[21 February 2014]
The Criterion release of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World includes, among many excellent supplements, an extended Q&A, moderated by Billy Crystal, with surviving members of the cast in crew. Because the Q&A took place at a 70mm film festival in 2012, honoring a film featuring performers who were near-legendary back in 1993, many of the major players had already passed away. As fun as it is to see costar Jonathan Winters hassle an elderly Mickey Rooney for stepping on his lines, there’s a twinge of sadness, knowing that Winters died just a year later.
To watch Mad World (as many on the disc refer to it) now is to witness a whole class of now-disappearing comedians in their younger days; Sid Caesar, who was alive for the 2012 tribute but did not attend, passed away just a few weeks after the issue of this disc. During the Q&A, Crystal, ever baseball-obsessed, calls the cameo-packed movie an “all-star game”—though as critic and fan Lou Lumenick points out in his booklet essay, relatively few of Mad World‘s hugely famous cast members were actually movie stars. Costars Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters made their names on television, while Mickey Rooney had retreated to character parts. Spencer Tracy was the cast’s bona fide movie star, reflected in his top billing.
Berle, Caesar, Winters, Hackett, and Rooney play motorists who witness a spectacular car crash, and arrive at the scene just in time for an old man (Jimmy Durante) to tell them about a buried treasure before literally and figuratively kicking the bucket. After extended bickering about how the five (plus two wives and a mother-in-law) might divide the loot, should they locate it, everyone takes off on a winner-takes-all scramble. Soon a con man (Silvers) joins the chase, and a cop (Spencer Tracy) monitors all of the action, in hoping of tracking down the money himself.
From there, a single day’s worth of action sprawls across a 161-minute running time—or 192 minutes, in an additional version provided by Criterion, restoring lost footage to recreate the original “roadshow” version of the movie from its 1963 premiere. Much of the extra footage fails to add substantial laughs; it’s often a logistically-oriented running commentary on where different characters are going and why, with a few extra gags or gag extensions included.
Even the shorter version of Mad World far exceeds the usual time constraints of comedy. Director Stanley Kramer was known for his serious dramas, and World‘s running time zooms past Kramer pictures like The Defiant Ones and On the Beach, approaching (and in its original version, surpassing) the length of Judgment at Nuremberg. Kramer’s widow notes in the Q&A that the movie was made more or less on a dare, supposedly based on a comment New York Times critic Bosley Crowther made over lunch with Kramer about the unlikelihood of the director making a flat-out comedy after so many serious dramas.
Apocryphal or not, the origin makes sense. Mad World—originally pitched, per the one of the disc’s commentary tracks, as “Greed on wheels”—has a kind of self-conscious unwieldiness, a determination to stretch itself out whenever possible. Caesar, for example, gets an entire subplot dedicated to his character being trapped in a basement, in what becomes a slog toward the eventual setting off of fireworks trapped in there with him.
As the movie goes on, these sequences feel less like flights of fancy than acts of defiance. The number of TV stars exacerbates this feeling; Berle and Caesar often appear relaxed to the point of smallness compared to the stunts exploding all around them. Comedians like the Three Stooges, meanwhile, show up just to clock in a winking cameo, rather than to, you know, perform comedy.
But just as the enjoyable qualities of Mad World (and there are many) should not be taken as an endorsement of the would-be epic comedy, its failings should not be taken as proof of the ridiculous notion, so often floated as a criticism of Judd Apatow or even trimmer comic directors like Adam McKay, that comedies should never exceed 90 minutes. To restrict running times is to deny the kind of ambition and experimentation that can help push the form forward.
And for all of its bloat, Mad World doesn’t waste much of its running time on set-up; the inciting car crash and introduction to the main characters happens almost immediately (delayed only by a long animated credit sequence and, in the roadshow version, an extended overture). It also has moments of great inspiration where the epic-comedy dream has the space to come alive.
At one point, Winters, playing a straight-laced simpleton who insists that any buried treasure must be declared to the IRS, is pushed to his breaking point by a pair of gas-station owners and turns, essentially, into the Incredible Hulk, methodically demolishing the entire station as he chases the owners around. It’s a wildly funny piece of extended slapstick, the sequence that best merges the film’s comic and stunt-mounting sensibilities.
This peak goes unmatched for the rest of the film, which is uneven and sometimes downright wearying. But any movie with this many comedians and this sheer volume of silliness will attract a lasting following, and the Criterion release rewards the stamina of any fans.
The Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous, with rich ultra-widescreen images (the restored half-hour of footage is, understandably, less pristine); a commentary track on the extended version from “aficionados” Mark Ivaniek, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo provides a torrent of factoids and history as overwhelming as the movie itself; and all manner of archival interviews provide further glimpses at since-departed stars. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is only a semi-successful comic experiment, but it’s an omnibus tribute to a bizarre array of comic talent.