IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (Kramer, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray/DVD, Release Date Jan 21, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long
Golden Age (1940s and '50s, roughly) comic book covers were often notable for being very busy. A dozen or more characters in colorful costumes skirmished on multiple planes of action, jostling for readers' attention, and all crammed into a single 7” x 10” frame. The strongly implied promise was that your thin but hard-earned dime would buy you access to an awful lot of stuff inside: stuff, stuff, and more stuff. It was usually a cruel tease; sometimes the characters on the cover didn't appear inside at all, or only in the briefest cameos, and the best pow bam sock moments (not to mention the only good art) had definitely been reserved for the exterior. Still, you definitely got lots of stuff all stuffed in there and if you weren't a particularly demanding reader (something the publishers were banking on) you didn't feel cheated.
“It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) at least delivers on its promise of a cast of over a hundred. You had a bevy of comedy talent from TV and movies, from generations young and old, and you even got a genuine superstar like Spencer Tracy as the police captain. But sometimes those endless credits deceive. Don Knotts disappears as soon as he lights up the screen and The Three Stooges (then with Curly Joe DeRita) drop in for all of three seconds. Still, there's plenty of talent on hand. “Mad” has all the comedians you could ever ask for (and a few you might not request), but what director Stanley Kramer's “comedy to end all comedies” fails to provide is much in the way of actual laughs.
You're probably familiar with the premise either as presented here or in the various rip-offs (I mean homages) that followed. A man (Jimmy Durante) crashes his car and, just before he literally kicks the bucket (har har!), tells the crowd of drivers who have stopped to help about the $350,000 he has buried somewhere “under da big W.” The grab bag of onlookers consists of pure comedy royalty: Milton Berle (as a sadsack who is henpecked... by his mother-in-law Ethel Merman), Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, and Jonathan Winters in his feature film debut.
After failing to agree on a proper way to share the promised treasure, they race each other along and above the dusty California highways in a series of vehicles (planes, bikes, and automobiles) to be the first to the mysterious big W. This is the point where I'm supposed to say “and whacky hijinks ensue.” And ensue they do, but where you might expect this all-star cast of comedians (Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, and Terry-Thomas join the hunt along the way) to unleash a relentless volley of jokes and gags, you instead get... stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. One incident piled on top of another inside of another and next to yet one more. Things fall and explode, cars crash, people trip, tires burst, and still more things fall, but the comedians spend more time watching things happen around them than doing much of anything beyond making lots of funny faces: Buddy Hackett makes lots of funny faces, Jonathan Winters makes lots of funny faces, and Ethel Merman's gravel-pit motormouth is basically a funny face that never zips its lip. Even Jerry Lewis shows up randomly to make a funny face in his not-brief-enough cameo.
The players sometimes head off on their own, sometimes divide up into shifting teams, and occasionally crowd together into the super-widescreen frame, each muscling the other out in the battle for center stage, which means an awful lot of cross-cutting is needed just to keep track of everything. Paradoxically (or perhaps not), the more frenetic the editing, the slower the film's pace. In one scene, Hackett and Rooney try to land a plane after the pilot (the magnificent Jim Backus, one of the film's highlights) passes out, and they're still trying to land it twenty minutes later because of the massive amount of bookkeeping required to keep the other simultaneous threads alive. Similarly, Sid Caesar and his character's wife (Edie Adams) spend much of the second half trapped in a department store basement, just kind of sitting there. It's like listening to the same one-liner being told one syllable a minute, but with lots of bells and whistles blaring to provide the illusion that you're nearing the punchline.
It's tempting to say that the mechanical nature of the proceedings is a result of setting Hollywood's sternest schoolmarm (Stanley Kramer, best known for his socially-earnest dramas) the task of directing an “epic” comedy. But piling on Stanley Kramer has become an unfair exercise; if his heavy-handed lecturing approach to cinema has fallen out of fashion today, it was at least once very much in fashion and is no doubt ripe to be “rediscovered” in the near future. Rather, the film is a case of grand and possibly misplaced ambition not being realized.
Does comedy really lend itself to the “epic” approach, replete with megacast, a three hour or so (less or more depending on which version you watch) running time, an overture, a lengthy animated title sequence by Saul Bass, an intermission, an entr'acte, and exit music? Kramer wanted to find out and let his gifted, mugging cast do much of the heavy lifting in the process. There's a definite documentary-like pleasure in watching so many legends of comedy share the screen (as well as identifying the numerous credited and uncredited cameos; look quick, there's Buster Keaton) along with the disappointment of watching so many very funny people fail to be funny at all. Perhaps each of them simply needed more space to stand out, and more time to actually be funny rather than simply reacting to so much darned stuff.
Comedy, like porn, doesn't offer much if it doesn't turn you on. When you aren't laughing, you're simply waiting for it to end, and even the “short” 163-minute general release version (an extended 197-minute restored version is also included in this set – see below) requires enough waiting that you will wind up feeling frustrated, if not outright resentful, if you just aren't digging it. That's an unfair reaction to an innocuous enough movie that offers the spectacle of so many beloved comedians turned loose at the same time. And my reaction is most certainly not a universal one, as “Mad” was a smash box office hit in its day, once again on its re-release in 1970, and remains a cult favorite today. Enough so that it has now been enshrined in the Criterion Collection. Plenty of audiences are more than satisfied by all the stuff that Kramer and company have pressure-packed in here.
I hated it. Truly. I didn't even chuckle once. But your mileage will vary. I walked out on “The Hangover” and, as readers have informed me often, everyone knows that's the funniest movie ever made. So there you have it, and now you have this deluxe edition of “It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” available, and believe you me, madam and/or sir, it sure is deluxe as you will find out below.
This Criterion release includes five discs. The first three discs are standard definitions DVDs containing the 163-minute General Release version, the 197 =-minute extended version restored for this Criterion release, and the extras. The DVDs have not been reviewed here. The fourth disc is a Blu-ray with the 163 minute version, the fifth disc has the 197 minute extended version.
The 163-minute General Release Version:
“Mad” was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 mm, a single camera rough equivalent to Cinerama (which required three projectors) in the massively wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio that seems almost necessary just to contain the sheer amount of stuff on display in each shot. This results in one of the thinner frames you've ever watched on your TV screen, an image nearly three times as wide as it is tall. In this 1080p transfer, it all looks pretty spectacular. I promise not to use the word “stuff” again after this sentence, but the sharper image resolution sure helps in appreciating all the stuff in every crowded frame.
MGM released the film on Blu-ray in 2011 and I don't own that version for comparison, but it was very well-reviewed. Criterion's high-def transfer is pretty close to flawless as well.
The 197-minute Extended Version:
This version is also presented in 2.76:1 though not without some difficulty. The film was screened during its initial road show (beginning in Nov 1963 at the inaugural screening at Hollywood.'s Cinerama Dome) in a 202-minute cut which was then whittled down, with the participation of Stanley Kramer, to a 163 minute version for General Release. A slightly shorter version (with overtures and intermissions cut down) also played. Most of the cut scenes from the road show version were simply discarded, but a few survived and were first shown in the 1991 laserdisc extended version released by MGM/UA.
Since then, more original footage was been discovered from various and sometimes incomplete sources, and these shots have been restored for the first time in this 197-minute cut new to this Criterion release. The newly found footage was not always in the same 2.76:1 ratio, provided color-matching difficulties, and was not complete. As a result, even with extensive restoration a few scenes don't look quite as good as the rest of the film and in a few points, either only sound or only picture survived. In those instances, Criterion has provided either still photos over the audio, or added in subtitles where audio is missing or inaudible. These changes aside, the high-def transfer on the extended version is generally of the same quality as the general release transfer.
Both version have a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. Unsurprisingly, the sound design is also very busy, including the often pummeling and intentionally obvious (when cars turn around, cue up the carousel music) score by Ernest Gold. The lossless audio is rich and sharp with a few problems on the restored portions of the Extended cut. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion has loaded this release to the rafters. I will only refer to the two Blu-ray discs here.
The first Blu-ray disc includes the 163-minute General Release cut of the film as well as the first batch of extras.
First up is a lengthy collection of promotional spots, all masterminded by voice-over artist and advertising guru Stan Freberg. For the 1963 release, we get a new introduction by Freberg (4 min.), six radio spots, four TV ads, an original Road Show trailer (1 min.) and a General Release trailer (3 min.) For the 1970 re-release, there are three radio ads and a trailer.
The first Blu-ray also includes a two-part (25 min. each) episode for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series “Telescope.” The episodes generally focus on Jonathan Winters as a sort-of guide through the whirlwind press junket for this massively hyped film. Fifty minutes on a press tour is a bit much, but fans will no doubt enjoy it.
We also get an all-purpose Press Interview (37 min.) with Kramer, Berle, Caesar, Rooney, and Winters. The interview was cut so that local news stations could make it look like their journalists were asking questions to the stars, so if anyone thinks journalism was more “legit” back in the day, you can think again.
The final extra on the first disc is “Stanley Kramer's Reunion with the Great Comedy Artists” (1974, 37 min.), a television special hosted, coincidentally enough, by Stanley Kramer as he shoots the breeze with Caesar, Hackett, and Winters. Kramer is not exactly humble in describing his film that “changed many lives” but, hey, why should he be?
The second Blu-ray disc includes the 197-minute Extended version, unique to this Criterion release.
That cut is accompanied by a commentary track by fans of the film, including Groo-some comic book writer Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo. I haven't listened to it yet. Sorry, I'm not putting myself through another three-plus hours of this movie.
“AFI's 100 Years, 100 Laughs” (2000, 11 min.) was a televised special celebrating American comedy. “Mad” finished 40th in AFI's voting, and this excerpt from the program features comedians sharing their fondness for the movie.
“The Last 70 mm Film Festival” (37 min.) provides a panel discussion at an AMPAS screening of “Mad” on Jul 9, 2012. Billy Crystal moderates a panel featuring cast and crew from the movie, with Rooney and Winters as the major headliners along with several lesser-known but crucial collaborators on the movie.
“Sound and Vision” (2013, 36 min.) includes interviews with visual effects expert Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt as they discuss the elaborate FX work that went into the production of this epic comedy. The feature includes some behind-the-scenes footage.
A short “Restoration Demo” (5 min.) provides just a hint of the massive amount of labor that went into assembling the 197-minute extended cut from various sources.
The slim insert booklet features an essay by critic Lou Lumenick.
What can you say about comedy? I spent nearly three hours staring blankly at the screen. I thought it would never end; I'm still not sure I believe it has. The extras on the disc feature a gallery of aficionados lauding it as one of the funniest movies ever made. If you're a fan, you can't ask for much more than Criterion has provided in this jam-packed set that offers the general release version, a new extended cut, and hours of extras, all along with nifty high-def transfers. And that's enough about that.