily Olay in THE GREAT RACE (1965).] And delivery driver Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters) rides solo in his truck. Even though no one can figure out what or where exactly this ‘big W’ is, and after several arguments of how best to divvy up the treasure; they soon realize that the best approach is not to share it at all. It’s every man and woman for themselves. They dash to their vehicles, speeding away and the madcap race begins.
Meanwhile back at the police station in Santa Rosita, Capt. Culpepper (portrayed by Spencer Tracy) is convinced that these drivers, who were spotted roadside by officers conversing together, know more about the missing stolen money than they led on. He instructs patrol officers to keep tabs on the group, but at a safe distance, in hopes they’ll lead them to the secretly stashed treasure. He confers with Police Chief Aloysius (William Demarest) that all his troubles will come to an end if he could only close this case after all these years and take his impending retirement with pride and a proper pension. We soon discover that his constantly critical wife Ginger (voiced by Selma Diamond) and needy daughter Billie Sue (voiced by Louise Glenn) are the true sources of all his unhappy troubles.
In desperation, each of the vehicles attempts the quickest routes to Santa Rosita before any of the other drivers beat them to the chase. The Crumps charter an ancient broken-down biplane. The Finch trio are accidentally rear-ended by Pike’s truck so they separate and deceptively leave Pike behind with no transportation other than a kids’ bike. The Finches are soon picked up by “Colonel” J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas). Pike shares his fascinating story and a promised portion of the findings to passerby Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers) in exchange for a ride to Santa Rosita. But Meyer immediately tricks Pike and leaves him and his damaged little girly bike behind on the deserted road. Like karma-come-calling, Meyer soon gets a flat tire and drives to a brand-new garage station down the roadway to repair and gas up. By now, Pike is completely fueled by rage as he awkwardly rides up to the garage station and proceeds to attack Meyer. In the chaos of the moment, Meyer convinces the garage attendants (Ray- Arnold Stang, Irwin- Marvin Kaplan) that Pike is actually a homicidal maniac escaped from an asylum and they should subdue him until police arrive. Meyer escapes. Pike then breaks free but then completely annihilates the brand-new garage station in a hilarious fight scene between Winters, Kaplan and Strang.
Meanwhile, The Finch foursome abruptly take a change of course when mom-in-law Mrs. Marcus attempts to call on her son and beach bum Sylvester (Dick Shawn) to help them out since he lives so close to their destination. And the duo of Benjamin and Bell (Hackett and Rooney) do their best to waken an excessively hungover pilot Tyler Fitzgerald (perfectly portrayed by Jim Backus) at another local airport to hasten their pace in this race. After copious coffees and showering, they coerce Fitzgerald to fly them to Santa Rosita. Unfortunately, pilot Fitzgerald wasn’t quite done with his bender so he asks Benjamin to hold on to the wheel while he pours himself an old-fashioned. As fate would have it, the pilot is knocked out cold when the plane takes a sudden dive with the inexperienced Benjy at the yoke of the cockpit. Now they’re forced to engage in a chaotic frenzy to land the plane themselves at Rancho Conejo, with the assistance of the tower traffic control team (Eddie Ryder, Jesse White, Paul Ford and Carl Reiner).
While the Crumps barely made their landing, they stop by Dinckler’s hardware store to get digging tools. But as luck would have it, Mr. Dinckler (Edward Everett Horton) accidentally locks them in the basement. A series of crazy misfortunes ensue as they attempt to escape from their capture with everything from a forklift to dynamite to fireworks. The Finches splinter off after Russell and Colonel Hawthorne go off on their own in disagreement regarding the merits of pursuing Sylvester. Emeline Finch and mom-in-law rejoin with Pike, despite the abuse he endures from Mrs. Marcus. Sylvester doesn’t pay attention to his mother’s directions so he hectically drives to meet them- in the opposite direction, instead. After explosions, near-death amateur plane landings, car wrecks and fighting, all the various treasure-seekers along with Capt. Culpepper not far behind finally head towards the park in Santa Rosita.
WHEW! Are you staying with me so far?! Each sub-group appears at the Santa Rosita state park- some arrive in taxis driven by cabbies Peter Falk and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson who catch on that there’s something fishy going on. At first, each frantic treasure hunter runs around the park with picks and shovels in hand and no clue to the whereabouts of the ‘big W’ (although the audience has discovered by now). Emeline Finch wants no part of this from the very beginning as she sees this as an unethical pursuit, so she stays behind by the water fountain to cool herself when she looks up and makes the startling discovery of the big W. Capt. Culpepper is close by when he observes her response. Without revealing his identity, Culpepper approaches and she blurts out her amazing discovery, revealing a change of heart that perhaps she could enjoy the riches after all; to seek a life of solitude as an escape from her family. Meanwhile, everyone else has agreed it’s silly not to come together as a group, just as Pike makes the discovery of the ‘BIG W’!
Culpepper is on hand to finally introduce himself in timely fashion as the entire group huddles over the buried treasure, after taking turns in digging. Culpepper then tells the lot that perhaps the courts would look upon them more favorably if they turned themselves in, instead of the police bringing them in. He takes the money and gets in his car. But as the group senses something is odd with Culpepper’s handling of the situation, they cumulatively pull over in the taxis (not allowed to take any other cars because they were all illegally gained) to discuss. They decide to follow Culpepper who turns out is not heading back to the police station at all. They continue pursuit as Culpepper rapidly heads south towards Mexico to escape with all the money for himself. By now, the other police have caught on to Culpepper’s deception. The Chief of Police Aloysius attempts to talk Culpepper out of his newly found criminal ways via the car radio, by stating he’s been in conversation with the mayor to discuss his pension. But it’s too late for Culpepper to turn back now. He’s gone too far into the madness of this mad, mad, mad, mad world.
The chase wraps up in a crazy madcap scene, in the backdrop of a condemned multi-story building ready for demolition. In the final scene, classic comedic justice is served up. We see all the men in a prison hospital ward in rows of beds as they’re moaning and complaining from multiple injuries and broken bones in full body casts- each casting blame for their sad predicament. Culpepper admits his guilt with a heavy heart, feeling sorry for himself. The women, in prison gowns, march in to give the men a verbal thrashing. Just as mom-in-law Marcus leads the charge, she slips on a banana peel on the floor and falls in a classic comedy pratt fall- the uproarious laughter results. All the men are laughing so hard they’re swinging in their elevated slings and body casts.
In addition to this AMAZING cast, this film is peppered with recognizable character actors and cameos from some of the best comedy stars ever assembled in a single movie. Here is a LOOOONG list of the cast:
Spencer Tracy – Capt. TG Culpepper
Milton Berle – J Russell Finch
Sid Caesar – Melville Crump
Buddy Hackett – Benjy Benjamin
Ethel Merman – Mrs. Marcus
Mickey Rooney – Ding Bell
Dick Shawn – Sylvester Marcus
Phil Silvers – Otto Meyer
Terry-Thomas – J Algernon Hawthorne
Jonathan Winters – Lennie Pike
Edie Adams – Monica Crump
Dorothy Provine – Emeline Marcus-Finch
Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson – 2nd cab driver
Jim Backus – Tyler Fitzgerald
Ben Blue – biplane pilot
Joe E Brown – union official
Alan Carney – police sergeant
Chick Chandler – detective outside Chinese laundromat
Barrie Chase – Sylvester’s girlfriend
Lloyd Corrigan – the mayor
William Demarest – Police Chief Aloysius
Andy Devine – Sheriff of Crocket County
Selma Diamond – Ginger Culpepper (voice)
Peter Falk – 3rd cab driver
Norman Fell – detective at Grogan’s crash site
Paul Ford – Col. Wilberforce
Stan Freberg – Deputy Sheriff
Louise Glenn – Billie Sue Culpepper (voice)
Leo Gorcey – 1st cab driver
Sterling Holloway – Fire Chief
Marvin Kaplan – Irwin
Edward Everett Horton – Mr. Dinckler
Buster Keaton – Jimmy, the crook
Don Knotts – nervous motorist
Charles Lane – airport manager
Mike Mazurki – miner
Charles McGraw – Lt. Matthews
Cliff Norton – reporter
Zazu Pitts – Gertie, switchboard operator
Carl Reiner – tower controller at Rancho Conejo
Madlyn Rhue – sect. Schwartz
Roy Roberts – policeman outside Irwin & Ray’s Garage
Arnold Stang – Ray
Nick Stewart – migrant truck driver
The Three Stooges (Joe DeRita, Larry Fine, Moe Howard) – firemen
Sammee Tong – Chinese laundryman
Jesse White – radio tower operator at Rancho Conejo
Jimmy Durante – Smiler Grogan
Jack Benny – man in car, in desert
Wally Brown – policeman
Stanley Clements – detective in squad room
Allen Jenkins – cop
Robert Karnes – Officer Simmy
Tom Kennedy – traffic cop
Harry Lauter – police dispatcher
Bobo Lewis – pilot’s wife
Jerry Lewis – driver (who runs over Culpepper’s hat)
Eddie Ryder – air traffic control tower staffer
Doodles Weaver – hardware store clerk
See what I mean? As long as this film’s list of hilarious characters’ is, the actual running time of this film depends upon which version you’ve experienced. The original cut was 210 minutes long. Then Stanley Kramer edited the premiere cut to 192 minutes long. But due to it’s overwhelming popularity during it’s 70mm roadshow to squeeze in an extra daily showtime, United Artists (without any direction from Kramer) cut it down to 161 minutes. But more than likely, you’ve seen the 35mm general release which has a running time of 154 minutes (minus overture and exit music.) Various attempts have been made over the years to restore missing content from the original 70mm and theatrical release formats to its original version. Most recently, Criterion has announced the release of a special edition 5 disc Blu-ray/DVD with restored audio and visual road-show elements from acclaimed film preservationist Robert A. Harris for January 21st, 2014! (Adding this to my holiday wish list… http://www.criterion.com/films/28579-it-s-a-mad-mad-mad-mad-world )
Stanley Kramer’s original intent was to assemble as many comedy greats as possible- for a round-up tribute of the who’s who in legendary comedy. Stanley Laurel was invited but declined because he kept true to his promise to never appear in film again after the death of his beloved partner, Oliver Hardy’s death in 1957. Some declined outright like Bob Hope, George Burns, Red Skelton, and Judy Holliday (Holliday declined due to poor health.) And some felt offended that they were not invited at all, like Don Rickles; who openly ribbed Kramer as a result, whenever he attended one of his shows.
Filming such action-packed, physical scenes took a toll on the cast. Phil Silvers was injured twice during the gas station scene by Jonathan Winters. He also claimed near-drowning during the scene of the car in the river (he couldn’t swim.) Arnold Stang suffered a broken arm right before shooting the gas station destruction scenes so they made special accommodations with his wardrobe to disguise his sling. Milton Berle claimed he suffered bruising for months after being on the opposite end of Ethel Merman’s handbag in a scene. (Interestingly, Milton Berle plays Ethel Merman’s son-in-law, yet in real life was only 6 months younger in age.) Spencer Tracy was already in poor health by filming (emphysema and diabetes) so Kramer ensured he only worked a total of nine days, at only a few hours a day, and with no scenes shot in the extreme dry heat of the desert. Stunt doubles were used whenever necessary.
Personally, my favorite performances come from Ethel Merman, Dick Shawn and Jim Backus. Such hilarious characters! Ethel Merman’s role was originally supposed to be a father-in-law portrayed by none other than Groucho Marx. As much as I would have loved seeing Groucho in this film, Merman’s brazen performances and funny lines really drive this story. Shawn’s screen presence of over-the-top craziness is solid entertainment. And Jim Backus is perfectly suited as the marathon-drinking pilot. He delivers one of my favorite lines during a flying scene as pilot Fitzgerald- in a way that only Jim Backus can deliver, as he tells Benjy to take over as substitute flyboy and as he mixes himself a drink:
Benjy Benjamin: “What if something happens?’
Tyler Fitzgerald: “What could happen to an Old Fashioned?!”
This overly long and mad, mad, mad, mad perspective is my contribution to the CMBA Passion 101 Blogathon. Be sure to enjoy all of the other CMBA bloggers’ contributions, because they are likely talented beyond compare. This is also my personal homage to my family members who lovingly introduced me IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) and all the classic comedians that this film features, which led to my life-long love of classic comedies. They also taught me life’s greatest lesson: no matter how maddening life’s challenges become, it can be overcome with the gift of laughter.
29 thoughts on “CMBA Film Passion Blogathon: IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD”
I have such wonderful memories of this film, too – mainly of how much my mother enjoyed it. She was particularly tickled by Dick Shawn and Ethel Merman and she talked about them for weeks! Simply a joyous film – thanks for sharing the memories and a great post.
Wonderful tribute to this film, Kellee! Major kudos for relaying its story so interestingly and succinctly. I'm in awe. I'd have put people to sleep! What a cast! It's like the film that keeps on giving with so many greats to concentrate on. Great choice and memories!!
Boy, you really like this movie don't you? I totally agree about Merman. The movie is full of comedy greats who really know their stuff, but for me she's the whole shebang. I think there was a rule about 60s comedies that you had to cast Dorothy Provine – and does that ever make my husband happy.
Like you, I have always found escape from hard times in life by looking at a favorite movie. It's like comfort food without the calories! I saw 'Mad World' way back during its original Broadway run in Cinerama. I was a kid and went with my parents. I have only seen the film that one time and remember liking it, but to be honest would have to take another look at it to comment. That said, you did a fantastic job of summarizing a very convoluted storyline. Enjoyed!
Thanks for reminding me why this is one of my favorites, too. Nicely done.
I remember this film had quite a run at The Dome here in L.A. It was one of the films my family talked about going to see during that time in the 60s. A real fun film. Wonderful tribute, Kellee.
I too was introduced to this comedy classic as a kid. What a romp! Loved your breakdowns and screencaps of the assorted combination of characters. Any scene with mama and Sylvester is the best part of the movie! Absolutely agree that Merman is the highlight. 🙂
The original cut was 210 minutes?! Is that a record for a comedy?
Ah, such a great cast in this movie. Really, it was a coup for the filmmakers to get all these folks.
Like you, I love Ethel Merman in this film. She is SO FUNNY. Also, she looks fabulous in every scene, something I didn't expect when I first saw this movie.
Thanks for a fun review!
I remember seeing a trailer for MMMM when it was in release and how wild and crazy – and appealing – it seemed to me (and the gang of kids I was with at a Saturday matinee). But I didn't see MMMM till years later on TV. Talk about a manic fun ride – which your post mirrors perfectly. Ethel Mermen is a real stand-out, which is saying a lot considering the co-stars she was onscreen with.
I had no idea Groucho was slated for the Merman role. That would have been awesome!
Dick Shawn's wild behavior has me doubled over laughing every time.
Thanks for sharing.
When I was a kid, I had to watch this movie every year…so much so my parents just got sick of it.
I'm not as devoted to it as I once was…but if you think I won't buy the Criterion version when it's out in January, think again. Great write-up!
Thanks for reading and sharing your feedback! Joyous is right. It's fun how much a single film can evoke so many memories. 🙂
Thanks Aurora! I was trying to reflect the chaotic frenzy of this film and still include all the fun details of the plot. Stellar cast, eh?! Thanks for reading & commenting, sweetie!
Ha Ha- yeah I guess it's a bit obvious I really like this film. But then again, that's me all over- never subtle – just like this film. I bet your hubby loved Provine's role in THE GREAT RACE, eh? Thanks for stopping by my blog, sweetie!
Movies are the ultimate escape, aren't they? And comedies are the BEST way to do it if you ask me. That's cool you got to see it back then in that format. SO happy you enjoyed my breakdown of this film~ thank you!! Sounds like it's time for you to see it again! 🙂
I’m quite pleased with the intrimafoon in this one. TY!
Thanks, David! Much appreciated!
Thanks so much, Michael! How fun to be in LA during that time. Thanks for stopping by my blog, friend. 🙂
“Mamaaaa!” and “Sylvesterrr!”… what a riot these 2 were, eh?! Ethel Merman was a powerhouse of a character in this flick, wasn't she? Those 2 always keep me in stitches.
Merman was in GOOD shape, wasn't she? In addition to needing such an over-the-top personality, this was a pretty physical role and I can't imagine anyone else but Merman playing this role. Thanks for swinging by, gal!
Thanks, sweetie! I'm glad you enjoyed this wild and crazy thrill ride. And a helluva cast too. Glad you appreciate Merman and this romp as much as me!
Thanks Java! With performance like that from Dick Shawn, I keep imagining what a hilarious BLAST it must have been to be on the set during this filming. Can you imagine?! I'd have a hard time keeping the laughter in check.
Despite the overkill for you Ivan, I'm glad to hear you still appreciate it enough to purchase the new Criterion release next month. It should be part of any classic film fan's collection, right? Thanks for reading and commenting, Ivan! 🙂
As you mention here, the film certainly was fast paced which it perfectly. I would hate to have thought of one second of the hilarity being left on the cutting room floor.
Thanks for taking us on one hell of a fun ride with your look back at IAMMW.
It certainly is a wild, wacky comedy, but that has always been part of its charm. Dick Shawn was never one of my favorite comedians, but I agree that he's very funny in IT'S a MAD…. By the way, I saw it for the first time during one of the return roadshow engagements, probably some time in the 1970s. I'm not sure how long that version of it was.
Thanks so much, Page! Glad you enjoyed my thrill ride reflecting IAMMMMW! I'm really looking forward to seeing all the clips I have never seen come to life via this new edition 5-disc set. wheeeee!!
Rick~ Oh that's cool that you got to see it in one of the roadshow engagements. Thanks for reading my post and commenting!