Two words that describe the 1963 fim It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World is epic comedy. That is exactly what this 50 year old film is and more. I caught the movie again on a lazy Sunday, and I was excited that my three year old son also got involved in some of the movie. While, I do not expect him to realize who Jimmy Dunrante or Andy Devine was, I was happy that he could still laugh at a movie that is well older than I am.
"Smiler" Grogan (Jimmy Durante), suspect in a tuna factory robbery 15 years before and on the run from the police, recklessly passes a number of vehicles on a twisting, mountainous road in Southern California's Mojave Desert before careening his car off a cliff and crashing. Five motorists from four of the passed vehicles stop to assist: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); "Dingy" Bell (Mickey Rooney) and "Benjy" Benjamin (Buddy Hackett), two friends on their way to Las Vegas; and entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle). Just before he dies, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 cash buried--"under a big 'W'"--in Santa Rosita State Park in Santa Rosita Beach near the Mexican border. Two detectives (Norman Fell, Nicholas Georgiade) arrive, and the lead detective asks the men pointed questions about their interaction with Grogan. While not-so-artfully dodging the questions, each of the five internally changes from having had compassion for Grogan to becoming greedy to retrieve the treasure. The detectives permit the five to return to their vehicles after receiving Finch's contact information. The motorists then drive away from the accident site, initially testing each other's resolve on the road, then stop to try to reason with one another on how to share the money (in the "17 different ways" conversation), but when they can't agree on any one particular distribution, they run to their vehicles to engage in an all-out race to reach the loot first. All four vehicles are eventually abandoned.
Meanwhile, Captain T. G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy), of the Santa Rosita Police Department, who has been patiently working on the Grogan case for those 15 years, hopes to solve it and retire with honor. Learning of the fatal crash, he suspects that "Smiler" might have given one or more of the witnesses a clue to the stolen loot's location and has police units track their movements. Culpeper phones police (Andy Devine, Stan Freberg) in another jurisdiction about Grogan. Culpeper's switchboard operator (ZaSu Pitts) takes calls; later, Culpeper has his own disastrous phone conversation with his wife Ginger (Selma Diamond) and their daughter Billie Sue (Louise Glenn).
Everyone experiences multiple setbacks en route to the money. Melville and his wife Monica (Edie Adams) charter a shabby World War I-era biplane to Santa Rosita from an unlicensed pilot (Ben Blue) and arrive by cab to a hardware store. After telling the cabbie (Leo Gorcey) to wait outside, a store employee (Doodles Weaver) lets them in just before closing time. But the store's owner, Mr. Dinkler (Edward Everett Horton), closes it down and locks the door to the basement, into which the pair had just descended, intending to find and buy a pick and shovel. Melville wrecks the place in various failed attempts to escape before blasting a hole in the wall with dynamite.
Dingy and Benjy question an attendant (Charles Lane) and, against his objections, convince pilot Tyler Fitzgerald (Jim Backus) to shuttle them to Santa Rosita in his modern twin-engine aircraft. Fitzgerald carelessly lets them operate the controls while he mixes drinks in the back of the plane; soon Benjy's erratic steering knocks him unconscious and the pair have to fly and land the plane on their own. A group of air-traffic controllers (Carl Reiner, Eddie Ryder, Jesse White) are unable to assist them in landing, and a retired Air Force officer (Paul Ford) is brought in to help them land. Dingy and Benjy eventually land their aircraft, crashing into an airport terminal but escaping unharmed. Two other cab drivers (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Peter Falk), who respectively whisk Dingy and Benjy away from the airport, and Melville and Monica from the hardware store, also get in on the hunt.
Pike crashes his furniture truck into the car containing Finch, his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine), and his overbearing mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman). Finch persuades Pike to ride off for help on a bicycle, then the three flag down British army Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas) to get them to Santa Rosita and ignore Pike on the roadside nearby. The four stop at a service station owned by two brothers (Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan) who decline Finch's request to rent the station's tow truck. After many arguments, most caused by Mrs. Marcus, she and Emmeline refuse to go any farther, and Finch and Hawthorne leave them behind.
Pike tries to get motorist Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers) to take him to Santa Rosita but foolishly tells him about the scheme, prompting the greedy Meyer to race for the money himself. Pike, outraged, destroys the aforementioned service station at which Meyer has been forced to stop due to a tire blowout. After the rampage, Pike steals the station's tow truck and later picks up Mrs. Marcus and Emmeline. Mrs. Marcus calls her beach-bum son Sylvester (Dick Shawn), who lives near Santa Rosita, to look for the loot, but the Oedipally-obsessed Sylvester, who is dancing with his laconic girlfriend (Barrie Chase), races hysterically to the defense of his mother instead. Meyer experiences his own setbacks, including losing his car in a river. After flagging down a nervous motorist (Don Knotts), persuading the motorist by a conspiracy theory suggesting that he is a CIA agent hunted by Russians, Meyer steals the motorist's car. All the while, the police secretly track their activities while Culpeper bides his time.
Eventually, all of the interlopers arrive at the state park and begin searching for the "Big W," overseen by Captain Culpeper, secretly disgruntled and intent on keeping all of the loot for himself on being promised only a too-small pension, despite solving the Grogan case. He orders all policemen to leave the area and waits for the others to retrieve the money. Emmeline, the only one who wanted no part of the scheme, is the first to recognize what the "Big W" actually is. As the watching Culpeper steps out of the bushes and greets her, she unwittingly reveals the location to him, albeit not explicitly saying so, and suggests they split the money. Soon Pike, then the others, notice the "W" as well and frantically begin digging while Culpeper quietly mixes in with the non-diggers. After a suitcase containing the loot is dug up and opened, the group argues about the money's distribution. Culpeper then identifies himself, takes the suitcase, and suggests to the stunned ensemble that a jury might be more lenient if they turn themselves in. Initially taking Culpeper's advice, the defeated claimants climb into the two taxis and drive out of the park.
When the two taxicab groups notice Culpeper heading away from Santa Rosita with the money, they immediately reverse direction and chase him, foiling his plan to store his police vehicle with the help of Jimmy the Crook (Buster Keaton) in a seaside garage and hop a boat bound for Mexico. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to reach Culpeper by radio, Police Chief Aloysius (William Demarest) realizes what Culpeper is doing, revokes his newly-trebled pension — which Aloysius had secured by arm twisting the mayor (Lloyd Corrigan) less than a half hour before — by tearing up the envelope that the mayor yielded and the pension papers that it presumably contains, and orders Culpeper's arrest.
At the end of the chase, stranded high up the decaying fire escape ladders of an abandoned building are the eleven men in the group, each of whom is continually trying to keep the other ten men from possessing the suitcase containing the money, despite warnings from a speech-maker (Joe E. Brown) that the ladders are unsafe. While the men are trying to avoid falling off the building's disintegrating fire escape, the suitcase accidentally opens, spilling the cash into the air to flutter upon the crowd below. The ladders break away from the building and a fire engine arrives to rescue the men, who then simultaneously attempt to climb down an extended fire truck ladder. But their combined weight breaks the ladder's hydraulic system, causing it to gyrate uncontrollably, flinging or dropping them off to various locations.
The dejected men, now immobile in a prison hospital in bandages and casts, blame one another for their predicament and criticize Culpeper for seizing the money. Replying that their sentences may be lighter because he will probably take most of the blame in court, ex-Captain Culpeper adds that perhaps in 10 or 20 years, there will be something about all this he can laugh about. Benjy throws his banana peel toward a wastebasket, but it misses and lands on the floor, moments before the nagging Mrs. Marcus enters, flanked by Monica and Emmeline, scolding all of the hospitalized men for everything. Mrs. Marcus slips on the banana peel, falls flat on her back, and is hurriedly carried off on a gurney...while Culpeper and all the other injured men laugh hysterically.
There is a whole other story of the background of the movie, but that is another story for another day. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
had its world premiere at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, California on November 7, 1963, on the Dome's own opening night. The East Coast premiere was on November 17, 1963, at the Warner Cinerama Theatre in Times Square, New York City. The day before, the film was shown in a special charity preview to benefit the Kennedy Child Study Center and the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Institute. President John F. Kennedy sent his brother Bobby to the East Coast premiere instead of attending with his wife Jacqueline and would be assassinated less than a week later in Dallas.
Distinguished by the largest number of stars to appear in a film comedy, Mad World opened to acclaim from many critics and tremendous box office receipts, becoming the highest grossing American film of 1963, quickly establishing itself as one of the top 100 highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation. The film's great success inspired Kramer to direct and produce Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
(also starring Tracy in his last role). So much can be written and said about this classic comedy. It is fun to watch for the cameos in the movie from Jerry Lewis playing a crazed driver who runs over Spencer Tracy's hat to Jack Benny who stops on the side of the road only to get yelled at by Ethel Merman. The movie is long but does not seem long, and it is the perfect movie to lose yourself in on a lazy afternoon...
MY RATING: 10 OUT OF 10