Movie Reviews 448 – It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

Movies that feature a true ‘all star’ cast are nothing new, but when it comes to unadulterated comedies, the pickings are pretty slim. Ironically one of the best is also one of the earliest, featuring a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood and television talent at the time. Not only does It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World have a legendary leading cast, but it has a script that is just as inspiring.

It all begins on a desolate desert highway with a speeding car weaving through the few vehicles and then plunging down an embankment and crashing among the rocks below. The vehicles stop and the occupants descend to find a dying old man (“The Schnoz” himself, Jimmy Durante) who tells them of a fortune, the spoils of robbery fifteen years prior, hidden below a “Big W” in a seaside park in a town called Santa Rosita some 200 miles away. Before the authorities arrive the man kicks the proverbial bucket (literally and figuratively) leaving the witnesses to question what they heard. Fearing that telling the cops will needlessly detain them for further questioning, they reluctantly agree to withhold the part of the money when questioned by detectives who soon arrive on the scene.

But no sooner are they back on the road that they start jockeying for the lead, evidently all having bought into the dying man’s tale. After a quick stop to discuss the matter in the hopes that an amicable agreement can be made regarding distribution of the money should they find it, the groups soon split up, opting for a ‘winner takes all’ approach. Thus begins a greed fueled, no holds barred, multi-state chase on land, air and unintentionally in a river.

The initial crazed group of participants are as varied as can be. Two young men, Benji (Buddy Hackett) and Ding (Mickey Rooney) heading out to Vegas for some fun. The Crumps, Melville (Sid Caesar) and Monica (Edie Adams) as a couple on their second honeymoon. Lennie (Jonathan Winters), a lone truck driver hauling furniture and finally Russel (Milton Berle) and Emeline (Dorothy Provine) Finch seeking some rest after his recent breakdown but inexplicably hauling his ever yapping, loudmouth mother-in-law (Ethel Merman).

Unbeknownst to this medley of money mad moochers is the fact that they have been under the constant watchful eye of the authorities under the guidance of the Captain T.G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy) who was the detective on the case at the outset, and now looking for redemption. Adamant that the treasure remained hidden in his town of Santa Rosita all these years and now hoping to retire with the closure to the case as the final feather in his cap, his plans crumble before his very eyes as he faces one crisis after another.

They don’t make them like this anymore. While some slapstick certainly comes into play this comedy relies on insane characters at their worst, betraying one another, creating new allegiances as they cross paths and getting into the craziest of situations. To sweeten the pot the film has an ever growing list of other equally absurd characters joining them in swelling ranks for the mystical treasure. We get to enjoy gap toothed Terry-Thomas, Phil Silvers of Sgt. Bilko fame, Gilligan’s Island millionaire Jim Backus, and with a memorable dance scene that puts Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to shame, Dick Shawn as a hyperactive beatnik beach bum and his silent cohort dancer Barrie Chase.

If that weren’t enough there are brief cameos from a number of other legendary comic stars including Norman Fell, Columbo’s Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, Jack Benny, Don Knotts, Buster Keaton (sadly in a ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ moment), to name just a few, and most fittingly The Three Stooges in one of their last appearances. There are plenty of other recognizable faces (and voices such as Selma Diamond’s if you listen carefully) and spotting them all is part of the fun.

There is no shortage of favorite scenes and this film replete with explosions, stunt driving, and more crashes than a demolition derby. All two hours and forty minutes (not including the audio intermission) is capped by one of the most jaw dropping finales where the entire cast are finally reunited at their target only to have one more surprise in store for them.

The poster artwork by famed MAD magazine artist Jack Davis is not an exaggeration of the frenzy in this film and fittingly MAD counter parodied with a pocket sized paperback edition appropriately titled It’s a World, World, World, World MAD.

Frustratingly, my MGM DVD menu teased special features on the reverse of the disc but it was a single sided DVD (legitimate!) and the box makes no mention of additional features. I suspect that there was a Special Edition variant release at the same time but MGM did not bother making different discs with the feature on it.

In these trying times when it seems like the world has indeed gone mad, it’s nice to know that there was a time when a “mad world” was just a playful notion. Thankfully, we can return to those times, at least for two hours and forty minutes. Not including intermission.

I never get tired of watching this one.

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