It’s 1979. My dad comes in, holding not one but two VHS tapes. Our VCR is fairly new, and with it came a box of assorted films that were given to us by someone or other. It’s exciting to be able to watch movies at home, whenever we want.
I had been expecting to watch one of my old faves again. After all, I was a wee thing and it was a day that ended in Y, so naturally, I wanted to watch Mary Poppins or The King and I. But my dad came in, and said, “This is the funniest movie ever made,” so I settled in. It turned out to be a long haul since the version we had of the film (in fact, the only version I’ve ever seen) was close to three-and-a-half hours long. And I had that chip you have on your shoulder when you’re a kid about anything new. But, three-and-a-half hours later, we were laughing together.
It was 1963, and Stanley Kramer wasn’t messing around. He had never made a comedy before, but he decided that not only was he going to make a comedy, he was going to make the comedy. I don’t know if it had previously occurred to anyone that a funny movie could also be an epic movie, but that’s what’s going on here. They lean into the size and scope of the thing big-time. Absolutely everything about this film is extra, from the story to the filming to the cast to the credits. Ever listen to the lyrics to the theme song? So very extra.
The story is fairly straightforward. Once upon a time, a guy called Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) made off with lots of money and buried it for safekeeping. A bunch of years later, Smiler wrecks his car on a lonely stretch of highway in the California hills. Passing motorists try to come to his aid, but they are too late. His last words and legacy are to tell the Samaritans about the money, and where they can find it. It’s in a certain park, he says, under “a big W.” Then he literally kicks the bucket (tiny me needed to have that joke explained). The motorists don’t really know what to make of this, but the movie audience knows at this moment exactly what it’s in for.
For the next couple of hours, we follow the motorists on their race to get to the park in Santa Rosita and discover the money before anyone else. I often wonder if the prevailing theme of “the male of the species can be a real idiot, and also look what horrible things greed can do” was as deliberate as it seems. Even the otherwise honest, long-suffering police officer Captain Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) becomes corrupted. He’s been working on the Smiler Grogan case for 15 years. It’s never really clear if he had planned to make off with the stolen cash all along, but over the course of the film, his life goes rapidly down the drain. His pension is insufficient, his wife is a shrew, his daughter hates him, and Mexico is beginning to look awfully good.
Culpepper follows the racing motorists, who get in a variety of misadventures, each trying to get there first. The initial group who witnessed the crash numbered eight (eight people in four cars), but by the time they get to the park in question, they have almost doubled in number. The cast of this film is, like I said, huge, and it’s practically a Who’s Who of comic actors. Basically, if you were either a funny person or a stunt person who was working in 1963, you were probably in this movie. The initial group branches out, picking up strays along the way, all of whom rapidly become as money-crazed as everyone else.
Car A contains the Finches (Milton Berle and Dorothy Provine) and Mrs. Finch’s mother, Mrs. Marcus. Ethel Merman plays the abrasive, nagging mother-in-law to the hilt, and you can really argue that she steals the entire film. That’s saying something, considering there isn’t a weak link in this chain. They eventually get a ride from Terry-Thomas (Sir Hiss!) whose terribly British sensibilities are not immune to the fever of American greed. They also pick up Sylvester Marcus, Mrs. Marcus’s dopey son, in what had to have paved the way for another iconic Dick Shawn role (LSD, in The Producers). Their road trip south is fraught with marital hostility of all sorts, America/England bigotry, and some actual fisticuffs.
Car B is the Krumps (Sid Caesar and Edie Adams), a dentist and his wife who started out on their second honeymoon. After the encounter with Smiler, however, quality time with his beautiful wife (Edie Adams was an early girl-crush of mine before I knew what one was) is the last thing on Mr. Krump’s mind. They manage to get to Santa Rosita first, thanks to a terrifying trip in a rickety, vintage biplane. What is supposed to be a quick stop at a hardware store to buy digging supplies turns into their own personal plot device. They get locked inside the hardware store, and their efforts to escape are both hilarious and expensive. Among other things, we get lots of that wonderful Sid Caesar physical comedy we love so much. And did I mention the gorgeousness of Edie Adams? Sorry, but she and Barrie Chase (she plays Sylvester’s deadpan-faced girlfriend) proved to have been relevant parts of my sexual awakening, though I didn’t realise it till years later.
Car C has the goofball dream team of Bell and Benjamin (Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett, respectively). They get the same idea the Krumps did about hiring a plane, but since there is only one death-trap biplane available (seriously, Donald Shimoda wouldn’t be caught dead in this thing), they hit up a conveniently located airstrip in hopes of chartering something modern. They persuade pilot Tyler Fitzgerald (Jim Backus) to take them in his private plane, which he does—except he’s falling-down drunk when they first meet him, and the fully stocked bar he keeps in his plane rapidly takes him from bad to worse. With the actual pilot unconscious in the back, the doofy bros need to be talked out of the air, which takes them the better part of the film.
Car D (and you thought the billion characters in Game of Thrones were a pain to keep track of) is the sole dominion of trucker Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters). Mr. Pike is probably bounced around the most. The film makes excellent use of Winters’s big-guy ability to be imposing and adorable by turns—having to slog along the road on a little girl’s bicycle is just the start. Ditched by the Finches, he hitches a ride with sleazeball Otto Meyer (playing a sleazeball as only Phil Silvers can) and then is ditched by Meyer, once he tells Meyer about the money. Pike then gets his own subplot, his goal to murder Meyer. In the process, Pike gets to destroy a newly opened service station (amazing how many remote service stations happened to be made of balsa wood, so a guy could Hulk-smash everything), and Meyer gets his own iconic scene with his car sinking in a river. That one’s so iconic that it found its way into The Simpsons’s brilliant homage to this movie.
I need to give Ethel Merman special mention here. First of all, she’s Ethel Freaking Merman, and she deserves it on principle. Second, she has to spend the movie enduring all the men referring to her as “the old bag” (really? She was only 55-ish, and gorgeous). Third, she gets the punchline of the entire film. I don’t know for sure, but here’s my headcanon for the ending of the film: “What could possibly be the button for a film that is so outrageously funny from start to finish? Whatever shall we do?” In comes Queen Ethel. “I’ll teach you how to get a laugh, boys, because I am Queen Ethel, just give me a banana peel and hold my beer.” Seriously, the final sequence with the men involves ALL the stunt guys and special effects, to say nothing of a great big, phallic ladder that flings them all every which way (again I say, prevailing theme that men can be idiots). It’s fabulous. But the very last laugh before we go home? Ethel, a banana peel, and a pratfall. Queen.
It’s 2019. I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter, who’s got the same chip on her shoulder that I did with regard to anything new. The movie theater in our town, bless them, has this awesome Saturday thing called Big Screen Classics, and they announce that they will be showing It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Not only will it be the proper long version, but apparently they had a hookup for deleted scenes and even some press video of the premiere. They have little clips of film to give to the first hundred people. I tell my daughter, “This is the funniest movie ever made,” just like my dad said to me, and we hunker down for the long haul, with a blanket and a portable footrest we brought from home. I was charmed beyond belief to see how many other people had brought their kids and how delighted everyone was.
Needless to say, she loved it as much as I do, and her Ethel Merman (and Dick Shawn) impressions are things of great joy. Never do we drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge without her exclaiming “It’s a big W, I tell ya!” I bet she’s one of the only teenagers in her grade who knows who Jonathan Winters was. My dad is proud, and so am I. Comedy standards come and go, but It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World endures. One day, I expect to see it with my grandkids, and I expect us all to laugh just as hard.