There are certain films I watched in my childhood that – not necessarily to do with quality – that I’ve held onto fondly into my adult years. One of these is Stanley Kramer’s 1963 mega-comedy “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”.=
Whenever I watched it as a kid the story of the madcap rush across California by an ever-growing group of people for $350,000 felt like the longest, biggest mega-spectacle I’d seen in a movie. The slapstick comedy on such a grand scale meant that many of the film’s setpieces stayed in my memory even if I hadn’t seen the film for years.
Eventually I got the chance a few years ago to see the film on a big screen (as it should be seen) but one aspect of the film I wanted to see – namely the extended original version of the film lasting over three hours that was eventually cut down to its 154 minute length – seemed unlikely to be ever accessiable. So when Criterion announced they were releasing a special edition of IAMMMMW which included a 197 minute version with substantial footage not seen for 50 years, I jumped at the chance to purchase it.
There are multiple aspects to review on this Criterion package: how the extra footage is, how the Criterion package is itself and of course how the film itself stands up.
As a film, IAMMMMW stands up marvellously well and even after seeing it dozens of times it still is enormously entertaining; rarely has a film of such length gone by so quickly. For years I had the film on VHS in a pan-and-scan version and seeing it on widescreen Blu-Ray does it far better justice. Kramer is perceived today as a stodgy, uninventive director but his work on this film is excellent. His staging of big setpieces, pacing and use of the widescreen is essential to the film’s success.
Because of Kramer’s skill, the film has an array of memorable comic scenes. My favourite one is the destruction of a brand new petrol station by an enraged Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters). Even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, I still marvel at the timing and composition of the scene.
Of course the big selling point of the film was the cast, which had an amazing array of comic stars, headed by legendary (but largely non-comic) actor Spencer Tracy in one of his last films. An interesting note made on the disc is that as impressive as the cast is, it’s largely made of comic stars who hadn’t made their name in film but on TV or elsewhere (Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett). Apart from Tracy, the only actor with a significant role who’d had a major film career was Mickey Rooney (although British Terry-Thomas had been successful in his own country).
As observed on the disc, perhaps many of these stars realised this was their big chance to show they had what it takes in a film and they give it all. As a result, there is hardly a weak performance and it’s hard to pick a favourite. For mine, the funniest performances are an incredibly slimy Silvers and Dick Shawn as a manic beach bum.
Then there’s the 40 minutes or so of extra footage. Inserted organically into the film – sometimes as standard footage of if not available as audio with still photographs – it is fascinating to finally see. Particularly interesting is that we learn that Dick Shawn’s character actually steals the car of the woman he is dancing and there’s a substantially expanded role for Buster Keaton (who has only one line in the official version). There’s also a scene between Edie Adams and Sid Caesar when locked in a basement that is surprisingly sexually suggestive by 1963 standards. However, virtually none of the footage adds anything extra to the film and feels like padding. Whoever had final say on what to cut from the film did a very smart job.
And what of Criterion’s special features provided here? I’ve commented recently about how I’ve lost interest in extra features on DVD/Blu-Ray products in recent years, but this is an exception. There is an audio commentary of the extended version that didn’t sound particularly promising as it’s done by three individuals who I hadn’t heard of and are listed as ‘aficionados’ of the film. But it’s an excellent commentary full of fascinating facts, including that Peter Sellers was first choice for the Terry-Thomas role, why the likes of Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and Red Skelton didn’t appear and that Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante were originally slated to have each other’s parts.
There are a plethora of other extras, including a fly-on-the-wall documentary from a Canadian TV news program showing footage from the official premiere, and interviews with cast and crew from the film’s release, in the 1970s and from a 50 year celebration event. There’s so much in this package that even despite spending plenty of time watching these extras that over the past couple of weeks a fair chunk of it I haven’t watched yet.
If you want to be introduced to the great quality of Criterion products, their release of IAMMMMW is a great place to start. And if you’re a fan of the film, this is an essential purchase.