The premiere of "It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in 1963 birthed a new movie form: the epic comedy. As far as genre conventions go, epics recount the noble deeds of great personages or immortalize heroic campaigns that changed the course of nations. Comedies revel in the minutiae of events, humorously exposing the foibles and peccadilloes that sometimes bring people far from heroic or epic behavior. With such contradictions, the idea of merging the two seems, at first, a scientific impossibility. But like the bumblebee that should not fly but does, "It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" bucked the odds to become the first truly grand scale laugh fest. Definitely dated by today’s standards (only in the content, not the form), Stanley Kramer’s comedy classic makes its digital bow with MGM Home Entertainment’s special edition DVD, offering a brand new anamorphic transfer, along with a few goodies ported from the laserdisc release of a decade ago.
Starring just about every funny man and woman working in 1962, "IAMMMMW" (any future references to the title will be indicated by the acronym "IAMMMMW") begins with a car speeding along a desert mountain highway, dodging the other sauntering vehicles. Sailing off an embankment, the car crashes. Some of the motorists stop and climb down to assess the damage. They find an old man, barely alive. With his last gasps, he tells his ersatz mourners of a hidden stash of money hidden under a big "W" in Santa Rosita Park, some 200 miles away. $350,000 and he bequeath it to his witnesses. And then…he kicks the bucket. Literally. The stunned parties meet on the side of the road, first to determine if the old man was telling the truth and then plan a course of action for retrieving and dividing the money. Talks of "shares" and "quarters" soon yield to war cries of "every man, including the old bag, for himself!" Let the rat race begin!
If anyone thinks a large-scale ensemble comedy as an outmoded storytelling device, one need not look further than this summer’s "Rat Race" to prove the concept’s continued viability. It’s no accident that almost every review of that film cited IAMMMMW as either an inspiration or a point of reference. Both have the same premise: a motley group of characters, flung together by chance and propelled by greed towards a prize of fabulous wealth. Going back to genre bits, comedies underscore frailties without a body count, epics aggrandize heroism in service to a noble cause. How do you reconcile both? Enter producer/director Stanley Kramer. Kramer seemed the last person to take on IAMMMMW as a project. Known for his "message" films including "High Noon," "Inherit The Wind" and "Judgment at Nuremberg," Kramer’s films were always serious, meaningful and weighty. With "Mad," he simply gave the characters a weakness (avarice) that could be exposed within the humor of the story. That’s why IAMMMMW worked in 1963 (the film was a smash, playing for over a year at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, built in time for the film’s premiere) and that is why the form works when re-tooled for contemporary audiences and mores. (A prime example of a failed epic comedy is Steven Spielberg’s "1941." While the story contained enough pratfalls and sight gags, the absence of an overriding moral imperative made for two excruciating hours of bombastic pyrotechnics and men yelling into the camera.)
The script by William and Tania Rose (in the documentary, Milton Belle says there were actually two scripts: one for dialogue and one for physical "cues") works like the coiling of a colossal spring. For the first half, the characters beg, borrow, steal, cajole, fly, bicycle, drive and skip along their journey, all the while under the surveillance of the seemingly stoic Captain Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), who has been trying to solve the case of the missing money for the last fifteen years. The initial group of treasures hunters grows along the way, picking up businessmen, cab drivers, and British amateur botanists. Employing anyone who ever told a joke in the history of American entertainment, the cast was a once in a lifetime gathering of comedy greats: Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Terry Thomas, Phil Silvers, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney and Edie Adams make up the core group. Cameos and incidental roles were made up from representatives of the silent era (Buster Kenton, ZaSu Pitts) through the Thirties and Forties (Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown and the Three Stooges pop up in "blink-and-they’re-gone" walk-bys) up to the "present" (Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner and Jim Backus for starters). However, the narrative structure winds everything so tight that, after the intermission, the resolution plays out like a ninety-minute bout of comedy diarrhea.
My fondness for the film pretty much echoes a Spencer Tracy line from "Pat and Mike" (if I’m not mistaken): "There’s not much there, but what’s there is cherce." Maybe 40% of IAMMMMW speaks to a contemporary audience. But what a chunk! Jonathan Winters beating up a gas station (the timing alone, not to mention the stunt work and prop handling, must have been a nightmare to choreograph), Sid Caesar’s hopeless battle against a locked basement door, and the finale involving a condemned catwalk and a fire engine mechanical ladder helps to smooth over Ethel Merman’s shrill mother-in-law caricature and Phil Silvers’ umpteenth "Sgt. Bilko" retread. Watching the film this time, I caught an undercurrent that may or may not have been intentional. Not only could the story be seen as a cautionary fable about the wages of avarice, but also many of the sight gags involve the breakdown of machinery. Cars crash, planes roll, mechanical ladders buckle, timed to the moments when the characters depend on them most. Could it be that the battle of man versus machine is not about flesh and metal, but maybe machines are our consciences, forcing us to act properly when our judgment is clouded by moral weakness? Naaaahhhh…
Originally the film clocked in at over three hours. The length dwindled as it made its way from premiere to roadshow engagements and finally into general theatrical release, bringing us to the current 161 minute version on the DVD. Interestingly, the disc provides entr’acte music, exit music but not the overture (present on the laserdisc) as well as the now legendary "police updates" from the premiere engagement intermission. (The Shirelles dance sequence, referenced in the credits but not in the film or the deleted scenes, may already be lost forever.)
The back cover describes the feature presentation as a "new 16x9 Transfer from Original 35mm Theatrical Version." Despite listing a 2.55 aspect ratio, the image is closer to a 2.35 aspect ratio. Even with the incongruity of screen shape, the anamorphic transfer is a definite improvement over the previous laserdisc release. Colors read more stable and brilliant here; the solid red background of the opening credits never exhibited any chroma noise or break-up. Hues appear slightly saturated in some scenes, not totally unexpected for a film its age. However, some scenes projected a faint orange tinge. Deep blacks and balanced contrast levels bring out the details, but every so often the image would drop down a notch in clarity and sharpness. Fleshtones also swung from the natural to the brownish. Aliasing crops up intermittently (mostly in the desert scenes) but the instances are far less than what shows up on the laserdisc. A few shots show edge enhancement, but otherwise the image is free of digital or compression artifacts.
The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds relatively clean and dynamic for its age. Strangely, in many instances, dialogue cross talk spread across the entire front soundstage instead of anchoring in the center channel. At first, I thought the audio preserved the "directional dialogue" sound mix, common to wide-screen films of the ‘50s and 60s. In Chapter Four, the dialogue can be heard from the front left, center and right speakers but not necessarily "following" the character according to their position in the frame. Otherwise, the soundfield comes alive mostly for Ernest Gold’s witty, "merry-go-round" score. Except for the music, the rear channels and LFE are pretty much silent. A 5.1 French language track is included, as well as French and Spanish subtitle options.
The supplements start with almost an hour of "extended scenes." Actually, a more precise title would be "extended/deleted/alternate takes." Much of the footage incorporated into the narrative for the laserdisc release pops up in this section. Varying in quality, the scenes run the gamut from four-second blips of dialogue and gestures to excised scenes running a few minutes. The snippets are chapter marked, for a total of fifty-six stops. In some scenes specifically ones where characters are framed by their rectangular car windshields, optical distortion "squeezes" everyone in, leaving the sides tall and skinny and the middle accurately proportioned. Watching them (and remembering how some of them played in the laserdisc version), I never got the feeling that their inclusion would make for a clearer narrative.
"Something A Little Less Serious" is an hour-long retrospective, marking a kind of reunion for the surviving cast and crew. Originally produced for the laserdisc release, the documentary features new (1991) interviews with Stanley Kramer, Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Carl Reiner, Jerry Lewis (even though he’s in the film for fourteen seconds!), composer Ernest Gold and special effects supervisor Linwood Dunn. Whew! In some ways, the look-back is itself MAD…as in a "Mutual Admiration Documentary." Clearly everyone has fond memories of the film and their co-stars. The "cross reference" structure of the documentary echoes this, with everyone glowing about everybody else. Berle praises Caesar, Caesar celebrates Adams, Hackett salutes Rooney, Winters lauds Merman, and so on. Rather than coming off as a smarmy made-for-cable PR job, the affection the cast had for each other and for Kramer’s chutzpah in juggling all their egos more than gives the documentary a genuine emotional pull.
The original theatrical trailer and the 1970 reissue trailer are presented in widescreen, although the original is anamorphically enhanced whereas the reissue trailer is not. Both show some wear and tear in the source elements, but their exuberance (save for the awful lyrics to the IAMMMMW theme) make a fine wrap-up to the supplements. My only gripe is that there are no historical notes beyond the back cover blurb. A "collectible booklet" of fun facts would have been the perfect finishing touch. Pity.
A recent article in the Los Angeles Times by noted film preservationist Robert Harris (he restored "Lawrence of Arabia" and "My Fair Lady") talked specifically about the sad state of "It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." He remarked about the lost scenes and how if the film is not properly restored soon, it may be lost forever. Some may argue there are more important films to restore than this overblown, aging comedy. But as Edmund Gwenn once remarked: "Dying is easy, comedy is difficult." Perhaps not the definitive document of the film as I hoped, MGM’s new DVD respects the legacy of the film by giving the best possible presentation under the circumstances. For anyone willing to give the disc a spin, they will find something funny in there. With so many comedians working for almost three hours, the law of averages virtually guarantees it.