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‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ — mission accomplished at TCM Film Festival

My shot of a poster for "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in the Cinerama Dome lobby, April 28, 2013.

My shot of a poster for “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in the Cinerama Dome lobby, April 28, 2013.

(Reveal Shot‘s review of the 2013 TCM Film Festival continues with Day 4)

Whatever doubts I might have had about going to the festival this year were dissolved when I saw that “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” would be screened in a 50th anniversary, 70MM presentation at the Cinerama Dome, where it premiered on Nov. 7, 1963. If I could see it, the trip would be a success.

Like many others over 30, I fell in love with “Mad Mad World” during its marathon appearances on “The ABC Sunday Night Movie” in the ’70s, long before I could identify many of the actors on its gigantic cast list.

I bought it on VHS around 1992, and then on DVD. Fortuitously, as with “The Great Escape,” I hadn’t seen the whole thing for a while, trying to save it for a special occasion.

On Sunday, April 28, the final morning of the festival, I was tempted to see the restoration of “Badlands” (1973) at Grauman’s Chinese, but decided that to see “Mad Mad World” the way I had dreamed of for decades, I needed to be in line at the Dome by 10, even for a 12:15 screening, as there would surely be a full house. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, members of the press did not get reserved seating.

After a while, Marvin Kaplan‘s limo arrived, and the bespectacled actor was helped into a wheelchair, wearing a plaid flat cap. About 10 minutes later, Mickey Rooney showed up, also in a chair, in far better shape than I had expected.

The Dome — built for the premiere of “Mad Mad World” 50 years ago –  has an odd circular interior. Some of the best seats are on an aisle in the center of the theater, and those were largely taken by the “Spotlight/VIP” passholders by the time my tier came in. Still, I managed to get a very good spot not many seats to the right, in a row near the middle.

There was then a fun interview with Kaplan, Rooney, Barrie Chase and Karen Sharpe Kramer, Stanley’s widow. Jonathan Winters was slated to appear, but died last month at the age of 87. Carl Reiner was also scheduled, but wasn’t feeling well and canceled just before the festival.

Marvin Kaplan on stage at "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" screening at the Cinerama Dome. (Photo Credit: Edward M. Pio Roda/TCM)

Marvin Kaplan on stage at “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” screening at the Cinerama Dome. (Photo Credit: Edward M. Pio Roda/TCM)

Kaplan’s recollections were the most vivid, and got big laughs from the Dome audience. He explained that when Stanley Kramer told him that the character of Irwin, one of two gas station attendants, would get hit with tires, thrown through walls and experience other mayhem, he was worried. Then Kramer revealed that the work would be handled by stuntmen, and that Arnold Stang had agreed to play the part of the other attendant.  Kaplan said he felt it would probably be all right if Stang, “one of the biggest cowards” in show business at the time, was willing to participate.

However, Jonathan Winters threw a wrench into the works when he wanted to do a lot of the stunts himself, Kaplan said. “And it was very difficult to find a stunt double for Arnold Stang, because Arnold was very short and very thin,” the actor explained. They did find a double, but he was very muscular about the shoulders, so Stang had to be padded so that he could look like the stuntman.

“Arnold and I hoped Jonathan would get hurt,” Kaplan recalled. “Not badly hurt, just a little bit hurt.”

But Winters and Kaplan developed a great friendship on the set. The two men shared a trailer, when Kramer and the crew discovered that Kaplan could keep the zany ex-Marine under some kind of control. “I would say, ‘Who do you want to be today, Jonathan?’ Sometimes he would be a bear … another time he was the Great Indian Chief, and  he loved the white man.”

Rooney also said he recalled the filming of “Mad Mad World” with fondness, pointing out the “kindness” shown by Milton Berle and Jack Benny, among others. “There’s someone else I think we’re forgetting — Spencer Tracy,” the 92-year-old former child star pointed out.

Karen Sharpe Kramer repeated the story of Stanley Kramer’s fateful dinner with Bosley Crowther, the New York Times film critic, that led to the movie. Crowther told Kramer that as much as he and his colleagues admired the filmmaker, they had reached a consensus that he could “never, ever do a comedy.”

“Well, all you had to do is tell Stanley he couldn’t do something,” Karen Sharpe Kramer said. “He said ‘Oh, yeah?’ ”

She said the film, which premiered just two weeks before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, had much to do with the nation’s healing process over the course of its two-year initial run.

Barrie Chase seemed to have pleasant memories of doing her scenes with Dick Shawn, but when asked how much the movie did for her career, she admitted: “Not a whole lot.” For some reason my eyes were drawn to Karen Sharpe Kramer, who reacted with a polite shrug, as if to say “well, that’s showbiz,  folks.”

Soon it was time for the roadshow presentation to begin. After a brief tribute to Winters, the curtains closed, opened and closed again, and the first strains of the Overture began. Composer Ernest Gold‘s Overture, omitted on the last DVD version of the movie (though it is on the 2011 Blu-ray), is a vocal version of the main waltz theme.

The Cinerama Dome during the screening of "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963) in 70MM. (Photo Credit: TCM)

The Cinerama Dome during the screening of “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) in 70MM. (Photo Credit: Edward M. Pio Roda/TCM)

I was very impressed by the 70MM print of “Mad Mad World.” The film’s epic car chases, flying scenes and desert vistas just looked stunning on the Dome’s vast curved screen. Director of photography Ernest Laszlo certainly deserved his Academy Award nomination.

The movie also played much funnier with an audience. I’ve always found “Mad Mad World” amusing, but as enjoyable as it has been, I think I most liked it as a spectacle — so many big stars and stunts. This time, though, I had several belly laughs for the first time in years.

Winters’ best lines as Lennie Pike, the furniture delivery man, really resonated, especially his putdowns of the obnoxious Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman). When the group is first considering a reasonable split of the money 1 buried by Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), and the talks break down, Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett) sums up the hatred most of the characters already have for “the old bag,” but it’s Pike who gets in the topper:

Ding Bell (Rooney): So good luck, and may the best man win!
Benjamin: Except you, lady [to Mrs. Marcus]! May you drop dead!
Pike: All right, all right, we all agree on that …

Pike’s demolition of the garage still holds up as a masterpiece, and his relentless pursuit of the chisler who abandons him on the highway (Phil Silvers) is consistently funny, to the final reel.

Jim Backus is a riot as Marvin Acme, the rich drunk who agrees to fly Ding Bell and Benjy Benjamin to Santa Rosita. He says to Ding: “Well stop kidding, will ya, and make us some drinks! You just press the button back there marked ‘booze’! It’s the only way to fly!” His emphatic reading of the word “booze” brought guffaws from the audience.

I also had a renewed appreciation of the scenes at the police station, with Capt. Culpepper (Tracy), one of his trusted sergeants (Alan Carney) and the underrated Madlyn Rhue as Schwartz (I hadn’t remembered that Kramer gives her a sexy scene near the beginning of the picture, following her as she walks away from the camera while Tracy admires the view).

Carney has a funny scene when the police learn that Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams) are locked in the basement of a hardware store. Culpepper considers breaking them out so they can continue to pursue the money. “We can’t help them. That wouldn’t be fair,” Carney’s sergeant says. “After all, if you help them, you have to help the others. They got themselves locked in, let them get themselves out.”  Culpepper orders his men to observe, but to do no more.

Other acting kudos must go to Milton Berle, Terry-Thomas, and Silvers, but there are just too many to mention.

The intermission was presented as closely to the original roadshow as anyone is likely to encounter 50 years later. The police calls following the progress of the main characters were played and repeated at least twice.2

I should note here, for anyone familiar with the endless history of “Mad Mad World’s” various running times, that, in addition to the overture and the police calls, this print included the entr’acte and exit music. TCM listed the total running time at 192 minutes, which would be the version seen at the premiere, after Kramer cut it from 210 minutes. If anyone has further information about this print, feel free to comment below.

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From Jet magazine, June 27, 1963 (Photo credit: Jet/Johnson Publishing Co.)

The famous climax, in which the principal male comedians are hurled off of a careening ladder, retained most of its charm, even with rear projection and the obvious use of dummies to stand in for the flying bodies. Surprisingly, there seemed to be relatively few big laughs among the Dome gathering during the scene. Maybe the movie’s length had lulled some people into casual bemusement by that point.

Before the festival, I couldn’t help wondering how a modern crowd would react to the shot in which Eddie “Rochester” Anderson is catapulted into the lap of a statue of Abraham Lincoln. I did see one woman in the row ahead of me cover her face with her hands, but of course I couldn’t say for sure precisely why. I didn’t hear any gasps or verbal reactions.

My pre-festival research led me to a photo in the June 27, 1963 issue of Jet magazine that shows the scene being filmed.  Jet apparently saw nothing questionable about the gag. The caption merely says: “A long-legged leap into the arms of an Abraham Lincoln statue by Eddie (Rochester) Anderson awes onlookers during the filming of one of the scenes for the amusing new movie ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.’ Rochester plays a taxi driver in soon-to-be-released film.” 3

Certainly Stanley Kramer deserves more than a bit of leeway for producing and/or directing films that intelligently examined race in America, such as “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “Pressure Point” (1962) and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” (1967).  In that light, the Rochester-Abe Lincoln moment just seems, from this distance, like a strange lapse of judgment.4

In any case, I still love “Mad Mad World.” Seeing it at the Cinerama Dome in 70MM was one of the greatest experiences of my moviegoing life.

– David B. Wilkerson

 

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  1. One of my friends says he can’t watch “Mad Mad World” anymore because it just seems so ridiculous that “all of those fools would be chasing after $350k.” Well, $350,000 in 1963 was equivalent to spending power of $2.66 million in 2013, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator. When the first eight-way split is contemplated, each share would have worked out to about $43,750 — equal to $332,804 this year. So all the craziness isn’t without some justification. Even later, when the split would have swelled to 15 ways, the Madcaps would have been taking home $23,333, or $177,493. And as Melville Crump points out, that would be tax-free.  
  2. My high school journalism teacher recalls that when the roadshow played in Detroit, Milton Berle was in the lobby, talking to theater patrons and signing autographs during the intermission.  
  3. There is one other difficult racial moment in “Mad Mad World.” Black comedian Nick Stewart, best known as Lightnin’ in the TV version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” has a scene in which he and his wife, in an old truck, are driven off the road during one of the madcap chase sequences. This is certainly fair game within the context of the film; Stewart delivers his one line without using an exaggerated dialect (“I said it before and I’ll say it again. I never wanted to move to California.”). What pushed the scene into stereotype territory, at least for me, was Ernest Gold’s choice to score it with a sped-up arrangement of “Swanee River,” complete with banjo. The audience reaction seemed muted.  
  4. One of the themes I’ll explore at Reveal Shot is how to accept the many rewards of older films while also dealing with cringeworthy messages or attitudes, even in one or two scenes. Otherwise enjoyable films have been ruined for me by such interludes, while I can overlook them in other cases. It’s a quandary, for sure. I welcome the chance to have a dialogue with readers about it.  

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