An insistently zany relic of Hollywood’s bigger-longer-louder transitional era, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World tried to be “the ultimate comedy” by turning the cobwebbed slapstick-chase scenario into three hours of all-star, blunt-force bedlam. Made by producer-director Stanley Kramer, and shot in the mega-widescreen format Ultra Panavision 70, at its worst it bears the self-conscious mark of a filmmaker who’d never done light entertainment before (Kramer’s initial title for the project was Something a Little Less Serious ). The end result seems more like a recreation of the D-Day invasion than a tribute to the legacy of American film comedy, notwithstanding cameo appearances by everyone from Jerry Lewis to the Three Stooges, and the efforts of a cast heavy on erstwhile TV stars (Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers), often given gratingly narrow business to perform (Broadway battleship Ethel Merman sings not a note, but shouts nearly nonstop as a mother-in-law joke come numbingly to life). When shown footage of the ace work done by stunt supervisor Carey Loftin and crew before principal photography began, one of the actors presciently asked, “What do you need us for?”
And yet, despite the overall excess, about half of the film does work, mostly when the comics are permitted to bring some nuance or eccentricity to the dialogue scenes between the bouts of vehicular mayhem (both automotive and aerial) as a dozen characters race 200 miles across the California desert after witnessing the death of a hood (Jimmy Durante) who wills them $350,000 buried in a coastal park. Two funnymen who had negligible film careers, Jonathan Winters and Buddy Hackett, stand out regularly in scenes with as many as 10 actors crowding into the frame. The rubber-faced Hackett, paired with Mickey Rooney as nitwits who charter the plane of a dead-drunk pilot and buzz the airport for hours when he passes out, slays with punchlines as simple as “He thought this fella was his aunt,” or just by grinning beatifically in a moment of confidence at the cockpit wheel.
Winters, as a childlike trucker whose bare-handed leveling of a gas station is justly celebrated as the film’s most epic set piece, is equally memorable furiously riding a child’s bicycle down a solitary roadway, or objecting to his fellow greedheads’ plans not to “declare”: “Even businessmen, who rob and cheat and steal from people every day—even they have to pay taxes!” And Caesar, playing some subtle chords of frustration as well as engaging in full-blown mugging familiar from his ’50s work as king of the live-TV sketch, scores as a counterproductively rational dentist who persists in devising formulas for splitting the money fairly. (As his wife, Edie Adams gets scant opportunity to show her chops as a first-rate comedian; like Dorothy Provine as Berle’s disapproving young spouse, she’s mostly a bystander.)
Presumably meant to anchor the silliness in William and Tania Rose’s script is a police captain monitoring the frenetic dash from his headquarters, played by a frail-looking Spencer Tracy in his next-to-last film. For the first two acts, it’s a pedestrian part dominated by sitcom-style family squabbles conducted on the phone, but once Tracy swoops in to deceive the treasure hunters, the film kicks into a high-gear climax that features some of its most spectacular stunts and effects, with the loot-lusting clowns bouncing off utility wires and being flung from a fire ladder through windows and into fountains. (And in the best of the cameos, Buster Keaton scoots about precisely as he did in 1923.)
Doubtlessly, Kramer felt justified when his expensive comedy of overkill made a tidy profit at the global box office, but in the long run its influence on baby-boom filmmakers like John Landis and Ivan Reitman, who turned effects-driven blockbuster comedy into an increasingly dehumanized genre, feels pernicious. The film spins into some merriment via big-budget elbow grease, but its “classic” status is nostalgic hype that’s properly reserved for the graceful, less mechanical art fashioned by Keaton, Tracy, Caesar, and others in their heyday.
Whatever the hit-and-miss merits of Stanley Kramer’s gargantuan farce, this edition’s 4K digital transfer is a thing of beauty. Made from the original 65mm camera negative, it’s as close to flawless as any Criterion restoration I’ve seen, in terms of color richness and detail and clarity of image. (The 2.76:1 aspect ratio will also awaken viewers in this critic’s age cohort to the fact that viewing the film on 1970s network TV meant seeing less than half the picture.) The remastering of the six-track soundtrack is also excellent, showcasing Ernest Gold’s whimsical orchestral score (performed by the 110-piece Los Angeles Philharmonic) and every screech and crash of the Oscar-winning sound effects.
The primary supplement takes up most of a second Blu-ray disc: a reconstruction by the accomplished Robert A. Harris of the original "roadshow" (big-city premiere) edition of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, here running 197 minutes with overture, entr’acte, and exit music. While a complete restoration of this cut is impossible due to missing elements, about 20 minutes of recovered footage has been inserted, which is instantly recognizable as not up to the pristine state of the general release’s visuals. Furthermore, most of the post-premiere edits appear to have been at the beginnings and ends of scenes, or of redundant story beats like police surveillance of the fortune hunters; the shorter version in this set is the better one. Scenes where only audio survives are accompanied by production stills, one of which, unhappily, is a phone call between Spencer Tracy’s Captain Culpepper and Buster Keaton in the truncated role of Jimmy the Crook.
A feature-length commentary on the roadshow edition has "aficionados" Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo passionately spouting a book’s worth of production history and trivia. They’re particularly good at pointing out Milton Berle’s tactics of lingering in shots or looking at the camera as he attempts to upstage the rest of the cast, as well as identifying gaffes that you don’t have to look up on IMDb. Stanley Kramer’s penchant for long master takes is repeatedly observed, and the trio lauds his close relationship with Tracy, whom the director cast in four films although the actor was medically uninsurable. They’re also spot-on in naming Sid Caesar as the Wile E. Coyote of the piece, though the Simpsons parody of the film goes curiously unmentioned.
The archival supplements include radio and TV spots designed by the satirist and advertising maverick Stan Freberg (the latter of which feature the film’s actors, yet again getting whacked by Ethel Merman’s handbag), along with a teaser and trailers for both the 1963 debut and a 1970 re-release. A two-part Canadian TV documentary chronicles the movie’s media junket and Los Angeles premiere, with Jonathan Winters commandeering the press plane’s PA ("We’ll be landing in Manitoba for about 20 minutes"), exchanging verbal bouquets with Berle on a limo ride, and doing improv with Dick Shawn at a party. (For his part, Caesar looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.) The opening night at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard is a vérité treat, from the ubiquity of a persistent British starlet to the guarded demeanor of Kramer, who’s jokingly told by composer Ernest Gold, "The music was loud, that’s the important thing." A pre-premiere interview with the director and six of the stars has Kramer offering that "comedy is a grim business," while Berle and Mickey Rooney philosophize about the "honest" underpinnings of playing for laughs. A 1974 TV segment has Kramer reminiscing about the six-month shoot with Caesar, Winters, and Buddy Hackett, notable for Hackett’s impressions of Peter Falk and Winters, and everyone’s hideous leisure wear.
The film’s special effects are analyzed by visual-effects specialist Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt in a stellar featurette. The climactic fire-ladder sequence, a mix of matte paintings, miniatures, animation, and back-lot stunt work, is especially well documented by 16mm home-movie footage. A brief demonstration of the restoration techniques shows how the long-junked "trims" of the 70mm roadshow version were salvaged and upgraded. In a retrospective vein, a 2000 American Film Institute special has Berle describing how Merman sent him to the hospital, and comedian Alan King identifying the film as the quintessence of "loud" comedy. A 2012 pre-screening reunion of cast and crew members is emceed by Billy Crystal, and once again Winters (in one of his last public appearances) steals the show, spinning an improvised bit on narrowly losing the starring role in High Noon. The package is rounded out by a booklet including an appreciation by critic Lou Lumenick, new caricatures by original poster artist Jack Davis, and a map of the shooting locations from Long Beach to Palm Springs. Any It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World cultist who isn’t satisfied with this bounty should, in the words of Hackett’s Benjy Benjamin, just drop dead.
For a three-hour, epoch-ending epic made by a comedy neophyte, this film yields a treasure of showbiz lore on a par with the loot buried under the Big W.