It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

*. Is there any point calling a movie like this out for bloat? I mean, that’s the joke isn’t it? It’s there right in the mad, mad, mad, mad title (for which Stanley Kramer initially wanted another “mad”). Adjective overkill. Ha-ha.
*. Next question: do bloat and comedy ever go together? How many “big” comedies have there been? There’s something about trying too hard that undercuts comedy, at least in my opinion. Of course there is a style of loud comedy that plays as broad farce, but in this movie we’re talking about something different. It’s a movie that right from its conception was all about doing more, and more isn’t funny.
*. To take just the most obvious example of more, the Criterion DVD release of this title includes a cobbled-together 197-minute extended version of the film. Even if you found it hilarious, could you really enjoy a three-hour-and-seventeen-minute comedy? Everything has its limits.

*. You’ll have guessed I’m not a fan of the movie. I sat through both versions and I was there for a long time, not a good time. Just as everything else about it is inflated — the bombastic, Oscar-nominated title song, the “all-star” cast, the super-wide screen, the trashing of entire buildings — so was much of the critical praise directed at it. Sure it’s big, but is it a classic? A classic what?
*. I think the gigantism works against it almost every step of the way. It feels laboured as well as loud. Many of the stars were actually television veterans (10 of the 12 principals, according to the commentary) and they look out of place in a 70 mm landscape. Meanwhile, the very few moments that registered with me were the quiet or silent ones. I love the smoothly developing cynicism of the group when you see them deciding to go for it over Jimmy Durante’s body. Or the way you can hear their eyes rolling when Jonathan Winters’s Lennie keeps going on about having to pay taxes.
*. I’m not even sure the whole idea of just having a bunch of stars doing cameos has a point. The cameos are unnecessary and rarely funny. It’s fun to pick their faces out of the crowd but that’s it. I defy anyone to explain what’s funny about the appearances by Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, and the Three Stooges here. They just show their faces and that’s it.

*. These were talented comedians, but what’s funny about the script? There are only a few lines that raise a smile. Many of the gags are old, and even get repeated within the film (the map in the face while driving comes back with the bug in the cockpit of the plane).
*. The chase comedy wasn’t new. The screenwriters, William and Tania Rose, had even done one themselves with Genevieve. Still, I think this is the movie that defined the genre, both for its size and its profitability. But I don’t see how this is to its credit.

*. Here is Lou Lumenick in his Criterion essay: “Mad World has provided the template for countless other chase comedies in the decades since its release, among them Ken Annakin’s Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (1981), Richard Fleischer’s Million Dollar Mystery (1987), and Jerry Zucker’s Rat Race (2001).” Yikes. What kind of legacy is that? And he even leaves Scavenger Hunt off his list.

*. I think a lot of people like this movie for sentimental reasons. They enjoy seeing all the old familiar faces and pristine places. I can’t believe how fresh and clean Los Angeles looks. But it’s a curiously downbeat film in terms of its moral universe. These are people driven by greed, for the most part behaving very badly if not downright cruelly to each other. Even the cop, saintly Spencer Tracy, is corrupt. There’s an attempt made to leave us laughing but it’s forced. The men anyway have been left crippled and in Tracy’s case ruined. But they can still laugh at the old banana-peel gag.
*. I do think it looks good, and I think I might enjoy it more on the big screen. The stunts are impressive and the process shots match up really well. It got Academy Award nominations for editing, sound, and photography and on these counts I wouldn’t slight it. But a great movie? A funny movie? I’d stick with just calling it big.

11 thoughts on “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      That’s the big production number. I like how he seems like a giant angry baby as he tears everything apart. But there’s also a plane flying through a billboard which is pretty darn impressive. You don’t remember that?

  1. Brian Hannan

    It may be the difference between seeing it on the big screen and on television. I saw this in 70mm Cinerama at the Bradford Widescreen Festival a couple of years back and anticipated a dull three-hours-plus with old comedians who should have been put out to grass. I was laughing my head off in minutes.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Sometimes too you’re just in the mood for a good laugh. I’ve rolled on the floor in tears laughing at movies that, on a bad day, I wouldn’t have smiled at. But I’ll bet the big screen did help!

      1. Brian Hannan

        Noticed odd thing in Hatchet Job where you quoted from book that 1960s critics seemed less fearless than presented at the time. “Back in the sixties, high-profile critics feared for their jobs and beat themselves up in public for the crime of reviewing a movie they had watched from start to finish but perhaps misjudged in their haste to file copy.” But critics then were mega-powerful. I doubt any feared for their jobs although a couple were sacked for brutal critiques of Sound of Music and Bosley Crowther lost his NYT job for complaining about the violence in Bonnie and Clyde. Only a critic would think of defending some of the awful critics of the 60s who were more interested in writing snappy lines than reviewing movies.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I think he was just probably getting at the idea that critics (and what they said) mattered more back in the ’60s, which is almost certainly true. Whereas today it doesn’t matter much what any of us say so we don’t have to beat ourselves up for getting things wrong. Same with bad critics and snappy lines, which was definitely a problem back then, but likely a bigger problem now in the rush to be timely and get clicks with zingers and hot takes. At least I think that’s what he’d say.

      3. Brian Hannan

        You’re right. I read this out of context. It would be interesting to know if the public takes any notice of Rotten Tomatoes scores and what impact CinemaScore has on attendance.

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