Produced and directed by “Inherit the Wind” helmer Stanley Kramer, the film begins in an appropriately audacious manner, with a car flying off the road, twisting through the air and finishing with a dust-plume crash. The only motorists to witness the crash come to the aid of the fallen driver (Jimmy Durante), only to find out the main’s dying confession: that a tax-free cache of $350,000 is buried a day’s ride away, ready to be claimed by whoever can get there first.
It’s a simple set-up, but an execution that soon spirals playfully out of control just as fast as the dead man’s car. It’s that expansiveness that allows for the contributions of so many of the day’s notable names, with contributions ranging from central roles to mere seconds of airtime. TV stars like Sid Caesar and Milton Berle and established film names like Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney dotted the handful of principals, while drop-ins featured Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts, Buster Keaton and Jack Benny.
One of the subtle strokes is there are no hazy flashbacks designed to orient the audience. Gathered around the body of Durante's "Smiler" Grogan, each character gives a quick sentence on where their party had intended on going before learning of the hidden money. It’s a film that starts with forward momentum and shows no intent on reversing course to fill in gaps (perhaps the biggest mistake that 2001's "Rat Race" made in diverting from the "original"). There’s no real need to know how all these characters originated, because the movie’s main objective is to show how the pursuit turns all of these people of disparate backgrounds into Variations on a Theme of Crazy.
The two-and-a-half hour runtime of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” absurd even by prestige drama standards, is perhaps the greatest indication of its commitment to its own largesse. Whether by lack of narrative economy or out of an affection for the supporting cast members, there’s an attempt to give each character a balanced thread without reducing a handful of them to fluffy background fodder. We get this indication before any actual action, through the title sequence where, aside from Spencer Tracy, all the other actor’s names are jumbled around in multiple orders. The achievement is getting everyone in one place, rather than figuring out a hierarchy.
But there are other signs of that commitment, particular the expansive nature of the elaborate setpieces. Jonathan Winters doesn't just crash through a gas station wall, leaving a Looney Tunes outline in his wake. He continues to demolish the whole building, not even sparing the outhouse. Planes crash into the side of buildings and dynamite blows openings in the side of hardware stores. When everything goes haywire in a later scene, as a throng of characters chase each other up staircases and eventually onto a rickety fire escape, the wide shots disguise the use of stuntmen, but they also reinforce the sheer scale of the whole undertaking.
The film's an intriguing case study because, unlike a handful of modern ensemble comedies, there really aren’t any heroes. This is not a sartorial display of high-class exploits and slick getaways; these are over a dozen stars in a race to the bottom. Stars of today play self-deprecating roles, but it’s jarring to see so many of them do so together without a dripping sense of self-awareness or camera-winking. Aside from the film's final shot, Kramer and screenwriters William and Tania Rose make it clear that these laughs are being directed at the characters instead of being shared with them. If there was a sense of these performers playing off their particular persona, time has removed some of that awareness, leaving only the idea that these are the stars of their day, all trying to out-weasel one another.
Perhaps that’s why box office numbers for the film ended up skyrocketing, propelling Stanley Kramer’s film into the list of the biggest hits of the decade. Never before had so many stars assembled in one project playing regular civilians where the average viewer could claim moral superiority over most, if not all of the characters they were portraying. Instead of seeing stars inserted into holiday-themed odes to the interconnectedness of everyday life, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” offered that same feeling of kinship as a nice side dish to its escapist laughs.
While a significant amount of time has passed since its release, it calls very little attention to its own age. The final fire crew crane composite is the only extended special effect sequence that seems visually out-of-place. And sure, there are the cars and the clothes and the storefronts as period signifiers, but very few explicit early ‘60s references dot all the characters’ interactions. There are no gripes about post-Eisenhower policy, no discussions of Maris and Mantle, and no mention of the Mashed Potato (although we do get that sublime “31 Flavors” dance break). In fact, many of the predicaments that the “contestants” come across in their pursuit of the money would still prove difficult to overcome even if transplanted into a 2013 setting. Cell phone reception might be spotty if trapped inside a lead-lined basement. Ditto out on a one-lane desert highway. A smartphone wouldn’t refuel your rickety prop plane and an SUV would have trouble fording a river once you got past a certain depth. Even Lt. Col. Hawthorne's rant about Americans' "preposterous preoccupation with bosoms" still rings true 50 years later. (For proof...well, there's the poster for "Movie 43.")
Yet calling “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” timeless would be a stretch. Its various indulgences might be barriers to entry for upcoming generations. Kids might get antsy sitting through an hour-and-a-half Pixar movie, but the fact that “Mad, Mad” aims so high over the top (guys, it has an intermission!) makes it a worthwhile novelty in retrospect. In doing so, it does provide a lesson for omnibus comedies of the future: if you’re going to go big, go big so that your grandkids can one day appreciate it.
Through February 2013, Indiewire is taking a closer look at how the over-60 audience is served by the movies made for them as well as profiling the actors and filmmakers who are their peers. It's part of a partnership with Heineken, which is sponsoring the "Heineken 60+ Challenge" that reaches out to the creative community to film, photograph or write their observations on the lifestyles and preferences of the 60+ age group. The goal is to help Heineken create innovative products to suit this golden