Saturday, January 25, 2014

IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD: Blu-ray (UA 1963) Criterion Home Video

And now for something completely different… Well…alright…not really. Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) may not have invented the all-star travelogue comedy caper but it undeniably remains one of the most potently funny, rambunctious and wild-eyed laugh-fests ever brought to the big screen. And big it is, with a mind-boggling roster of A-list Hollywood alumni – some almost past their prime – each playing their parts to the hilt, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a lavishly appointed compendium of hilarity, wit and slapstick. All of the pieces fit – or rather, each has been conceived as a flawless vignette to showcase the particular strength of the comedy geniuses on display. William Rose’s screenplay could have all too easily devolved into episodic tedium, except that his one premise plot – that of a gaggle of colorful strangers overcome by greed in their mad dash to find $350,000 buried somewhere under a big ‘W’ – serves as particularly ingenious – if utterly threadbare – framework for all the farcical nonsense that follows.
Initially Rose sent director Stanley Kramer a ten page outline entitled ‘Something A Little Less Serious’ about a caper through Scotland. Although the working title mutated into ‘One Damn Thing After Another’ and the locale was ultimately shifted for a trek across California, Kramer paid Rose a whopping $300,000 for his idea. Stanley Kramer may not have seemed a likely candidate to direct this potpourri of comedy. Indeed, he had cut his teeth producing and directing some very weighty melodramas, including On The Beach (1959), Inherit The Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); hardly the required pedigree to launch into his latest project. But Kramer was determined to prove his detractors wrong. Moreover, he implicitly understood that the strength of his movie relied on his ability to assign great comics to the key roles, then kindly step aside and allow them to do their shtick.
From the onset, the project seemed to blossom through word of mouth – one by one, the great comedians of their generation clamoring for a chance to appear in Kramer’s movie; even if only in a cameo (a phrase first coined by Michael Todd in preparing the other great comedy travelogue of its time; Around the World in Eighty Days 1956). Rose happily obliged, his screenplay going through various permutations to accommodate the ever-expanding roster.  It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World derives its title from Thomas Middleton’s 1605 comedy, ‘A Mad World, My Masters’. In shaping his cast, Kramer went after Sid Caesar first; then considered something of a cultural mandarin thanks to his iconic run on TV’s ‘Your Show of Shows (1950-54). In a very short time, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters and Jimmy Durante signed on, Kramer encouraging Edie Adams to partake of his efforts after the untimely death of her husband, Ernie Kovacs in an automobile accident in 1962. Kovacs had been initially considered for the part of Melville Crump (ultimately played by Sid Caesar).
Of the top-billed, Jonathan Winters is arguably the standout; effortlessly mixing pratfalls with scathing verbal jibes, many of them ad-libbed. The other notable exception also proves to be Mad World’s linchpin – Spencer Tracy. Tracy had appeared for Kramer in both Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg, and is still considered one of the finest American actors ever to grace the movie screen. However, his forte was not comedy, despite having appeared to excellent effect opposite Katharine Hepburn in some utterly charming romantic comedies throughout the 1950’s. But Tracy’s air of self-deprecating humor proved both affecting and, in fact, a breath of fresh air, slightly removed from the more hammy machinations of the rest of the cast.
The other ingenious bit of casting is Ethel Merman; then considered one of Broadway’s great ladies, but something of an overpowering presence in motion pictures. Her sporadic movie career had been given a boost in the mid-1950’s at 2oth Century-Fox, most notably in Call Me Madam (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) – the latter, allowing la Merman to reprise that chart-topping Irving Berlin title song she had first made famous on the stage in Annie Get Your Gun.  In It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Merman is given her due, and arguably her comeuppance, as the unscrupulous, power-hungry gargoyle who dominates and berates her weak-kneed son-in-law while barking orders to her placid daughter. It’s a hilarious part, and one that Merman devours with gusto. Not everyone was charmed by her performance, however. Milton Berle, cast as the aforementioned son-in-law, was to harbor an enduring animosity after playing a scene in which Merman stuck him on the head with her purse. The wallop left a sizable welt on the back of Berle’s skull for weeks into the shoot because Merman had neglected to empty her purse of jewelry beforehand. Afterward, Merman would make periodic – if slightly coy - inquiries about the swelling to which Berle cordially replied, “Oh, go to hell!”
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was shot in Ultra Panavision 70, a single strip process inaugurated by the Cinerama Corporation as a replacement for its vastly more cumbersome 3-panel/3-projection setup first debuted in 1952.  The superior clarity of Ultra Panavision 70, coupled with its vast horizontal expanse proved an ideal fit for the cavalcade of talent ready to burst forth from the screen. The list of talent appearing in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is mind-boggling to say the least. Some, like Jimmy Durante and Jerry Lewis only appear for a few moments, their prior cache as comedy superstars carrying more weight than their actual parts. At some level, Kramer is, in fact, pandering to the times; the 60’s ‘bigger is better’ mentality designed to lure audiences back into theaters with a roadshow engagement, herein is given its most garish – if funny bone-tickling – case of elephantitis.
Yet, curiously, the exercise never quite succumbs to idiotic or belabored claptrap. In hindsight, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s might even be coined the cinema’s first – and arguably only - ‘epic’ comedy. Equally fascinating is the seamless blending of the eclectic comedic styling; the visual slapstick of a Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts, or even The Three Stooges effortlessly paired next to the then more contemporary strain of sustained comedy illustrated by Phil Silver, Don Knotts and Jack Benny. It all works to marvelous effect, the thimble-sized plot kicking into high gear just a few moments after Saul Bass’s imaginative animated main title sequence, set to Ernest Gold’s rowdy score, ends.        
We open on a wreck in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, a sequence that must have sent chills down Edie Adam’s spine, given her late husband’s demise. It seems that ‘Smiler’ Grogan (Jimmy Durante) a parolee newly released after serving fifteen years for robbing a tuna factory, has lost control of his car. It plummets off a steep ravine, the accident witnessed by five motorists who stop to survey the damage. Dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters), Dingy Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy (Buddy Hackett) - two friends on their way to Vegas - and milquetoast businessman, J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle) are too late to save Grogan from the great beyond. But just before his passing, Grogan confides in them that he has buried $350,000 from the aforementioned robbery somewhere under a big ‘W’ in Santa Rosita State Park.
Presently, two police detectives (Norman Fell and Nicholas Georgiade) arrive on the scene. Actually, they were tailing Grogan in the hopes he might lead them to the money. Dingy and Melville encourage silence from the rest of the group, the witnesses clumsily dodging the detective’s questions, pretending to know nothing. Afterward, however, they regroup with the rest of their passengers; Melville’s wife, Monica (Edie Adams), and Melville’s wife, Emmeline Marcus-Finch (Dorothy Provine) and mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), who muddles the whole affair by suggesting they divvy up the loot into equal shares. But how equal? Their car contains three passengers. Are they entitled to ‘three’ shares as opposed to, say Lennie, who is traveling alone? Predictably, push leads to shove with an argument that ends in an ‘everybody for his/her self’ scenario that kick starts the movie’s mad dash for the cash.
Meanwhile in Santa Rosa, Police captain T. G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy) is pensively awaiting word of Grogan’s progress. After all, he’s been working the case for fifteen years. Cracking it now means he could retire with honors and quite possibly even the loot. Learning of Grogan’s demise, Culpeper orders his officers to tail the witnesses, telephoning officers outside his jurisdiction (Andy Devine, Stan Freberg) for help and instructing his switchboard operator (ZaSu Pitts) to monitor all incoming calls, including one unrelated hilarious confrontation between Culpeper’s distraught wife, Ginger (Selma Diamond) and their wayward daughter, Billie Sue (Louise Glenn).
Greed clouds everyone’s judgment to their own detriment and multiple setbacks ensue. Melville and Monica charter a rickety biplane from an unlicensed pilot (Ben Blue). The plane lands in Santa Rosita, but short of the expected location with Melville and Monica arriving at a nearby hardware store moments before closing time.  A simple-minded store employee (Doodles Weaver) lets them in to shop for supplies for the excavation. Unfortunately, the store's owner, Mr. Dinkler (Edward Everett Horton) is unaware of their presence and locks Melville and Monica in the basement before going home. Desperate to reach the park before anyone else does, Melville inadvertently wrecks the place with fireworks, blasting a hole through the wall with a few well-placed sticks of dynamite. The pair jump into the back of a cab (driven by Eddie Rochester Anderson) determined to pick up the chase.
In another vignette, Dingy and Benjy convince a very hung-over millionaire, Tyler Fitzgerald (Jim Backus) to shuttle them to Santa Rosita in his twin-engine aircraft. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald hands over the controls in mid-flight to Benjy while he ducks in the back to mix drinks. Benjy’s erratic flying causes Fitzgerald to knock himself out by bumping his head on an overhead rack, the plane successfully crash-landed with an assist from air-traffic controllers (Carl Reiner, Eddie Ryder, Jesse White) and a retired Air Force pilot (Paul Ford). Hiring their own cabbie (Peter Falk), Dingy and Benjy pursue the money while the firemen (The Three Stooges) extinguish the flames from their crash landing.
Meanwhile, Pike smashes his furniture truck into the back of Finch’s car.  Finch persuades the rather simple-minded Pike to ride off for help on a girl's bicycle. Next, Finch, his wife and mother-in-law flag down Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas) and implore him to drive them to the nearest phone booth. At an out of the way service station, Finch tries to bribe its owners (Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan) into renting their tow truck. They decline. Mrs. Marcus throws a temper tantrum. Emmeline sides with her mother and Finch – who has seemingly had quite enough of being henpecked – elects to go off with Hawthorne, leaving them both behind.
Pike makes a flimsy attempt to hitch a ride from passing motorist, Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers). Foolishly, he tells Otto about the money. Ever the opportunist, Otto ditches Pike shortly thereafter. But a blowout forces Otto to make a pit stop at the same service station. An enraged Pike arrives, hell-bent on revenge. Otto escapes his wrath – barely – but Pike steals the tow truck, very reluctantly picking up Mrs. Marcus and Emmeline, who flag him down from the side of the road. Mrs. Marcus has a moment of clarity…well…sort of…and telephones her beach-bum/hot headed son, Sylvester (Dick Shawn) who lives in Santa Rosita, explaining to him about the loot. However, instead of going in search of the money, Sylvester abandons his slinky girlfriend (Barrie Chase) to rescue his mother. Meanwhile, having experienced his own car troubles, Otto hails a nervous motorist (Don Knotts) and steals his car.
All of this makes for some heady surveillance by the police, Culpeper biding his time, but becoming increasingly bitter after he learns just how measly his pension will be. What was it all for, and how can he get his cut of the Grogan loot? Time to find out as the various conspirators arrive at Santa Rosita’s State Park to begin their frantic search for the big ‘W’.  Culpeper observes the chaos from a distance, ordering his officers to stand down while he casually confronts Emmeline. She has inadvertently figured out that four swaying palms form the letter ‘W’ and has decided to keep the money for herself so that she can retire to a convent. Offering to split the cash with Culpeper if he will help her dig for it, their brief interlude is interrupted by Pike and the others who have also come to the same conclusion about this naturally formed ‘X’ marks the spot. The excavation begins with frenetic energy, the brood’s elation in discovering the satchel containing the money diffused when Culpeper identifies himself as an officer of the law and suggests the stolen cash must be returned to its rightful claimant – the tuna factory.
Instead, Culpeper makes a dash for a nearby waiting cab intent on keeping the money for himself. Realizing they have been hornswoggled, the irate group now makes chase after Culpeper. Unable to reach Culpeper by radio, Police Chief Aloysius (William Demarest) swears out a warrant for his arrest. Everyone congregates at an abandoned building; Culpeper narrowly escaping Melville, Dingy and the others by attempting to climb down an unsafe fire escape. Despite warnings from a union official (Joe E. Brown), a rickety fire ladder is raised up to bring everyone down. However, the ladder’s hydraulic system malfunctions, sending Melville, Dingy, Pike, Culpeper, Benji, Otto and Finch sailing through the air in various directions, the stolen money dispersed to the hysterical crowd gathered below.
A short while later we find all of the aforementioned schemers immobilized in their respective bandages and body casts inside a ward at the prison hospital – each blaming the rest for his predicament. Culpeper attempts to make light of the situation and Benjy tosses a peel from his banana on the floor moments before Emmeline, Monica and Mrs. Marcus arrive for their monthly visit. After launching into one of her predictable tirades, Mrs. Marcus slips on the banana peel and is carried off by orderlies on a gurney; the men bursting into fits of hysterical laughter in unison.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World won’t win any awards for high art, but it remains a boisterous nut bar of fanciful farce. The sheer magnitude of talent on display sets the film apart from almost anything seen before or since. Size alone isn’t always a signifier of quality. But It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World illustrates that both scope and significance are possible when all the variables are in play. William and Tania Rose’s screenplay was reportedly the size of a modest telephone directory; one half containing only the set-up and dialogue in each situation, the other half illustrating a detailed account of the death-defying stunt work to coincide.
For years after the picture’s release comedian Don Rickles would single Stanley Kramer out during his Vegas nightclub act to inquire why he didn’t make the cut to appear in the movie. He might have first considered neither did Red Skelton, Bob Hope or Lucille Ball; all avid artisans of the wry jest. We’re also missing Groucho Marx, Bud Abbott (Lou Costello died in 1959), and Stan Laurel (Oliver Hardy died in 1959).  Oh well, we can’t have everyone. Without outstaying its welcome, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World delivers the goods on a truly epic scale: a rollicking ride that builds upon its high-octane laughing gas; it most definitely will not put anyone to sleep!   
When It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had its world premiere it ran 192 minutes. Gradually, and at the behest of theater exhibitors (who always want to cram the most possible screenings per day to maximize their profits) the movie’s length was pared down to 154 minutes. In the interim it was rumored that most, if not all of the excised footage had been rather unceremoniously thrown away. However, as the years passed, pieces of the original 70mm negative began to resurface; a scene here, a sound byte there. In the late 1980’s Criterion issued a 182 min. laserdisc reconstruction of the movie that contained much – if not all - of the lost footage. Later, MGM Home Video would offer us 174 minutes of restored video.  Now, comes Criterion’s ‘new’ newly restored Blu-ray at 3 hr. 17 min. However, while this version does come closest to the complete roadshow engagement, there are a few caveats to consider.   
First, while many of the scenes run longer none of the inclusions appear to serve a purpose. Kramer’s cuts to his masterpiece were arguably initiated with the understanding that what he was leaving on the cutting room floor in no way impacted the overall arch of sheer joy or even the continuity of his screen spectacular.  Second, the reinstated ‘lost’ footage has not been sufficiently cleaned up. Criterion has a five minute featurette to explain why the absent scenes look so much worse for the wear, but what it really boils down to is ‘time’ and ‘money’; neither having been spent to sufficiently color correct and clean up the ravages of time itself. There are instances of both missing footage and soundtrack to contend with – still images supplementing for the former. But let’s be honest; the digital tools at a restoration expert’s disposal today can fix just about anything if ample funds and a fair allotment of hours are afforded to complete the task.
Happily, Criterion has restored the police ‘radio calls’ that came during It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s intermission. These were included on their laserdisc, but remained absent from virtually all subsequent home video releases until now. They’re a treat to listen to. Criterion’s jam-packed gift set gives us the theatrical and extended cuts in hi-def on two separate discs. There are also DVD’s included herein for those who still haven’t come around to watching their movie art in hi-def. What are you waiting for?!?!
Apart from the aforementioned anomalies inherent in the reinstated footage on the extended cut, image quality is quite exemplary throughout; the Ultra Panavision 2.76:1 aspect ratio perfectly preserved.  I suspect that the theatrical cut is a simple port over from MGM’s previously issued single Blu-ray. Doing a direct comparison of Criterion’s theatrical cut and MGM’s aforementioned release shows virtually identical image quality with robust colors that pop off the screen. The level of fine details exhibited throughout is reference quality phenomenal.  Criterion’s theatrical cut gets 19 chapters while the extended version clocks in at 21.  The biggest improvement herein is in the DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix – a complete re-envisioning of the old MGM Blu-ray with far more aggressive spatiality. Your surround channels are in for a workout, as SFX and Ernest Gold’s score explode in all directions. Dialogue is also directionalized. When characters move within the frame their voices follow the action. Really good stuff!!!
Extras are another big plus for this Criterion reissue. We get promotional spots, TV ads and several trailers – all of them in HD.  We also have nearly an hour long, two-part CBC documentary that covers the press tour and Hollywood premiere, hosted by Fletcher Harkle. Thirty-five minutes of rare interviews conducted with the stars in 1963 follows, as does a half hour of Stanley Kramer’s reunion show, made in 1974. The extended cut of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World gets a thorough audio commentary from aficionados Paul Scrabo, Mark Evanier and Michael Schlesinger. This is a fascinating listen and one surely to be treasured by fans of the movie for years to come. There’s also a few sound bytes from AFI’s televised special, 100 Years…100 Laughs. I’ll just go on record as saying I am opposed to truncated inclusions like this.  Universal did a similar thing with their Hitchcock box set, giving us only Hitchcock’s acceptance speech from the AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award television special. Just show us the whole damn show, why don’t you?!?
But I digress. Criterion’s extras continue to lavish with a nearly forty minute 2012 tribute hosted by Billy Crystal, plus another forty minutes dedicated to the movie’s visual effects, with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt delving deeply into the ‘how’d they do that?’ lore of the movie. A very brief ‘restoration video essay dedicated to restoration expert, Robert Harris’ considerable commitments to see the roadshow of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World resurrected from oblivion, and, an eighteen page booklet featuring insights from New York Post’s Lou Lumenick round out this deluxe packaging; truly a keeper among favorites on everyone’s top shelf of beloved movie memories.
My one regret is that Criterion did not port over the fantastic documentary ‘And Now For Something Less Serious’ featured on MGM’s DVD and Blu-ray releases. This documentary included a wealth of interviews featuring surviving cast members now sadly dead and gone. So don’t junk your old MGM release just yet.  Bottom line: If It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World remains the last word in high-spirited screwball comedy, then Criterion’s all-inclusive deluxe Blu-ray reissue is the only way to experience this classic in hi-def. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Theatrical Cut 4.5
Roadshow Version 3.5

1 comment:

David M. said...

Stanley Kramer was an unlikely director for this movie, but he made a comedy for the ages. I think it's his greatest achievement, and wouldn't it be ironic if his least "serious" film turns out to be his most profound?