Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mad About Mad Mad Mad Mad World

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. To kick off its so-called “The Last 70 MM Film Festival,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just screened Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy hit, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, before an enthusiastic crowd. Nearly four hours long, Mad World is a riotous tale of ill-gotten gains that pits police chief Spencer Tracy against some of the greatest comic actors in the business.

Adding to the festivities, the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp and Kramer’s unstoppable widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, gathered on-stage much of the film’s surviving cast and production team. These included Marshall Schlom, Kramer’s veteran script supervisor; Lynn Stalmaster, casting director par excellence; Barrie Chase, who had worn a bikini and danced a drugged-out version of the Twist with the film’s Dick Shawn; the wonderful but now very fragile Stan Freberg, who worked on Mad World’s ad campaign and earned himself a cameo role; Marvin Kaplan (he teamed with Arnold Stang to play nebbishy gas station attendants vainly trying to stop a maniac); the still peppy but now slightly stooped Carl Reiner; ageless Mickey Rooney, who somehow got off a few dance moves; and the inimitable Jonathan Winters, who announced from his wheelchair that these days he’s “not only crazy but crippled.”

Riding herd over this remarkable group was MC Billy Crystal, a lover of Mad World since age fifteen because it contains “the people who made me want to be funny all in one movie.” Crystal puckishly described Mad World as nine hours long, “shorter than some seders.” But it’s clear its release had an important place in his young life, helping him cope with his father’s recent death. Mad World perhaps gave solace to the American people as well. It premiered on November 7, 1963, a mere two weeks before President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. In late 1963, a stunned nation seemed to look to Mad World for the healing power of laughter.

Crystal proved brilliant at briefly interviewing each participant, eliciting chuckles while keeping rampant egos in check. Karen Kramer explained the movie’s genesis: her husband, known for powerful social dramas, had been told by leading critic Bosley Crowther that he was incapable of making a comedy. Never one to back down from a challenge, Kramer vowed to create the most outrageous comedy ever. Carl Reiner admitted how terrifying it was to shoot a scene (in those pre-CGI days) in which a stunt plane came within inches of him. Marvin Kaplan (who neatly summed up the film’s timeless appeal -– “it’s all about greed, and now greed is a national pastime”) disclosed the struggle to find a stuntman for the 5’2” Arnold Stang, who had “no chin and no shoulders.” The eventual choice had a muscular upper body, and so Stang’s costume had to be padded out in order to match.

As for Jonathan Winters, he continues to be a force unto himself, quick to interject off-center remarks to the audience and his fellow panelists (“You up? You awake?”). Carl Reiner recalled how on the set Winters, then newly released from a mental institution, would sit quietly by himself, whittling away at a block of wood. By the time the film wrapped after 166 shooting days, Winters had crafted a beautiful wooden egg. Reiner wondered: Did Jonathan still have that egg? Winters instantly deadpanned, “I’ve laid so many since then . . .”

And with that it was time for the movie to start. What a treat to see those comic geniuses all in a row. Yup, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.


  1. Wow. I would have chewed through chains to be there. I love the movie - for the incredible construction of it - and its sheer size - plus there are (as Spencer Tracy might have said) "cherce" moments throughout its sweeping running time. To see it projected in all of its bombastic 70mm glory - wow. And that panel!

    And I'm surprised at the running time - has it finally been restored with all of the little snips and chops that whittled it down across the 60's? Is the version that screened completely complete (he asked with repetitive redundancy)?

  2. Actually there are 12 minutes that are still missing, probably forever. Many of them apparently involve Buster Keaton, who as you know enters the film very late, after the cash has been plucked from its hiding place.

  3. This is my all time favorite comedy. And as you said, Beverly, they don't make them like this anymore. This is a movie, a very looooooong movie, that has no expletives nor flatulence humor to derive a laugh from an audience. The DVD has something like 45 minutes to an hours worth of deleted scenes. So there's 12 more minutes on top of everything that was cut out?! LOL.

    My favorite scene... well, there's several, but the one that made me laugh the longest and hardest was the gas station destruction scene. And just about anything with Terry Thomas brings a smile to my face.

  4. It may be a guy thing -- I must admit that I didn't find the film nearly as hilarious as my husband did. I love verbal wit, but I just don't particularly like comedy based on destruction, and Three Stooges type humor doesn't appeal to me at all. On my most recent viewing, one scene that did strike me as tremendously funny was the one of Phil Silvers putting the squeeze on Don Knotts, convincing innocent bystander Knotts that he was with the FBI and that it was a matter of national security to help him out. I guess what I like is character comedy, and the bossy Silvers getting the best of the always uptight Knotts really tickled my funnybone.