When a group of strangers hear the confession of a dying man who leaves a mysterious clue about the whereabouts of a large sum of cash, they aren’t convinced he’s on the level. Yet, when they suspect each other of going after the money, they pause to discuss how to locate it and also how to split it when it’s found. Talks quickly break down and it becomes, “every man (and woman) for himself!”
Next thing you know, five different groups of people are racing to be the first one to find the dough, unaware that they are being tracked by the cops who have long wished to recover the money from a robbery case. Their attempts to beat each other out lead to the involvement of other strangers and motorists as well as crazy situations that quickly become destructive.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is one of those films that most people either love or don’t. There’s no in-between. Personally, I’ve always loved it. I can’t remember the first time my mom introduced me to this outrageous comedy. But she remembers clearly the first time she saw it; at a drive in, with a friend. She was in fourth grade. I love to hear her tell the story, and perhaps that personal connection is what endears it to me. It could also be that every time I watch it with my mom, it makes her laugh, which in turn makes me laugh and brings us both great joy. We even got the chance to see it on the big screen together a couple of years ago, and what an experience it was.
One of the great things about It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is that it boasts a large cast featuring just about every contemporary comedy star you can think of, including Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams Dorothy Provine, Peter Falk, Phil Silvers and British actor Terry Thomas in the main roles. It even filled the walk on parts with film comedians from an earlier era, and part of the fun is trying to catch the blink and you’ll miss it appearances of people like Zasu Pitts, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Edward Everett Horton, Jimmy Durante, Andy Devine, Joe E. Brown, Ward Bond, Allen Jenkins and even The Three Stooges. In fact, I don’t think I even recognized most of these people the first several times. It wasn’t until later, after I’d immersed myself in classic films that I started to spot these former great character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
As each group of people race their way towards the money, their circumstances get more and more bonkers. I’ve rarely seen such ridiculous comedy set-ups except perhaps in earlier films like Bringing Up Baby. Some of my favorite film sequences are when Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett are stranded up in the air with their pilot unconscious and must land the plane with the help of the ground crew. Or when married couple Sid Caesar and Edie Adams find themselves locked in the basement storage space of a hardware store and end up setting off a string of fireworks in their attempts to escape. Jonathan Winters has a hilarious scene tearing apart a service station when the two timid owners tie him up because they are afraid of him. I also find the side of the road fist fight between the hen-pecked Milton Berle and Terry-Thomas extremely entertaining. No matter how many times, I’ve seen these same scenes, they never fail to make me laugh. And of course, there is the final chase scene involving Spencer Tracy’s police detective where all the men end up on a fire truck rescue ladder and are flung off into thin air. Although, I must say the ending does make me a bit sad as Tracy’s character suffers the most in the final outcome.
I’ve always kind of wondered why there are so many Mad’s in the film’s title, but now I believe it is justified by all the zaniness crammed onto the screen. Word is, director Stanley Kramer even considered adding a fifth Mad into the title and regretted that he didn’t. As for what else could have been, rumor has it that Jack Benny’s cameo was originally intended for Stan Laurel who turned it down because of his pledge not to return to the screen after his partner Oliver Hardy died. A small part was written for Groucho Marx which didn’t make it into the final script. Judy Holliday, Harold Lloyd, Bud Abbott & George Burns all turned down offers to appear and the role that Terry-Thomas filled was originally slated for Peter Sellers who wanted too much money. Bob Hope missed out too after an argument with his studio caused them to refuse him a cameo. And the great Judy Garland was meant for the part filled by Edie Adams with Rooney in Sid Caesar’s part as her husband. Ultimately she couldn’t participate and Rooney ended up with a different part.
Despite the names who didn’t participate, the ones who did all give excellent performances which really make this comedy genuinely funny. It was also a great success at the box office as it was the third highest-grossing film of that year and was even nominated for six Academy Awards, winning one for Sound Effects.
Considering the run time is over three hours long, you might be surprised that I’ve seen this film umpteenth times. And yet for me, every viewing is like a visit with old familiar friends. Funny friends who never fail to brighten my day with their crazy antics. And just like a real visit with old friends, the time flies by so quickly, that I’m always a little sad to say goodbye again. But then, I know they will be waiting there, ready for my next visit. And until then, I can always relive the memories with my mom.
This post was written for The Umpteenth Blogathon hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Please stop by and read about other films that fellow classic film fans have seen umpteen times!