"If ever this mad, mad, mad, mad world needed It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World it's now!"—Original Tagline
In 1963, after directing important message films like Judgement At Nuremberg and Inherit the Wind, director Stanley Kramer had a desire to do something "a little less serious." Well, there's nothing "less" about It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Boasting an all-star cast, including screen legend Spencer Tracy in his third of four outings with Kramer, the epic-length film is considered by many to be the definitive comedy. Indeed, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World has inspired every madcap road comedy from Cannonball Run to this year's Rat Race, and now arrives on DVD thanks to MGM.
Facts of the Case
After careening his car off of a cliff in the California desert, "Smiler" Grogan (Jimmy Durante) reveals the secret hiding place of the $350,000 he robbed from a tuna factory. Shortly before kicking the bucket, literally and figuratively, Grogan tells some good Samaritans the treasure is buried "under a big dubya" in the distant seaside town of Santa Rosita. Thus begins the 200-hundred mile race to Santa Rosita and a virtual who's who of 1960s comedy. The principal players include a seaweed salesman (Milton Berle), his reluctant wife (Dorothy Provine), his overbearing mother-in-law (Ethel Merman) and her lunkheaded son (Dick Shawn). Also on hand are a honeymooning couple (Sid Caesar and Edie Adams), two "odd-couple-ish" buddies (Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett), a volatile furniture mover (Jonathan Winters), a con man (Phil Silvers) and an uptight Brit (Terry-Thomas). The madcap race takes place over land, in the air, and through the water. The greedy opponents don't realize they're being tracked by the beleaguered Santa Rosita police captain T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) who has been waiting for a crack in the Smiler Grogan case for twenty years. And if all of that's not enough for you, the film is loaded with cameos by almost every popular comedian of the day, including Jerry Lewis, Peter Falk, Carl Reiner, Jack Benny, Don Knotts, and even The Three Stooges!
The overarching theory when making It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was simply "the bigger, the better." The cast is probably the biggest ever assembled for a film comedy; the number of stunts and locations involved is enormous. The whopping 161-minute running time is actually down from an amazing 192-minute original roadshow version (but don't worry, most of the extended footage is included as a supplement, as I'll explain later). Is there any other comedy with an intermission? All of this sheer size would be for naught if the film didn't deliver big laughs. Thankfully It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World doesn't disappoint in that department. Most of the comedy in the film is physical. I laughed myself to tears watching Jonathan Winters single-handedly destroy Ray and Irwin's Service Station, Phil Silvers drive what remains of his car straight into a river, and a caged Sid Casear dynamite the wall of an unsuspecting Chinese laundry. But the verbal repartee in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is equally enjoyable. In one hilarious scene early in the film, the would-be wealthy crew argues over exactly how to divvy up the shares of the money that they haven't even found yet. Should they divide it by the number of people, the number of cars, the number people in cars? After a ludicrous discussion they decide it's every man (and woman) for himself.
The cast of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is top-notch, showcasing several talents of the day that were better known at the time for their television work. Standouts include Milton Berle (Mr. Television himself), Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters and Dick Shawn, who hilariously weeps for his momma Ethel Merman when he thinks she's in trouble. You simply must see it. Most of these actors, with the exception of Spencer Tracy, are under-represented on film, so it's a rare treat to see them on-screen, much less all in one movie. Whenever there's a lull in the action, which is surprisingly rare for such a long film, up pops another celebrity cameo. Some are longer and more enjoyable than others, including Don Knotts doing his usual schtick and Jim Backus (in Thurston Howell mode) as a drunken pilot. Some could've been a lot more, like the mere shot of The Three Stooges in firefighter garb. A couple of nyuck nyucks at the very least would've fit right in with the rest of the shenanigans.
It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is presented in the 2.55:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions. The transfer is a mixed bag. Much of the time, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World looks very good, with a clean print and good colors. But there are parts of the film that show the signs of age. Dirt and print damage are apparent at times, and the colors fade occasionally. It appears to my eye that MGM has not done much of a restoration. That being said, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World looks better than any previous video version I've seen, so that's something to be thankful for.
It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World has been given a Dolby 5.1 audio remix, also with mixed success. Most noticeably, dialogue moves from speaker to speaker in accordance with the actor's location on screen. Larger effects, such as the crashes and explosions are full and without distortion, but don't give off an overly impressive surround experience. Still, I have no real complaints about the quality of the sound. Also included is a French 5.1 track and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
MGM has quietly put out a Special Edition of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on DVD in the shadow of the recent theatrical pretender to the throne, Rat Race. One side of this dual-sided DVD contains the film, while the other contains the extra features. First up is the 1991 one-hour documentary "Something A Little Less Serious," named for Stanley Kramer's desire to do his first comedy. The documentary contains interviews with several of the principals, including Kramer, Berle, Caesar, Winters, and Buddy Hackett. The first part of the documentary focuses heavily on the individuals in the picture, singing each other's praises. But as the hour passes, the stories focus more on the making of the picture, including the complicated stunts, the beautiful locations, the enjoyable score, and even the aspect ratio. All in all, this documentary provides as much information as the casual fan will ever want or need to know about It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Next up is a solid hour of extended scenes. For the roadshow presentation, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was originally presented in Cinerama 70 mm and then cut for its 35 mm theatrical release. These extended scenes are from the 70 mm print and look a little smushed (to use a non-technical term), giving the feeling of looking through a telescope. The print quality of the scenes is poor, but watchable. The audio is a little distorted, but certainly understandable. Much of these scenes are still in the film, but they may have a few extra seconds around the scene. What's frustrating about the set-up is it is unindexed, aside from chapter stops, and it's out of chronological order. MGM didn't take any time at all with this layout, though I suppose we should be grateful to have the footage.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Just about the only thing this film is small on is story. Those looking for more meaning here than silly belly laughs and guffaws are bound to be disappointed. But if you like your comedy big and broad, you can't do better than the immense It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!
Most of the elements included on this DVD release of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World were previously produced for laserdisc and VHS. The shape of the transfer alone suggests that MGM didn't put much effort into the disc. However, an anamorphic transfer, terrific documentary, extended scenes and, above all, a low $19.95 sticker price, make It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World easy to recommend to anyone.
It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is not not not not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
• "Something A Little Less Serious" Documentary
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