Last night, to honor the passing of Sid Caesar, the American Cinematique showed It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I went with Mark Evanier, and Shelly Goldstein and her husband writer-director Brendan Foley. Mark is one of the world experts on the film, and that's not hyperbole -- The Criterion Collection just released an acclaimed 5-disc set of different versions of the film remastered, and Mark is one of the people doing the commentary track. And no, he didn't give a running commentary throughout the screening...
(If you want to know more -- muuuuch more -- about the film, go to Mark's website here and do a search for the film. The wonderful results will joyfully occupy your time for longer than this long movie is.)
I will mention, though, a couple things that he's explained in the past. One is that, to me, the biggest comedy legend who leaps out for not being in film is Stan Laurel. Mark says that Laurel was asked, but he felt uncomfortable for two reasons -- 1) doing it without Hardy, and 2) being so much older and disappointing his fans. Also, has said that Peter Sellers was asked to play the role of British lieutenant-colonel (who picks up several of main characters and joins them on their journey) but asked for far, far too much money, so they went to Terry-Thomas instead. I’d have loved to have seen Sellers in the role, but I adore Terry-Thomas in it.
The movie has been wildly popular since it was released in 1963, though it's not to everyone's taste. But to watch it on a Big Screen, as it was intended, is a hugely different experience from seeing it on TV, even letterboxed. Moreover, to watch it with a theater full of people laughing takes a movie you've seen countless times and brings a fresh life to it.
One thing struck me early in this film, which for some reason never did before. But it's stunningly impressive how Ethel Merman YELLS ALL HER LINES through the entire movie. Obviously, it was intentional and the direction she was given by Stanley Kramer, but it's unrelenting, which is the reason it works.
I won't to through the whole film, but do want to mention an eye-opening observation I had a few years ago. For many years, when watching it on TV, they’d play it straight through, and the film was fine. But I always would think that it’s not as great as I remember it. Then a few years ago, I was watching it on Turner Classic Movies, and they ran it with the intermission, which I'd forgotten after all these years that the film had. And, my God, it was revelatory. Not one frame was changed, but having that intermission gave the film a structure, which is why it hadn’t lived up to my memory. With the intermission, all those crazy things starting to go totally out of control (the airplane flying without a trained pilot, the fireworks box heating up in the locked basement and about to explode, a car sinking in a river, Dick Shawn speeding in tears to save his Mama, a fight, Spencer Tracy's life crashing down on him, and more) and are building faster and faster, cutting back-and-forth, overlapping one another, and leading to a big dramatic moment when -- with everything spinning out of whack and it all going totally to hell -- we suddenly cut to black and the word, “Intermission.” And it’s all hilarious, dramatic and wonderful, and a big,emotional release. But in all those previous versions, without an intermission, those same moments are still going out of whack just the same…but then they simply continue on and are very soon resolved, and the movie simply keeps chugging ahead. There’s no sense of moment, no sense of structure, no dramatic point. Oddly, though not a single frame is changed in the story, as I said, the movie just leaps up to another level by simply adding an intermission. The point is that with the intermission, the movie has a structure. Without it, it's almost amorphous. A valuable lesson for both audiences and writers.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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