December 11, 2015
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Grade: 59/100

Director: Stanley Kramer
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, Milton Berle

What it's about. Jimmy Durante kicks the bucket on a California highway, but not before telling a small crowd of onlookers that he buried 350K in a park "under a big double-yoo." The gawkers include truck driver Jonathan Winters, tourists Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney, dentist Sid Caesar, and desperate businessman Milton Berle. Police, on the trail of Durante, soon show up but our comic quintet plays dumb.

Berle rejoins his party, which includes hottie wife Dorothy Provine her abrasive mother Ethel Merman. Caesar returns to his vehicle, where his comely wife Edie Adams awaits. This octet tries to collude to dig up the money, but can't come to terms, and divides into four competing factions.

Caesar and Adams pay for a dangerous private flight but end up locked in a hardware store basement. Rooney and Hackett take a chance on drunken pilot Jim Backus, and somehow manage to land the plane after Backus is knocked unconscious. Winters' truck and Berle's car collide, taking both vehicles out of commission. Winters hitches a ride with Phil Silvers, who abandons Winters on the highway once he learns about the buried treasure. Silvers later has his own fiasco in a river. Winters is tied up by gas station attendants Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan, who believe he is an escaped lunatic. Meanwhile, Berle catches a ride with English motorist Terry-Thomas, and is obligated to inform him of the buried loot. The two are forced to team up against Berle's mother-in-law, who calls up her unpredictable grown son Dick Shawn, who lives near where the suitcase of money is buried.

Somehow, despite their run of bad luck and risky behavior, all the film's principals reach the park at nearly the same time. Cabbies Peter Falk and Rochester Anderson become suspicious of their passengers' plans, and decide to join in the treasure hunt. All scamper about carrying shovels, looking for the Big W. But their travels have been tracked by the police, led by curmudgeon captain Spencer Tracy, his right hand man William Demarest, and folksy sheriff Andy Devine. An unexpected plot twist leads to further madcap action.

Comedian cameos are plentiful, too many to be listed here. It seems that producer Stanley Kramer wanted to employ every comic in Hollywood, and nearly succeeded.

How others will see it. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a must-see movie during the winter of 1963-1964. At the time, its draw was the cast full of famous film and television comics. Today, people watch it for the stunts involving classic cars, or as a fascinating curiosity. There is hardly any other movie like it; perhaps "Treasury Island" with the action packed into a single day and moved to the American West.

Even the assassination of President Kennedy, which took place within weeks of the film's opening, could not prevent It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World from becoming the third highest grossing movie of 1963, trailing only another Stanley Kramer epic, How the West Was Won, and 20th Century Fox's costly Cleopatra.

Generally, the movie was well received by critics, and it is certainly better than it should have been. It managed Best Picture and a Best Actor (Jonathan Winters) nominations from the Golden Globes, and picked up a further six Oscar nods, albeit mostly in technical categories such as sound effects and film editing. Today at, the user vote total is a respectable 28K with a fairly lofty user rating of 7.6 out of 10. Grades decline with advancing age until the over-45 crowd pushes it higher again, perhaps due to their greater familiarity with the cast.

How I felt about it. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was never destined to be a great film. It is difficult to reconcile Dick Shawn's dissipated beatnik Barrie Chase-inspired antics with the mother-obsessed man tearing down the freeways to save shrill battle-axe Ethel Merman. Milton Berle appears old enough to be the father of his bombshell wife, Dorothy Provine. And there is no way that Edie Adams would climb into that decrepit Sopwith Camel.

The movie is more of an event than a comedy. Despite its multitude of famous Hollywood comedians, it's seldom more than merely amusing. It is highly watchable, though. And one can play Spot the Cameo: look, there's Jerry Lewis! Don Knotts! Jack Benny! Buster Keaton! Are those the Three Stooges? But even classic cinemaphiles will miss some of the faces, especially during a first time viewing.

When I ponder It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is surprisingly often, my mind turns to Zasu Pitts. Pitts died five months before the film was released, during the film's lengthy post-production. Pitts was a famous comedienne, particularly during the 1930s, but today her two best-known movies are Greed and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Both share the same allegory, that the desire for money will compel people to engage in violent and unreasonable behavior.

Even Spencer Tracy, an icon of wisdom and moderation, becomes like Frodo with the Ring on the precipice of the volcano, unable to part with the suitcase full of money that could buy him a life apart from his shrewish wife and meddlesome daughter. The irony is that $350K, even in 1963 dollars, is an unspectacular figure, less than the cost of the police tailing, prosecuting, and hospitalizing the dozen-plus pursuers.

The plot events are as absurd as the film's title implies. Phil Silvers drives a car into a lake. Sid Caesar destroys a hardware store instead of waiting for its owner to return from lunch. Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney wreck an airport landing a plane, then are able to depart without even being held for questioning. Jonathan Winters abandons his transported load and makes scrap metal out of a filling station, all for the slender chance that he will get to, excavate, and abscond with the money (which might not even be there) before anyone else, and will never be arrested or robbed as he subsists on a cash-only basis. And all the men climb onto a rickety fire escape instead of trapping Tracy by covering his exits.