It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Wow, that was an absolute slog to get through. It’s just so unbelievably long, nearly three hours. And unnecessarily long as well, it could have accomplished everything it was trying to do in half the time. It’s so long, in fact, that it features an intermission with special music, one of the staples of early 60s roadshow releases. Those films, which were designed to help fill empty theaters around the country, regularly featured entrance and exit music, intermissions, advance ticket prices, and lengthy theatrical runs. They also featured enormous casts of well-known actors, with endless cameos that were sure to get audiences extremely excited.
The cameos fell extremely flat for me, mostly because I didn’t have any idea who any of the people were. Afterwards, looking up the cast, I recognized most of the names, but I didn’t recognize the faces as they appeared, thus ruining the effect. Supposedly the film was inspired by a similarly star-studded roadshow film, Around the World in 80 Days, but one that I enjoy immeasurably more. That film had many actors I didn’t recognize as well, but it had so much more, featuring wonderful performances and a smart and enjoyable story. This film had none of that. I can certainly understand why people enjoyed it when it came out, but I found myself counting the minutes waiting for it to be over. I can’t say I hated it, but I certainly didn’t like it, it was far too stupid for that.
The plot starts with the erratic and dangerous driving of a man along a stretch of California coastal highway. Eventually his recklessness causes him to lose control and fly off the road, crashing into the hillside below. Five men who are driving in four cars nearby head down to see if he’s ok, only to discover that he’s miraculously still slightly alive. Before he dies he tells the men that he’d long ago buried $350,000 in a park in Santa Rosita, under a giant W, and they can have it if they can find it and dig it up. The police turn up and the men lie about what they’ve been told, although it seems like the police already have a pretty good idea about what’s really going on. Initially the group heads out together to collect the money but, quickly decide to split up, and “let the best man win.”
The rest of the film follows this mad dash to the get to the money first. The various groups splinter, reunite, add additional members, and get into one ridiculous situation after another. They wreck buildings, steal planes, get trapped in buildings, explode things, get in fights, etc... It’s really not a bad premise for a film, the problem is it just isn’t very funny. Not all of that is necessarily the film’s fault however, as I think I’m running into two main problems that stop me from appreciating it. These problems prevent me from even seeing it clearly, which means I can’t really tell if it’s a good film for its time, or not. The first is simply the matter of the evolution and history of comedy. This film is from the early 60s, and hugely mainstream, which, comedically at least, ties it to the fifties rather than to what we would now refer to as the 60s.
This means that it was made just as the comedic revolution of people like George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor was starting to happen, but well before they would have the kind of commercial success that made films like this passé. Those men, and many others, moved comedy into a completely different direction. Their humor was based on acerbic takes on what was happening in their world, prompted by the crazy cultural changes that were happening all around them. Comedy from this era is just so different from that. It’s mostly bits, easy jokes, and a ton of mugging for the camera. Hugely popular in its day, it’s just not funny anymore. Comedy evolved past this, through the people I mentioned above, and into the modern day.
The other issue is a more personal one. In my opinion, there are at least two main strands of the lineage of comedy. The first one, what we might call The Marx Brothers line, is based on extreme smarts and wit. The second one, which we’ll call The Three Stooges line, is based entirely on slapstick and physical comedy. Both of these lines have evolved into the modern day, as I mentioned above, but they still remain based in the same styles of comedy that they always were. As you might have guessed by now, I love The Marx Brothers. Even though their films are seriously out of date at this point, I can still watch them, and enjoy them immensely. I have always hated the comedy of The Three Stooges however, so unbelievably stupid and crude, and this film was far more Stooges than it was Marx Brothers.
There’s just something I don’t enjoy about comedy based on who can yell the loudest, or who does the stupidest thing at any given moment. Virtually every interaction between any of the characters in this film is predicated on that notion, or based on absurdly over-the-top anger and violence. The film either has the characters causing great harm to the people around them, or getting great harm done to them based on their own hubris or insanity. There’s nothing wrong with that style of humor, but it just emphatically isn’t for me. When you add to that the dated nature of a lot of the film’s few non-slapstick based jokes, and its obvious nods to the audience, you get a film that’s trying way, way too hard to make me laugh, and almost entirely failing to do so.
I said I didn’t hate the film though, and that’s because there were some few redeeming qualities that saved it for me. There’s a moment, just before the intermission, where the chaos really does climax in an absolutely hilarious way. It was the only time I laughed while watching the film, but I laughed pretty hard so that should account for something. Also, there’s a certain quaintness in some of this, mostly the conversations with a shockingly stereotypical English officer, that I found enjoyable in a nostalgic kind of way. The film has a certain zaniness, which I imagine is the main draw for its fans, that while I didn’t really appreciate, I can still acknowledge. Not a film I’m excited to see again, but I’m not entirely upset that I saw it this once, sadly that’s about the best I can do for this one.