Coming to your iPhone: the 70-millimeter Ultra Panavision Hollywood roadshow.
Stanley Kramer’s long, long, long mega-comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), newly out from Criterion in dual-format DVD and Blu-ray, is one such behemoth – a movie that opened city by city with advance sales of reserved seats, an overture, an intermission and a souvenir program.
Best known as Hollywood’s foremost purveyor of social-problem films, like “The Defiant Ones” and “On the Beach,” Kramer sought to create a monument to American slapstick. “Mad World” opens with a gaggle of comedy stars – Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney and Jonathan Winters, as well as Ethel Merman and Edie Adams – clambering out of vehicles to gather around a gangster, Jimmy Durante, whose car has plunged off the road, and hear him mumble his last words. They discover the dying wiseguy was speeding to retrieve a buried fortune. Let the greed games begin!
The movie’s redundant title isn’t the only thing that reeks of profligacy. Saul Bass’ animated opening credits are practically a short subject, prefacing an epic chase cum demolition derby in which every joke happens twice (at least), and a star cameo is guaranteed in every other scene.
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“I wanted to make a comedy to end all comedies,” Kramer declared, prompting the critic Pauline Kael’s crack that “if he can’t achieve greatness any other way, he’ll be one of the world’s great destroyers.”
“Mad World” doesn’t lack ambition. Never have so many worked so hard for so few laughs. The silent comics Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd aren’t the only filmmakers to whom Kramer pays homage. His movie begins in the Mojave, where Erich von Stroheim ended his legendary “Greed,” and similarly aspires to social criticism, envisioning a nation of highways populated by prime-time clowns and haunted by comic figures out of the old movies on late-night TV. Crassness is a way of life.
The first film shot in the single-strip Ultra Panavision format (rather than three-projector Cinerama), “Mad World” echoes the episodic travelogue structure that the film historian John Belton sees as inherent to Cinerama. At once frantic and ponderous, it allows the viewer ample time to determine which performers are the most naturally funny or at least the least unfunny. (For me, it’s Jonathan Winters and, somewhat surprisingly, Terry-Thomas.)
Winters aside, the resident force of nature is Ethel Merman. She doesn’t sing, but her pipes get a workout in what could be the noisiest movie made before Michael Bay’s “Armageddon.” Cast as Berle’s harridan mother-in-law, Merman continuously harangues most of her co-stars and is frequently dumped on her keister.