“Look! We’ve figured it seventeen different ways, and every time we figured it, it was no good, because no matter how we figured it, somebody don’t like the way we figured it! So now, there’s only one way to figure it. And that is, every man—including the old bag—for himself!”
It’s not often that the word “epic” is attached to the word “comedy.” Epics are usually found amongst crime dramas or historical or fantasy pieces and are more serious affairs. But 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World took that epic formula and effectively brought it to comedy. This was directed by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and stars virtually every name in comedy in the 60s, including older names like Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges (with many only appearing in cameos). And with a runtime of over three hours, this is the Lord of the Rings of comedy. It spawned a number of ripoff epic race comedies in the 60s, though none were as memorable—or as epic—as the original. Is it funny? I’ll admit, there are times when this film feels tedious; its saving grace is that when it works, it really works. This is a fun watch with some very memorable characters and scenes, which is no small feat considering the scope of the film.
The idea of an epic-length comedy is an odd one, and studios in the 60s thought no differently. The original cut of the film was 192 minutes, but the studio cut it down to 154 minutes before release. Some of the deleted scenes were lost to history, although the Criterion group restored some of these scenes and re-released a 186-minute version of the film. In some bits, there are noticeable jumps in the quality of the film as a scene progresses; in others, only audio was able to be restored, so you see a still image as the audio of the scene plays. I didn’t know this before I watched the restored version, so it was a little jolting to me, but I’m glad we have some semblance of what the director intended available to us today. The 154-minute version is still the most polished, though, and remains the definitive version of the film.
The story kicks off when a man driving erratically accidentally drives off the road, crashing his car and wounding him gravely. Eight other motorists stop to see if he’s alright. The man realizes he doesn’t have long to live, so he reveals to the group to location of a treasure he was going to dig up, finishing just before kicking the bucket (figuratively and literally). The group tries to come up with a way to split the money equitably, but none can agree on how it should be split up, so it turns into a mad dash for the cash. Most of the film focuses on this race and the absurd things the motorists do to put themselves ahead, teaming up only to betray each other in the next moment and even pulling a few new strangers into the pursuit.
What do you mean, ‘who’s flying the plane’? Nobody’s flying the plane!
It’s appropriate that in a movie about the crazy lengths people will go to for a large sum of money, the best thing is how far the film itself goes. It’s a pretty simple concept, but the execution is anything but simple. As stated in the beginning, it’s every man for himself, and there are really no allegiances that are held in this film—just about anyone is willing to turn against friend or family to get this money. New allegiances are formed and later broken, and sometimes come back to. There are other films that have used this formula, including the fairly recent Rat Race, but there’s so much going on with It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World that imitators appear rather simple in comparison. The gags themselves come and go quickly and don’t really wear out their welcome, although some motorists get sidetracked longer than others. And some racers get themselves in some pretty crazy predicaments during their journeys.
And speaking of going all-out, the amount of comedy talent in this film is off the charts. Jerry Lewis and Jack Benny both show up for some unexpected brief cameos, each showcasing their trademark humor. Comedy-stuntman Buster Keaton, then well on in age, has a minor role (slightly larger with restored scenes). The Three Stooges show up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as firemen, which I’m guessing was longer before cuts. It’s really crazy how many comedic actors and actresses they stuck in here. Some of the cameos were lost on me because I wasn’t really familiar with all of the stars, but they would have been instantly known to audiences in 1963.
All that is great, but is this movie funny? I think it holds up rather well today. It admittedly took a little time to build up steam, but once this film started going, it rushed forward with great strength and enthusiasm. Several times during the film, my wife and I asked what the hell was going on, not because it was hard to follow, but simply because the plot was so absurd—in a good way! I was a little skeptical even well into the later parts of the film that scenes would work well and hold up today, but I was pleasantly surprised. The wacky humor works well, and it has rarely been done as well as in this film.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is a comedy classic that’s both funny and well-executed. Since its release, there have been some epic comedies that carry gags further or build on what was done here—most notably, the 2001 movie Rat Race—but this is the original, and there’s really no other comedy as big as this one. If you like classic comedies at all or enjoyed Rat Race, this would be a great watch. It’s rated G and largely appropriate for all audiences—I watched this with my wife and 16-year-old son, and we all loved it. If you want to see all the essential classic comedies, this is absolutely one of them, and it spawned a whole sub-genre of imitators—some of which are still seeing traction today.
View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!
Director: Stanley Kramer
Genres: adventure, comedy, epic